Buffalo Sabres

The National Hockey League in upstate New York. It seems to be the most natural idea in the world, right? Upstate New York has a rich and diverse history with The World’s Fastest Sport, especially in the western regions of the state. The most prominent minor league affiliate of the NHL, the American Hockey League, has a presence there stretching all the way to its founding in 1936. The second-oldest team that still exists is the Rochester Americans, and they were created back in 1956. The Binghamton Senators are also an older team, having been founded in 1972. And back at its founding, the AHL also fielded the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons predated the AHL, which was one of a few leagues the Bisons played in during their years of existence, from 1928 to 1936. Unfortunately, the Bisons folded when it became clear that they weren’t going to make a lot of money, and it didn’t help after their arena collapsed in 1936 under 13 inches of wet snow. After some depressing hockey-less years, the Bisons were resurrected by the AHL in 1940 and became a beloved civic mainstay in Buffalo until 1970. During their 30-year run, the Bisons won the Calder Cup five times and were the league runners-up for it another five times.

In 1967, the old money of the NHL started shaking in its boots. It had ruled its corrupt-ass, all-but-rigged league with an iron fist since the New York Americans folded in 1942, but the coming of television was proving to be an interesting challenge. To the league’s credit, it WAS a leader in TV broadcasting back then, but TV contracts have a way of expiring. And the old money in the NHL had a way of thinking it was God. See, they hated the idea of someone else coming in and taking a share of what they were making. Players were getting legal help in contract negotiations, and owners couldn’t stand it. The Norris family was being told it couldn’t have ownership stakes in four teams, and couldn’t stand it. So the last thing the NHL wanted was the Western Hockey League walking in and undercutting its profits. The WHL was supposed to be a minor league, but with NHL rosters barely changing and never giving any team not called the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs a chance to win anything, all the players who could have been league superstars were landing there. The WHL was also expanding and gobbling up a lot of markets out west which could have been great NHL markets. (And knowing the way the Original Six NHL was operated, they probably applied for teams only to be thrown off when the NHL conveniently introduced a new “rule” to give them the boot.) With the success of the American Football League and the aborted Continental League in baseball boring expansion, the NHL was now fearing the WHL would take over. So to get back on TV, the NHL doubled in size in 1967. It introduced six new teams: The Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues.

That wasn’t a bad market list, but NHL fans couldn’t help but notice something amiss about it: Where were all the teams in Canada? None of the new teams were even on the border! (See, the league was doing it back then too.) In the border city of Buffalo, New York, Seymour and Northrup Knox had tried two different times to bring the NHL into the city. First they tried to get in on the 1967 expansion, but were frustrated when the final franchise was given to St. Louis. Then they tried to buy the Seals and move them to Buffalo. The NHL put the clamps on that too, although that did little to help the Seals, who had a troubled life before moving to Cleveland in 1976 and eventually being dissolved out of existence and merged with the North Stars in 1978. The Knox brothers wanted to give the team a name that wasn’t “Bisons,” because every damn team in Buffalo seemed to use that name at some point and the boys were just sick of it. A naming contest turned up the name “Sabres,” which Seymour liked because he loved the connotations of it: A weapon carried by a leader which was fast on offense and defense. For the first pick of the expansion draft, the Sabres won a glorified prize wheel contest against the other expansion team, the Vancouver Canucks.

The Sabres’ pick in that draft, Gilbert Perreault, proved to be exactly that: A leader, fast on both offense and defense! The rest of the Sabres… Not so much. Fortunately, Perreault was joined in his second season by Rick Martin and Rene Robert, and the three of them formed one of the most dominant lines in NHL history: The French Connection, named for the French-Canadian lineage the three of them had in common. With them as the cornerstones of a team that also featured Gerry Meehan, Mike Robitaille, Don Luce, and Danny Gare, the Sabres punched their first ticket to the Stanley Cup Final just five years after their first season. The 1975 Final was the first Final to ever be played between two of the league’s expansion teams: The Sabres and Flyers. The third game was one of the weirdest games the league ever saw. Due to unusual heat in May, game three was played in fog so heavy that players had trouble finding the puck at times. The game was stopped 12 times because of that. But the fog wasn’t quite thick enough to conceal a bat that one player spotted flying just above the ice during a face-off, which a player raised his stick and killed. Although Buffalo won The Fog Game 5-4 in overtime, the stronger, better Flyers won the Stanley Cup in six games.

