By Sarah Kwak
Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the eighth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists — or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres, a team that inspires exceptional passion and dedication in its followers while often languishing on the lower end of the spectrum between bad and promising while cruel fate lurks to darken its brightest moments.
TEAM 10: Winnipeg Jets | 9: Dallas Stars | 8: Columbus Blue Jackets | 7: Vancouver Canucks | 6: Florida Panthers | 5. Edmonton Oilers | 4. Washington Capitals | 2. New York Islanders | 1. Toronto Maple Leafs
Nestled into the western rump of New York State, hard against the Canadian border, Buffalo has to live in the shadows of big markets on two fronts. The Sabres share a state with New York City's marquee teams, while also living on Toronto's doorstep. Location, and losing in heartbreaking ways, has surely contributed to Buffalo’s sports inferiority complex. Always out to prove itself against big market teams -- and often falling just short -- the city's indelible moments of failure make up the scars of Sabres and Bills fans. (Beware of uttering “no goal” or "wide right" within earshot of a Buffalonian.)
Since joining the NHL in 1970, Buffalo has seen plenty of legends pass through its dressing room. From renowned coaches Punch Imlach and Scotty Bowman, to Hall of Fame centers Gilbert Perreault and Pat LaFontaine, to goaltending wonder Domink Hasek, the team has rarely been light on talent. But the Sabres have never had all the pieces at the same time, or at the right time. Their stars shone brightly before ultimately burning out, including Hasek, who was a franchise pillar for nine years. He made the team more than competitive, but he also had strained relations (with his coaches, as well as reporters) along the way. Buffalo traded Hasek away after he led the Sabres to their most recent bid for the Stanley Cup, which was infamously snuffed out in 1999. Two years later, he won the chalice with the Red Wings.
Back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals came up one win short in 2006 and '07, after which Buffalo fans watched offensive stalwarts Chris Drury and Danny Briere sign big contracts with bigger-market teams (Drury with the Rangers, Briere with the Flyers). In five of the next seven seasons, the Sabres were postseason no-shows. It’s almost as if Buffalo is the league's bridge team, a stepping-stone to bigger things. Whether Ryan Miller, once Buffalo's cornerstone goalie, will find glory with the Blues remains to be seen, but a Sabres fan can be forgiven for wondering if Buffalo will ever be blessed with a moment of glory.
Most Notorious Moments
The skate in the paint: That aforementioned “no goal” occurred 114 minutes and 51 seconds into Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. The Stars held a 3-2 series lead over Buffalo, and with the score tied a 1-1 after regulation, the Sabres were fighting for a Game 7. One overtime, and then two overtimes passed without a score. Goalies Hasek and Ed Belfour of the Stars were spectacular through nearly six periods, making a combined 101 saves. Then Dallas winger Brett Hull kicked a rebound onto his stick and shot it over the scrambling, sprawling Hasek. While the Stars celebrated, the Sabres seethed. An alternate camera angle (which the NHL’s officiating crew did not see) revealed that Hull’s left skate was in Hasek’s crease, breaking a now-defunct NHL rule that stated, “Unless the puck is in the goal crease area, a player of the attacking side may not stand in the goal crease.” Overhead photos, too, showed the puck, moments before the goal, outside the crease and Hull’s foot in the paint. The league’s officiating director explained that Hull maintained possession of the puck through the whole sequence (the NHL had quietly issued a memo that such a play was legal), but it was no solace to Buffalo and its faithful. “I believe everybody will remember this as the Stanley Cup that was never won in 1999,” Buffalo forward Joe Juneau said after the game. “It was given away to a good team, but the goal was not a legal goal.”
And if that wasn’t enough, the following spring, the Sabres fell victim to another questionable goal in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Flyers. Philadelphia winger John LeClair's shot entered Hasek’s net through the mesh on the side. The shot was ruled a good goal and it stood. Philly won the game, 2-1, taking a two games to none lead en route to eliminating Buffalo.
