The National Hockey League in Buffalo. Now really, this should have been obvious right from the very beginning. Buffalo is still known as one of America's snow capitols. Professional hockey was naturally one of the area's great mainstays since the minor league Buffalo Bisons were created in 1928 as part of the Canadian Professional Hockey League before moving to the International Hockey League and, finally, the American Hockey League, and were so dominant in the 1933 Finals that the team manager was able to watch the game from the stands while letting a 15-year-old stick boy manage from behind the bench.
In 1936, though, the Bisons were forced out of their home arena when the place collapsed. Why did it go down? Typical Buffalo fashion: 13 inches of snow piled onto the roof. It was the heavy, wet stuff too. They tried to join the International American Hockey League for the 1937 season, but their home was too small for them to make a profit, so the team was finished by December 1936. In 1940, the Syracuse Stars were relocated to become a new Buffalo Bisons franchise, and through 30 years and affiliations with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Black Hawks, and New York Rangers, the Bisons with their famous Pepsi cap logo became the beating heart and soul of hockey in Buffalo. Over those 30 years, the team won five regular season titles and, more importantly, five Calder Cups.
In the 60's, the NHL had had six teams for decades, and they decided the whole six-team routine was getting a little bit thin, especially with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs dominating the top of the standings. So they decided to mix things up by increasing the number of teams in the league by 100 percent, to make twelve! In Buffalo, guys with money were listening: Robert Swados, and brothers Seymour and Northrup Knox. By 1965, they had already filled out their applications for one of the expansions, but the NHL had a slight problem: The Toronto Maple Leafs kind of, you know, EXISTED, and Toronto's broadcast area overlapped with Buffalo's. So Buffalo was overlapped and the six teams created for the 1967 expansion were the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues. The Blues' creation was grating to the three brothers because St. Louis had no real history or connection to hockey, and it was the Blues who were created in the place of a Buffalo team.
Swados and the Knox brothers weren't the only ones pissed off by the expansion choices. Take a look at that list of teams again. What's one thing they all have in common? If you said "none of them are in Canada," give yourself a first star! And since hockey is Canada's national obsession, les habitants weren't exactly pleased. Since the league was worried about a TV contract and the possibility of the Western Hockey League declaring itself a major league, it decided to expand again, this time by creating the Vancouver Canucks and, yes, bringing the NHL team to Buffalo that the city had desired, since Buffalo is right on the border. Since the new owners were tired of seeing Buffalo teams being called the Bisons, they commissioned a name-the-team contest. Seymour Knox selected Sabres as the winning choice because a saber is a weapon of tradition, long carried on the battlefield by leaders, and a sword great on both offense and defense. Former Leafs coach/general manager Punch Imlach was hired for the same jobs by the Sabres.
In the 1970 draft, the big pick was a phenom named Gilbert Perreault. One of the expansion teams got to pick first, so they decided by roulette wheel. The wheel landed in favor of the Sabres, the Sabres got Perreault, and the Canucks got to take Gary Doak. The eternal fortunes of both teams was pretty effectively decided right then. The Sabres endured their expansion troubles, as all teams do, but they kept drafting the right way. In their second season, they drafted Rick Martin, and in the 1972 season they picked up Rene Robert in a trade with the Penguins. All three of these guys played on the same line, and due to the fact that all three had French-Canadian roots, the line would become popularly known as The French Connection. They went down in history as one of the greatest NHL lines of all time, and in the 1975 season, they lifted and carried the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals, just five years into the team's existence. The Sabres looked like a good pick to win the Stanley Cup in an the first all-expansion Finals, which put them against the Philadelphia Flyers. Those Flyers, though, were fielding a brutish crew nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, and with superior coaching and goaltending, they managed to choke off the Connection and take the Stanley Cup in six games. The third game of those Finals, though, became one of the classic stories in NHL history. Buffalo was unusually hot for that month, and Buffalo Memorial Auditorium had no AC, so the game was played in a heavy fog which made players, officials, and the puck invisible to spectators and, in some cases, each other. Known as the Fog Game, it was also a tight fight, which the Sabres won in overtime through Robert's heroics.
With the addition of Danny Gare, The French Connection continued to give opposing goalies nightmares right through the rest of the 70's. They played extremely well, and at one point they became the first NHL team to beat the Soviet Wings, the national team of the Soviet Union that everyone in the hockey-playing world was afraid of. The French Connection years officially closed in 1979, when Rene Robert was traded to the Colorado Rockies. (They were the team that existed before the Avalanche.) Despite the loss of Robert, the Sabres did manage to win the Wales Conference Championship in 1980. Unfortunately, Rick Martin also shattered his knee that same year. He career was basically over, and while he tried to hang on, the Sabres knew his time was up and sent him to the Los Angeles Kings.