While the Sabres kept riding The French Connection to dominance during the rest of the decade, they never got back to the Final. There were a couple of highlights, including a Wales Conference Championship in 1980 and being the first NHL team to defeat the mighty Soviet Wings when they toured the United States, but Robert’s trade to the Colorado Rockies in 1979 signaled the end of The French Connection era. The NHL realigned its conferences for the 80’s, and it began a recurring pattern for the Sabres which would run for the next decade: The Sabres would spend a season rolling through the rest of the NHL; hell, they might even be first in their division. Then at some point, they would start losing more often than winning and give up first place, yet finishing in the idle of their division and comfortably in the playoffs. The Sabres would then limp into the first round of the playoffs only to be promptly booted by the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens or – on a couple off odd instances – even the Quebec Nordiques. It was a frustrating pattern if you were a Sabres fan in those days, because the Sabres weren’t exactly yanking their players from space wormholes. Among their players during those years were Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny, Pierre Turgeon, Mike Ramsey, Tom Barrasso, Mike Foligno, Phil Housley, Lindy Ruff, Andre Savard, Ric Seiling, Ray Sheppard, and Rick Vaive. That’s a roster with depth. Assemble the kind of talent those guys have on most other teams, and it’s worth the Stanley Cup at least once.

It wasn’t to be in Buffalo, though. While the Sabres were strong at the end of the 80’s, Perreault – a Sabre for his entire career – had retired in 1987, and the Sabres were stuck for a superstar of his caliber. So in 1991, they made a blockbuster trade which involved seven players, including Pierre Turgeon. In return for Turgeon and a few others, the Sabres reeled in New York Islanders star Pat LaFontaine! LaFontaine teamed up with Alexander Mogilny to become half of a one-two punch which spent the next few years terrorizing NHL defenses. Playoff success kept dodging them, though, until one memorable series in 1993. When the Sabres went to the playoffs that year, only one playoff team had a lower point total than them. Their first round opponent was the Bruins again, go figure, and they had the league’s second-best record. This series was supposed to be a formality by Boston’s standards. They were supposed to end it in a quick, easy sweep. And, okay, they did that, but the Sabres kept up with every goal they scored. Three games went into overtime, and Buffalo won all three of them. And despite the talent the Sabres had, it wasn’t some renowned speedster or sniper who scored the overtime goal that won game four. It was enforcer Brad May, which prompted Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret to scream “MAY DAY!!!” The May Day goal is a well-known part of Sabres lore for ending a playoff series win drought and bringing down the Bruins. The Sabres weren’t so lucky in the second round; Montreal swept them, but in a strange twist, the final of all four games was 4-3.

Although the Sabres were a constant playoff mainstay, that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the NHL. The league’s whole playoff structure is based on one question: Are you a hockey team playing hockey in the National Hockey League? If so, congratulations! You’re in the playoffs! So the playoffs in the mid-90’s didn’t necessarily mean the Sabres were, ahem, good. They were starting to stink up the league, in fact. Although a 1993 trade had brought them goaltender Dominick Hasek, the rest of the team was powering down in position spots in favor of two-way deadweights. The Sabres were turning into a castoff island for the NHL’s worst and dimmest. Even the coach they hired in 1996, Ted Nolan, had only one year of experience coaching at the NHL level, and that was as an assistant. But instead of letting themselves become the league’s new face of suck, the Sabres found an interesting way of showing their anger: Instead of sulking, they resolved to show the teams that sent them to Buffalo that they belonged in the NHL. Then Nolan taught them to gel together as few teams in the league were able to figure out how to do. The Sabres of the late 90’s are probably the most popular teams in team history because they had a work ethic. Nolan won a Jack Adams Trophy (Coach of the Year) by turning the Sabres into a unit of bruisers, hitters, and fighters. Those teams didn’t care what team they were playing against or who played for them. If your star was able to perform his fancy twinkletoes deke move around one Sabre, there would be two more guys back there to flatten him. It didn’t matter if the other team’s star player was a talented ruffian like Eric Lindros, a speedster like Pavel Bure, or a deadeye sniper like Gretzky; if he wore the other jersey, he was being introduced to the boards.