Glass pain: Game 7 of the 2006 Eastern Conference final against the Hurricanes was one of the most painful losses in the Sabres' history. Buffalo had gamely forced a deciding game when Briere scored in overtime of Game 6 at home. Returning to Raleigh, the Sabres were forced to play without playmaking center Tim Connolly and defensemen Jay McKee, Teppo Numminen, Henrik Tallinder and Dmitri Kalinin -- all of whom were injured. Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period, their doom descended when Carolina's Doug Weight tied the game at 1:34, and their fate was sealed when blueliner Brian Campbell drew a delay of game penalty by violating a new rule against shooting the puck over the glass. On the ensuing power play, Miller couldn’t control a rebound that wasn't seen by Sabres defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick, who was tied up with the Hurricanes’ Justin Williams. The puck sat on the ice until Carolina captain Rod Brind’Amour pounced on it and drove home the decisive goal at 11:22. Buffalo went home and the Hurricanes went on to win the Cup.
The front office soap opera: The Sabres' first season in sparkling Marine Midland Arena (1996-97) ushered in a new look -- black and red uniforms that featured the precursor to the infamous 2006 Buffaslug logo. The new identity couldn’t mask the growing discord within the organization, however. Despite the team's division-leading 92-point season, and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, front-office dysfunction led to president Larry Quinn firing general manager John Muckler after the season due to his strained relations with coach Ted Nolan, who had won the Jack Adams Award that season. Buffalo then parted ways with Nolan after the coach rejected a one-year extension offered by new GM Darcy Regier. Reportedly, Nolan didn’t have a great rapport with Hasek, who held the keys to the Sabres' success in that era, and it ultimately doomed the coach (who is now back behind the bench in Buffalo). Fans were upset and some protested by canceling their season tickets. The silver lining was that Nolan's departure ushered in the tenure of bench boss Lindy Ruff, who guided the team to the '98 conference finals and '99 Cup final. Ruff was a fixture on the bench until 2013 when, with the Sabres struggling, he and Regier were dispatched.
The Rigas debacle: John Rigas, founder of one-time cable TV giant Adelphia Communications Corp., bought control of the Sabres in 1998 at the height of his company’s success. In 2002, he was indicted for bank, wire and securities fraud. He was convicted of those charges in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His company and the team went bankrupt. The NHL took control of the Sabres and fans feared that the team would fold or relocate until a new owner, Tom Golisano, was found in '03. Neverthless, the effects of the ownership debacle spilled over onto the ice as Buffalo failed to make the playoffs from '02 to '06. Hopes were raised when Golisano sold the team to deep-pocketed gas/oil tycoon Terry Pegula, a lifelong Sabres fan, in '11, but progress has been slow and clouded by front office turmoil. In November 2013, Sabres icon Pat LaFontaine was brought in as president of hockey operations only to suddenly quit less than four months later due to a reported conflict with new GM Tim Murray over the trade of Miller to St. Louis.
Real tragedy: As difficult as Buffalo's on-ice or organizational hardships have been through the years, the team has also dealt with even darker times. In February 1974, Sabres defenseman Tim Horton was killed in an accident while driving drunk from Toronto to Buffalo. Even though the team, which boasted the famed French Connection line of Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin, reached the Stanley Cup finals the following season, the Hall of Famer's death cast a shadow over the franchise. (The Sabres lost the Cup series to the Flyers in six games, the final defeat coming on home ice.) There was also the scary and nearly fatal incident involving goalie Clint Malarchuk on March 22, 1989, when he took a skate blade to throat that severed his carotid artery. Bleeding out on the ice, he later said he thought he was going to die. Miraculously, doctors were able to stop the bleeding and stitch him up after he lost a third of his blood . Malarchuk returned four days later, but was emotionally as well as physically scarred. In 2008, Buffalo was the scene of a similar accident when Panthers forward Richard Zednik lost five pints of blood after his throat was slashed by a skate.