The 80's got to be a frustrating time for the Sabres. Again, the team played very good, strong hockey. They were exciting to watch. They drafted Dave Andreychuk and Phil Housley in 1982; the former would become the NHL's all-time leader in power play goals, the latter the all-time American point leader until Mike Modano passed him. Gilbert Perreault reached the 500-goal plateau in the 1986 season before retiring. The Sabres drafted Pierre Turgeon in 1987, and in 1989 they helped a young Soviet hockey player named Alexander Mogilny defect. In 1984 they also drafted Tom Barrasso, a prolific goalie who won the Calder Trophy (best rookie) and Vezina (best goalie) the same year. Despite all this firepower, though, the Sabres developed a recurring pattern: Play well throughout the season, fighting for first most of the time. Lose first place in the last month or two. Make way into playoffs (they only missed the playoffs twice in the 80's), and become a sisyphean team by getting ejected in the first round in an unending cycle, usually at the hands of the Canadiens, Boston Bruins, or Quebec Nordiques.
If this era had an official close, it came on March 22, 1989 in probably the scariest and most horrific on-ice incident in NHL history. Tom Barrasso had been traded by then, and one of Buffalo's netminders was a rather pedestrian man by the name of Clint Malarchuk. His career was an inauspicious one, and if this night had been better for him, he would be an NHL footnote. That night, though, the Blues happened to be in town, and at one point during the game the puck was sailing down the ice toward the Buffalo goal. St. Louis's Steve Tuttle and Buffalo's Uwe Krupp gave chase, and caught up just about when the puck reached Malarchuk. Unfortunately, they crashed into Malarchuk, and somewhere in the commotion, Tuttle's skate managed to slash Malarchuk's jugular wide open. Malarchuk quickly got to the locker room, he had the equipment manager call his mother to say he loved her, than asked for a priest. Fortunately, Buffalo trainer Jim Pizzutelli knew what to do: He reached into Malarchuk's neck and pinched off the bleeding until the doctors got there. It took them 300 stitches to close the wound, and Malarchuk lived. Today, that injury is mentioned right alongside Theismann's Tibia and fibula. Malarchuk returned to the NHL, but not for much longer.
In the 90's, the Sabres kept collecting talent. One seven-player deal brought in New York Islanders superstar Pat LaFontaine, who teamed up with Mogilny to terrorize opposing goalies. They also grabbed Dale Hawerchuk from the Winnipeg Jets that year for an extra scoring hand, and traded for goalie Grant Fuhr, who netminded the great Edmonton Oilers machines of the 80's. In the 1993 season, they acquired traded for the Blackhawks backup, Dominik Hasek. That name is going to be important later. But in that same 1993 season, the Sabres were finally fielding a team worthy to succeed those great 70's Sabres teams, and they went to the playoffs and beat their first round hiccups. Their sweep of the Bruins culminated with a dramatic game four which went to overtime, where the big hero wasn't Mogilny or LaFontaine or Hawerchuk but… Brad May, one of their enforcers. The goal is now known in Buffalo sports lore as "May Day."
In 1996, the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium closed, and a new coach named Ted Nolan brought a work ethic and toughness to the team. The Sabres reinvented their look with a black, silver, white, and red look with a logo known as the Water Buffalo. Fuhr mentored Hasek, which was a good thing because he started going down with injuries a bit too often. By the time he returned, Hasek's unorthodox style (which should be known as "just keep the damn puck out of the damn net" but for some reason isn't) was working well enough to set him up as THE MAN. Although the Sabres had started a talent dump since May Day, going as far as to trade LaFontaine, who had been their fearless, saintly leader for years. Even so, they won the division in 1997 on the back of Hasek, who was turning into the greatest goalie in the league.
A rash of trades throughout the mid-90's turned the Sabres into a castoff unit by the later half of the decade, and outside of Hasek, Nolan didn't have tons of talent to work with. Also, he wasn't getting along with his star goalie, either. So it says a lot that the Sabres began to thrive under Nolan. Instead of complaining, the team had a very unusual way of responding to their new designation as the league's unwanted and misfits: They morphed into a unit of bruisers, hitters, and fighters. Adopting a new identity as The Hardest Working Team in Hockey, the Sabres threw the chips on their shoulders at everyone else in the league. No superstar was too good for these guys to want to have at them, no team too good, no enforcer too tough. The scorers on those late 90's teams were tough enough to watch their own backs. Their defensemen could clobber like enforcers, and their enforcers were guys no one wanted to fuck with. If an opposing star skated around, say, Curtis Brown, it didn't matter because Michael Peca would be right beside Brown to knock the star onto his ass. Although the lack of talent was a bit of a concern, other teams quickly learned that if they had the gall to step onto the ice with the Buffalo Sabres, then win or lose, man, they were gonna FEEL it!