Ted Nolan has an unusual distinction: He is (probably) one of the only coaches in the history of any sport to win a Coach of the Year award the same year he got fired. Hasek didn’t like him. General manager John Muckler didn’t like him either. Muckler got fired and replaced by Darcy Regier. Regier then offered Nolan a single-year contract, which was rejected and never replaced, ending Nolan’s tenure. So check out this situation: We have a team that just had its best season in about two decades, and it fired its Coach of the Year in Nolan, and Muckler, who had won the award for NHL Executive of the Year. Enter Coach Lindy Ruff.

Ruff continued the playing style Nolan started, and got results right away. Revamping their identity, they capitalized on the perception of them and nicknamed themselves The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey. With Dominick Hasek now a Vezina winner, MVP, and accolades as the greatest goalie in the world, the modus operandi of the Sabres was to score a goal or two and lot The Dominator shut the door. The 1998 season brought the Sabres – who were starting to develop a reputation as an endurance contest team – to the conference finals, where they lost to the experienced Washington Capitals. They returned the next season, though, and pounded the favored Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, launching them into heir second-ever Stanley Cup Final. Everything looked stacked against Buffalo for this series: The opposing Dallas Stars were the best team in the league. They had a deck of talent which included Ed Belfour, Mike Modano, and Brett Hull. The last few Finals had all ended in sweeps, and hell, the Buffalo Bills had lost to the Dallas Cowboys in two Super Bowls earlier in the decade. But the Sabres slugged it Sabre-style blow for blow with the Stars for six tiring games. Everything ended in game six in triple overtime with the Stars nursing a 3-2 lead in the series when Brett Hull “scored” the overtime “goal” which “ended” the series and Dallas “won” the Stanley Cup. Yeah, there are a few complications here which I’ll get around to covering soon, but suffice it to say that only the Dallas Stars accept the results of this Final these days.

The days of The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey closed in a 2001 second round playoff loss to the Pens; there was a Bounce in Buffalo’s goal crease, a freak act of physics which managed to defy the other freak act of physics known as Dominick Hasek’s spine. Hasek was traded to the Detroit Red Wings that summer, and team Captain Michael Peca was sent to the Islanders after sitting out of the 2001 season due to a contract dispute. This began a pattern which plagued the Sabres during Regier’s time as general manager: They would trade away their talented players, worried that the player hit his peak and would be worthless after another year or two, but they would also hold on to the lesser players on the team, expecting the talent that didn’t blossom after a decade to suddenly pop up. The Sabres ended up getting sunk in 2002 and stayed sunk until the 2005 lockout. When the NHL finally started up again the next year, everyone expected the Sabres to continue their newfound role as the league doormat, but with the new rules the league introduced to reduce teams’ reliance on the hated Neutral Zone Trap, which slowed the game down and stopped it frequently. Instead, the Sabres came flying out and hovered near the top of the standings for the entire season. In fact, the Sabres had the best season of their life at that point. They finished the regular season with 52 wins, 110 points, and a primo first round playoff matchup against the Flyers. Dumping the Flyers put them against the Ottawa Senators, one of the few teams that had given them fits all season. But the Sabres rose up, defeated the Sens in five games – a few of which required overtime – and returned to the conference finals. This time, they would be facing the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes that year had also won 52 games, but they also had two more points than the Sabres. They had played the Sabres six times during the regular season and won five of those games. The only loss was in what was the final game of the regular season for both teams, long after playoff seeding had been decided. It didn’t help that Buffalo’s first two lines on defense were injured. But the Sabres and Hurricanes played a series for the ages, duking it out for win after win as they went the distance. In game seven, Buffalo carried a 2-1 lead into the third period before their injuries finally caught up with them as ‘Canes star Rod Brind’Amour rallied the team to score three goals against Ryan Miller. The Sabres lost the series and Carolina won the Stanley Cup, but the 2006 Sabres won over their public when they acknowledged that they were just outplayed. They had every excuse in the world, but chose not to lean on any of them, admitting they still kept pace and could have won.

