BUFFALO – Growing up in Toronto, you get a very specific vision of the closest American city to the south, thanks in large part to the local feeds of American network TV stations. The Buffalo of my youth was filled with ads for Tops Friendly Market, the Lockport-Gambino Ford car dealership and, of course, Cellino & Barnes, personal injury attorneys.
(At one point a couple years ago, Cellino & Barnes traumatically split up, but have since seen the light and reunited).
Therefore, it’s always fun to make the hour-and-a-half drive down the highway to Buffalo to take in a Sabres game every once in a while, which is exactly what me and web editor Edward Fraser did on the weekend.
Inspired by a Buffalo News article relaying the info that Sabres rookie Tim Kennedy had taken Detroit young’un Justin Abdelkader (both are Michigan State alums) to a legendary restaurant called Chef’s, I felt we had to partake. And once again, I fell in love with Buffalo’s big-city-as-a-small-town charm.
Chef’s was packed on game night, with Sabres jerseys littering the four-tops. I ordered the meatball sandwich “parmed” (as in, made like chicken parmesan) and was shocked/elated to find that not only were the meatballs “parmed,” but the whole plate was covered in molten-hot cheese. Needless to say, the onion rings I ordered as an appetizer may have been unnecessary in retrospect.
Waddling back to the car filled with parm and Mr. Pibb (which you can’t get in Canada), we took off for HSBC Arena where the Sabres came up short against the visiting Atlanta Thrashers. True to Buffalo’s hard-knock sporting life, the dagger goal was a highlight-reel response by ex-Sabre and villain of the night Maxim Afinogenov, scored moments after Drew Stafford had brought the home team to within one.
Having gone to a couple Sabres games when they were good three seasons ago, I was used to a certain level of raucousness from the crowd that didn’t quite seem to be there this time. There were still empty seats in the lower bowl well into the first period on a Saturday night and the elan of the good ol’ days just didn’t seem to be there.
That being said, the Sabres are coming off their second non-playoff season in a row and the city of Buffalo is dealing with an unemployment rate nearing 11 percent.
But I believe good news is on the way.
This Buffalo team is a lot better than most expected and the fact it has largely done it without injured star Thomas Vanek makes the situation sunnier. After the loss to Atlanta, the Sabres dressing room was very quiet, other than a visibly frustrated Ryan Miller (who didn’t play that night) asking scrum reporters to give him a bit of space to move his hockey bag before they descended upon the star netminder.
This is good if you’re a Sabres fan; you want a mad Ryan Miller after a loss. And considering the Thrashers setback was the first and only regulation loss of the season for Buffalo so far (the Sabres currently sit atop the Northeast Division), the team expects to have few “off” nights in the near future.
In a city where people eat their pasta in Drew Stafford jerseys and hoist signs that announce, “Kaleta does it betta,” deep emotional connections between the home squad and the fans are obvious. With the athletes holding up their end of the bargain, I expect it won’t be long before that Buffalo spirit truly returns to the arena.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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