Hasek won two Hart Trophies (MVP), and in 1999 the Sabres returned to the Finals, this time against the Dallas Stars. An objective evaluation of the series places paper favor squarely in Dallas's corner. The league wasn't capped back then, and the Stars, led by Brett Hull, Mike Modano, and goalie Ed Belfour, were clearly superior. So the Sabres took to the series Sabre-style, and slugged it through six hard-fought games. In game six, with the Sabres down three games to two, it took three overtimes before Brett Hull scored the game-winner. Back then, the NHL had a rule stating that goals were disallowed if a player's skate entered the goal crease before the puck did. The problem was Hull took two shots while in the crease, and the NHL also played favorites that year because that rule had been applied rather liberally, and there were a lot of discounted goals which looked very similar to other goals that had been allowed to stand. Why the rule wasn't applied that night in June remains a mystery, but the official standings decided Dallas "won" the Stanley Cup. Commissioner Gary Bettman was a complete dick about this thing for a decade before finally admitting he screwed up in 2009. The sportswriter for the Dallas Morning News even called people out. In Buffalo, Dallas never won the Stanley Cup, the 1999 Finals never ended, and we're ready to resume when Dallas is.
The next year brought Doug Gilmour, who played real clutch hockey down the line to get the Sabres to the playoffs. They thumped the Flyers in the first round, but a freak puck bounce ended their run against Pittsburgh in the second round. The team Captain, Michael Peca, was traded in 2001 after a nasty contract dispute, and Hasek was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. The Hardest Working Team in Hockey was no more. After a terrible couple of years which saw the threat of a very possible move, a deal sent a maddeningly inconsistent center named Chris Gratton to the Phoenix Coyotes for a fourth stringer named Daniel Briere that not even the Yotes wanted. Briere had a scoring touch and became a very popular player in Buffalo. After the 2005 lockout, Briere became the centerpiece of a team which became the model of the faster, newly-open NHL.
The 2006 and 2007 seasons were Buffalo's best ever. The 2006 team was probably the most skillful and best-rounded squad in Sabres history. They won 52 games, went to the playoffs, and made mincemeat of the Flyers and the Ottawa Senators. Then they met the Carolina Hurricanes, and the injuries to their defense were piling up. The Hurricanes had played against the Sabres six times that season, winning five. Their one loss to Buffalo was the regular season finale for both teams, and both had long since locked up their playoff spots and were resting starters. While the teams both finished with 52 wins and Carolina was just two points ahead in the standings, they were clearly better, which made this series incredible. The Sabres took the first game 3-2, and the Canes responded with a 4-3 victory next. The teams went to Buffalo, and the Sabres took game three by one goal, but failed to strangle the series in the next game, which Carolina won in a 4-0 blowout. The Hurricanes won the next game in overtime and Buffalo, now on the brink, responded with an incredible 2-1 overtime win in game six thanks to JP Dumont. In game seven, Buffalo took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but their injuries and the physical toll of the Stanley Cup Playoffs finally caught up with them. Doug Weight tied the game for Carolina, then Rod Brind'Amour took the lead, and with a minute left, Justin Williams scored the insurance goal. The Carolina Hurricanes would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year. The following season, the Sabres started 10-0. The entire league was now their doormat, and they won the President's Trophy. Unfortunately, they tanked in the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa, a team they had spent all season destroying, and also the team that LOST the Stanley Cup.