While the Sabres lost some of the physicality that got them so far in 2006 for 2007, they still raced out to the best record in the league, a first for them. The conference championship looked like a lock, and they stood an excellent chance of winning the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs, they killed the Islanders. But in the second round, they lost two games to the inferior New York Rangers, and after the series, Jaromir Jagr quipped that he thought there were better teams than the Sabres. Then came another date with Ottawa. The Sabres went down in the first game, which, fine, could have been a hiccup. Then they lost the second, which was a bit more concerning. Then they dropped the third, and it was now apparent: Given the choice between it being now and never, the Sabres stood up and, in a powerful, collective voice, screamed “IT’S NEVER!!!” A victory in game four helped them salvage some dignity, but the Senators won game five in overtime, sent the Sabres to the golf courses, and lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Anaheim Ducks.

The following season introduced something cool: The inaugural Winter Classic was held in Buffalo at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Sabres played against the Penguins. Sadly, that was about the only high point in an otherwise mediocre season. They rebounded for a division title in 2010, but after GM Darcy Regier dismantled the team (yet again), they’ve been in a steep decline. They got rid of all their talent. When star goalie Ryan Miller got plowed by Milan Lucic of the Bruins, the Sabres were exposed and soft, and Regier’s effort to add toughness backfired when his additions had no talent. The Sabres tuned out their coach, became a classless and dirty unit, and fans saw through Regier’s attempt to save his own ass when he fired Lindy Ruff. Regier was finally lopped after soon after, but things had gotten so bad by then that the only way new GM Tim Murray could see to build the team again was to tank. So into the tank the Sabres went, setting historic record lows while swimming in there. The Sabres got the draft picks they wanted, though, and were able to lure some prime free agents to Buffalo as well. They also got one of the best-regarded coaches in the league with Stanley Cup winner Dan Bylsma. Although it’s clear they’re starting to build something, it’s also clear they’re still in a mess, and it’s going to be awhile before they get back to the playoffs again.

The Sabres have retired the numbers of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Rene Robert, Tim Horton, Danny Gare, Pat LaFontaine, and Dominick Hasek. Horton’s number is unusual; it’s there mostly out of sentimentality because Horton was killed in a car crash during his years playing for Buffalo. Although he’s played for four teams, he’s once and forever a Maple Leaf. The numbers of Perreault, Martin, and Robert are all hanging together off a banner of their very own which simply states “The French Connection.” Hasek was considered the greatest goalie in the world at one time. Although he earned his Stanley Cups with Detroit in 2001 and 2008, it was in Buffalo where he had his prime years. He won a grab bag of Vezina Trophies and two Harts. The Hart is for the league MVP. It was created in 1924, and since then, it has only gone to four goalies, and it went to goalies five times. Hasek is the two-time winner on that list, winning in 1997 and 1998. (The others are Jacques Plante in 1961, Jose Theodore in 2003, and Carey Price in 2015. All were for Montreal.) One of the most popular Sabres in history, though, is Rob Ray. That’s not because Ray was some sniper with a killer wrist shot or an immovable wall goalie who could have hung with The Dominator. He wasn’t. Ray’s forte was fighting. He was always the first player to get in and take a bloody nose for everyone else on his team, and Buffalo loved him for that. He never ran away, and he embraced contact. When he retired, he had accumulated 3207 penalty minutes, the vast majority of which were during his time with Buffalo. He still holds the record for most penalty minutes accumulated with one team by miles, and he’s fourth or fifth on the overall list. Ray also endeared himself to the community through work with local children’s charities, for which the league recognized and awarded him. For all the stars who have been Sabres, it’s Ray who formed the strongest connection with the community.

If you watch a Sabres game among fans, you might notice that there’s some lingering hostility there toward Brett Hull and the Dallas Stars. The 1999 Stanley Cup Final has everything to do with that. It started with something called the Crease Rule. It said that if any player on the attacking team who did not have possession of the puck was in the crease before the puck, then any resulting goal was disallowed. The rule goes into a bit more detail when it comes to the definition of possession, which proved to be a real problem. The Crease Rule was a lot more complex than I’m making it sound, which resulted in the refs not quite being able to understand it as well as the NHL thought they should. Basically, there were goals allowed and disallowed almost at random because of individual interpretations of the Crease Rule despite similar circumstances. Players HATED it. By any law of space and time, Hull’s goal should have been immediately disallowed so there wouldn’t be any controversy around it. The Sabres and Stars should have been given the chance to win the game with a clean, undisputed goal. The NHL fucked up, something which Commissioner Gary Bettman finally admitted a few years ago. The vast majority of league executives and fans reject the legitimacy of that goal and Dallas’s Stanley Cup. The league was finally embarrassed into repealing the Crease Rule almost on the spot. Hull defends the goal, and with the Crease Rule having been written the way it was, he has solid ground on which to do it. He does admit, however, that the way the Crease Rule was set up was unfair to the Sabres. He has also said that he believes the Sabres probably would have won the Stanley Cup had they won game six. It seems like a safe bet that the refs called it the way they did because they had just been involved in a game which was an exhausting double-header of hockey.