On March 16, the Sabres became the first team to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but the team had figuratively thrown in the towel weeks earlier. Approaching the trade deadline, there was all but a fire sale in Buffalo as the team parted ways with longtime goalie Miller, and winger Matt Moulson, who they had acquired the Islanders for Thomas Vanek in October 2013. In terms of statistical ineptitude, Buffalo ranks 28th on the power play, 27th in face-off percentage, 24th in goals-against, and last in shots per game and scoring. The Sabres' .343 winning percentage is the worst the league has seen since the '06-07 Flyers, and attendance, which has historically been at or near capacity every night, has dipped slightly, to 97.2 percent. The Sabres are on pace to finish with 56 points, which would be their lowest non-shortened-season total since 1970-71, their second year in the league. This, friends, is what rock bottom looks like.
In the System
Ask around and you won’t have a hard time finding someone in hockey who is willing to tell you that the Sabres have the best farm system in the game. It’s deep, with star potential at almost every position, but the real strength is on defense, where 2013 draft picks Rasmus Ristolainen (No. 8) and Nikita Zadorov (No. 16) are blue-chip candidates with potential to play on the top pairing. Ristolainen has made real strides this season, playing within himself and keeping things simple. He’s a great skater with terrific hockey sense and a heavy shot that’ll become a real weapon on the power play. Zadorov is a redwood on skates, mobile and physical. He was named this week as one of the top offensive and defensive defenders in the OHL’s coaches poll. Jake McCabe (No. 44 in '12) will succeed as a hard rock blueliner who could someday wear a letter on his sweater.
Up front, the Sabres have high hopes for a pair of recent USNTDP graduates. J.T. Compher (No. 35, 2013) compensates for a small frame with a strong two-way game. If the hands that served him so well as a junior continue to develop, the Big Ten Freshmen of the Year could slot in as a second-line center. Hudson Fasching, acquired from the Kings at the trade deadline, has size, speed and a willingness to drive the net, painting a picture of a second-line power forward. The development of Finnish forward Joel Armia (No. 16, '11) was stalled by injuries — and perhaps his adjustment to smaller American ice — this season in Rochester, but he’s still regarded as having the puck skills, quick release and creativity to be a top liner (though he’s not as highly regarded as he was at this time last year). William Carrier, acquired from St. Louis at the deadline, projects as a good third- or decent second-line left wing with good hands and solid net presence. He could end up opposite Justin Bailey (No. 52, '13), another power forward hopeful with a heavy shot and decent speed, who may lack the elite hockey sense to be a top-six winger. Johan Larsson, acquired from the Wild, is a solid all-around center with bottom-six potential, but he has some growing up to do.
While all of those players have issues to address, there’s a big question mark surrounding the one who arguably ranks as Buffalo's top prospect. Mikhail Grigorenko (No. 12, 2012) is a spectacularly gifted pivot blessed with the size, puck skills and hockey sense of a franchise center. Too often, though, he struggles to elevate his effort level, especially away from the puck, and his tendency to disappear for long stretches raises questions about his desire. He could be the centerpiece of this rebuild ... or he could be a massive bust. -- Allan Muir
Better Days Ahead?
The good thing about rock bottom is that things can only get better, and indeed, in Buffalo, there are reasons for hope. Ownership is stable and determined to succeed with Pegula writing the checks. After purchasing the team in February 2011, he declared: “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup.” He's backed up his talk with his wallet, letting them invest in players (defenseman Tyler Myers, for one, was showered with a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in '11), re-acquire the AHL’s Rochester Americans, and give the First Niagara Center a state-of-the-art facelift. The team may now have, perhaps, a more forward-looking front office group, led by Tim Murray. As an assistant GM in Ottawa, Murray learned a lot about managing a hockey team from his uncle Bryan, but has also shown that he’s not afraid to make bold moves that he feels are necessary, such as the Miller trade. He’s decisive and direct, a man who says he believes in action over posturing. So, with a boatload of talent in the pipeline and money to spend, things do look promising down the road. But Buffalonians, who know a thing or two about harsh winters, can be forgiven for expecting potholes along the way.
Are you a Sabres fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.