The Sabres since then have decided to play the league's farm team. After those magical two years, Briere became a mainstay in Philadelphia and their other co-Captain, Chris Drury, went to the New York Rangers. They won the division in 2010, but that quickly proved to be an aberration for a team which keeps getting rid of its best players. In 2011, lifelong Sabres fan Terry Pegula bought the team and spent until the Sabres had the highest payroll. He promised he would fight for multiple Stanley Cup victories. Unfortunately, he's also wimped out about getting rid of the Sabres' two biggest obstacles: General manager Darcy Regier, who has had that position since 1997, and coach Lindy Ruff, who replaced Ted Nolan in 1997. I like these two guys a lot, but they've clearly done all the damage they're able to do with the Sabres and need a change of scenery. The current faces of the team are Thomas Vanek, who is currently playing MVP-caliber hockey; Captain Jason Pominville, and goalie Ryan Miller, the American National Team hero of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Some notable names have played for Buffalo. Scotty Bowman once coached the team, but that was in the late 80's, when many of their stars were growing old and he couldn't build anything close to the powerhouses he led in Montreal and Detroit. Gilbert Perreault and Pat LaFontaine are still considered the best players in team history, and the legendary Tim Horton - he of the donut shop - was a Sabre from 1972 until his tragic death in a car crash in 1974. Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert all have their numbers retired under a large blue banner which reads "The French Connection," the name of their line, and all three of them are immortalized in statue form outside the Sabres' arena, the First Niagara Center, as well. Horton, LaFontaine, and Danny Gare have also had their numbers retired. One of Buffalo's cult heroes is Rob Ray, a great enforcer who forced to create a new rule named for him because of his habit of ripping off his shirt and pads whenever he got into a fight. Ray is the only player in NHL history to accumulate over 3000 penalty minutes with the same team, and his total minutes is fifth or sixth overall, ever. In the early 90's, he and teammates Brad May and Gord Donnelly became the only three players on one team to be penalized for over 300 minutes in a single season. When the game was over, though, even the people who most hated Ray while on the ice consider him one of the NHL's class acts and all-around nice guys off the ice. The NHL gave Ray a humanitarian award for his tireless charity work with disabled children. (I met him when I was about ten. He really is a hell of a nice guy.)
The Sabres have a fierce rivalry in the Playoffs with the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat them for the Stanley Cup in 1975. The Boston Bruins are also principal rivals, as are the Toronto Maple Leafs by proximity. Buffalo's nastiest rivalry for the time may be with the Ottawa Senators. A lot of the greatest Sabres games in history were overtime playoff games, many of which happened during The Hardest Working Team in Hockey era. It happened a lot back then that the Sabres would put just enough goals in, Hasek would shut the door, and the Sabres would find a way to will themselves to victory. The 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, the May Day game, The Fog Game, and one particularly dramatic game four against the Rangers in the 2007 playoffs are among the league's classics. The Rangers game resulted in Buffalo's collective heart failure because the Sabres scored the tying goal with eight seconds to go, then won in overtime. Loudmouth Jaromir Jagr, one of New York's arrogant players, bitched that he didn't think the Sabres were that good after that.
Sabres fans were known for a long time for the Thank You Sabres chant, which originated after a 1973 playoff loss to Montreal. The Sabres' radical remake of their image was accepted more than loved, and after ten years they returned to their traditional blue and gold colors. Unfortunately, they had also contracted Reebok to make a new logo, which was known as The Slug and won comparisons to Donald Trump's hair. It was quickly ditched after two years of being seen as one of the worst, most hated logos in league history, and the Sabres returned to their original logo, one of the league's proudest: A representation of a charging buffalo and a pair of crossed sabres. Lending to the team's image is the organ play of "Sabre Dance" at the team introduction and after every goal. In deference to hockey's Canadian lineage and Buffalo's location on the border, the Sabres are the only team in the NHL to perform both the American and Canadian national anthems at every home game, no matter who their opponents are.
Don't listen to Facebook numbers or the old guard trying to sell you on the Buffalo Bills. It's the Sabres who currently own the city's sports soul. Gary Bettman, for all his faults - and his complete shitheadedness in the aftermath of the 1999 Finals - knows what a gem he stumbled into with the Sabres. Buffalo hockey is a religion, and the city frequently pulls in playoff ratings twice that of every other NHL city, whether or not the Sabres are involved. Pittsburgh is ranked a distant second, and they need help from two Finals appearances - one a victory - the league's best player, and more televised games than any other team. In becoming the city's team, the Sabres have hit all the right notes, holding open practices every year, letting little league hockey teams play between periods during games, and throwing a giant party in the plaza outside the First Niagara Center for every home game which attracts a few thousand people to go along with the 21,000 in the Center - who by then are in on standing room only because there are only 18,000 seats. The Buffalo area has produced more NHL talent than any other city in the United States.
When a reviewer begins a project like this, there's always that one thing he's eager to write about. Well, the Buffalo Sabres are mine. Remember what I just said about kids playing at Sabres games between periods? I did that a few times as a tyke. It's tough for me to admit this team may never win the Stanley Cup, but even so, my deep emotional connections to them aren't wavering. I try to be objective about these essays, but there are times I can't help fawning. The Buffalo Sabres are my all time favorite sports team.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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