Opening night at KeyBank Center is an experience unlike any other for Sabres fans. As you cross the threshold into the main concourse, that familiar arena scent is in the air. Sure it’s a mix of beer and concession snacks, but there is something else coursing through the vents for that inaugural game. An intoxicating essence, inciting nostalgia, excitement, and most of all, hope.
You draw it in as you peer up, grinning proudly at the larger than life banners of Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. Supporters young and old filter in around you, donning the blue and gold, each with their own recantations of heroic victories, crushing defeats and personal experiences in Sabres lore, powerful enough to forge lifelong fandom.
As you take your seat, whether it be in the nosebleeds, or behind the bench, video montages of your team, and your city, glow from the jumbotron, consuming the crowd, each spectator beaming with pride, swarming with anticipation. Fans gaze in admiration at the pantheon of retired heroes, their banners draped magnanimously from the rafters. In that brief moment, even the most cynical devotee can’t help but think, “Why not us? Why not now?”
Sabres fans were robbed of this experience last season.
The feeling of disappointment and uncertainty was palpable on opening night. Fans lamented the loss of franchise icon Jack Eichel, the video of his devastating ankle injury still fresh in their minds. As spectators filled the seats, it appeared more and more like a road game, with Montreal red bleeding into the stands. Collective hearts sunk as “Let’s go Buffalo” was hopelessly drowned out by “Go Habs Go.” It was a fitting beginning of the end for an era of Sabres hockey we would all like to forget.
But there’s something different about this season isn’t there? For the first time in what seems like an eternity, there’s hope. No longer do fans need to endure an archaic style of hockey insisted upon by the incessantly dull Dan Bylsma. Gone are the days of watching players hopelessly forced into scoring roles, when in reality they didn’t belong on the roster. Though the Sabres failed to live up to expectations last season, the organization has changed, and opening night will seem a lot more like a celebration, and less like a funeral.
In all of the interviews, prediction pieces, and media speculation, one thing is clear. This team is hungry. Just listen to Jack Eichel when he speaks. He’s sick and tired of playing second fiddle to players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews while hated rivals rebuild and advance past his team.
“It’s the third year, so if there’s ever a time to start winning and being a good team in this league, it’s right now” said Eichel. “I think all the guys are pretty sick of losing and not playing in the playoffs. I think I can speak for a lot of guys in the room, that we’ve got to be there at the end of the year.”
Eichel embraces his role as the harbinger of a new age of Sabres hockey, wearing that responsibility like a badge of honor. With a revamped defense, and an innovative coach that stresses speed and excitement, the Sabres won’t be taken down easily. What we have here is a roster full of players who are proud to wear the blue and gold, and will no longer accept their role as a perennial afterthought.
Some fans aren’t convinced yet, and that’s understandable. It’s been a long road, but when that rubber disc hits the ice on opening night, a new era of Sabres hockey will start to unfold. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, that unfolding will reveal a Stanley Cup banner.