The No Goal fiasco is something that resulted in Sabres fans having a conspiracy theorist mindset. Sabres fans to this day believe the NHL is rigging itself against the Sabres, and No Goal is just the first example. They also believe the NHL Draft Lottery is slanted to favor the Edmonton Oilers; the NHL doesn’t do any favors for itself regarding this idea because the Oilers have gotten a lot of first overall Draft picks lately. The 2015 Draft is a more recent example: That Draft had two can’t-miss phenomenons, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The Sabres wanted McDavid and tanked so they would end up last in the league, which would guarantee a Lottery pick no lower than second and give them the greatest odds of getting the first pick. Unfortunately, the odds were still against them – they were somewhere between 20 and 25 percent. The Sabres came in last and lost the Lottery. Although they did take Jack Eichel – who is proving to live up to his hype – fans are still bitter about not getting McDavid.

Buffalo is right on the border to Canada, and so the Sabres have a unique tradition for the National Anthem. In order to pay their respects to their cross-border friends and neighbors and acknowledge the lineage of hockey, the Sabres are the only team in the NHL that sings both the American and Canadian National Anthems at the start of every game, no matter who’s playing. You could expect this since Buffalo is the NHL city closest to the border.

The Sabres have a location which makes them something of a historical oddity. They’re located within a 90-minute drive of one Original Six team (Toronto), a four-hour drive to a second Original Six team (Detroit), another four-hour drive to a 1967 expansion team (Pittsburgh), and are located close to a bunch of other respect, storied, and historic teams. The Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks are ten hours by car in opposite directions. The Flyers and New York Rangers are within eight. The only teams younger than the Sabres in the nearby area are the Islanders and New Jersey Devils. You’d think this would be rivalry central, and the sports media is happy to try to oblige. They’ve manufactured a rivalry between the Sabres and Penguins which just isn’t there. None of the other teams seem to boil their blood for the Sabres as much as the Sabres boil theirs for them. There’s nothing at all between the Sabres and any of the New York teams or the Devils. Boston and Toronto are both occupied with Montreal and see the Sabres as an amusing sideshow. Philadelphia and Ottawa seem to be the only rivals who care about Buffalo right now. Detroit may get there in a few years with the current divisional layout, but they don’t care right now. It’s probably because the Sabres are younger and less decorated than most of the other teams in the area.

One of the truly notable things about the Sabres is their logo. It’s pretty simple, really: A charging buffalo above a pair of crossed sabres. It’s simple, but it’s considered one of the league’s great logos because it’s the only logo in sports that gives you both the name of the city and the name of the team without using any lettering. It’s a popular logo which survived two attempts to change it. The first was a radical makeover from the mid-90’s, during which the Sabres changed their colors from blue and gold to red, grey, and black. The logo was of a white buffalo head. It grew to be accepted, but was never quite embraced. The next logo was a shock of the back of a buffalo, but was given many nasty nicknames and comparisons, including The Slug and Donald Trump’s Hair. The Sabres finally got a modernized version of their original logo back a few years ago.

I’m biased and fawning, but that’s only because the Buffalo Sabres are my favorite sports team. They’ve been my team since I was a kid.

Pros

Have an incredible bond with their city to the point where they influence the local culture; distinctive logo is one of the best in sports; location gives them a unique bond to both the United States and Canada;

Cons

Rotten track record with alternative jerseys and logos; fans are possibly the most paranoid conspiracy theorists in sports; usually choke at some point; current building process is going to take awhile

Should you be a fan?

Well, on the one hand, they’re going to break your heart a lot. On the other, you get to blame the NHL for being rigged against Buffalo. But if someone ever walked up to me and said they wanted to follow the Buffalo Sabres, I would ask them if they were crazy. I would then remind them that the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are both four hours away by car.

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