As I watched the Sabres fall to the Islanders two straight nights, I sat in frustration like every other fan and finally the thought came to me: It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The Pegulas have owned the Sabres for 10 years, and in that time, the Sabres will have made a single playoff appearance which happened to be in their first year of ownership in 2011. The closest the team has been to reasonably being in or near the playoffs goes back to the start of April 2012.
I remember the feeling of excitement when the purchase happened in 2011 with the idea of having a rich owner whose money was no issue. The scars of Drury/Briere/Campbell departing due to contract issues still resonated in a big away, so hearing an owner who was committed to winning at all costs really kind of did feel like “Hockey Heaven”.
Yet here we are 10 years later and I honestly can’t say I remember it feeling this bad or low at any other point. Sure when the team was bankrupt in the early 2000s that was scary, but the NHL made a point to keep Buffalo there and the Sabres rebounded nicely.
This is a different feeling that you read and hear from fans regularly who have no words anymore on what to say or do other than anger and growing ambivalence.
Buffalo has tried just about everything from spending money on free agents (2011, 2015), tanking (2013-15), a lot of trades, new coaches, new GM, new president, winning the draft (2018) etc… yet here we are cruising to another year of mediocrity with no end in sight.
The Sabres are not the worst team in hockey but they are the worst franchise. Professional sports, in the end, are entertainment and a diversion of sorts that can be a great distraction or passion to follow.
I remember as a kid going with my father to the Aud for games or my mother to playoff games and the memories that created. When Matt Barnaby scored a hat trick in the playoffs against Montreal on Mothers’ Day I was there with my mom soaking that experience in.
For basically the history of the Sabres up until this last decade, the Sabres were a good franchise which despite not winning a Stanley Cup had a good amount of success and star players like Perreault and Hasek to entertain you.
The buzz on a Friday night hockey game downtown could be felt around the city for a game against Toronto or another big rival. When the Sabres are good the bond it creates between the team and the fanbase is something that really is special and in general just a ton of fun. I can name where I was for a laundry list of playoff moments both good and bad.
Yet watching Monday and Tuesday’s games felt like what we have watched for nearly a decade which is a boring team that plays with little heart or emotion that you know is not going to the playoffs. It is hard not to look at Toronto with their team being a playoff regular after tanking or even Edmonton who has the best player in the league and not wish it was Buffalo.
Connor McDavid may not make the Sabres a playoff team but at least he is entertaining and worth watching. Buffalo got the high picks and talent, yet nothing has fallen in place the way it has for those teams. If fans were allowed to attend right now I am not sure how many would and those that did would be booing non-stop.
The city of Buffalo has seen hockey for 50 years and the fans know effort and talent when it is there. Yes, the Sabres were dealt an awful hand recently with COVID which the NHL deserves a lot of blame for, but there is no work ethic, energy, or leadership watching them play. It is just a bunch of guys going through the motions the same way they have for years.
It is so hard to watch this team and try to pretend there is something likeable. As a writer, it is soul-crushing to try to cover the Sabres and find anything of interest for fans. I can only do so many recapping the past or Top 10 stories before I just sit and ask what in the name of Hasek happened around here.
I am a huge Bills fan like anyone else and during their drought, I came to get annoyed by the 1990’s teams love fest. It wasn’t that I disliked the Bills or those players as much as frustration that the team was so inept that the only way to feel good about the Bills was reliving the past. I have hit that point with the Sabres where the past only can do so much and new heroes are needed.
The one recent blip of actual fun with the Sabres was in 2018 during the first half when the Sabres actually won and looked like a good hockey team. Anyone covering the team was having a blast and you couldn’t get enough, it is the stuff you live for as a fan. Then the curtain fell and reality hit which was the Sabres being a mediocre bunch we’ve come to accept. Watching the rest of the NHL and seeing truly competitive games where the playoffs and winning is put at a premium is something I really miss. It is hard not to feel like that is a different world when you have gone this long with not even a lick of success.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this where the Sabres spin their tires and you have to wonder when the Eichel trade rumors start for real and another rebuild takes hold. It is exhausting to think that may be the next scene for the Sabres but what really is the other option?
I can’t blame any fan who says they are walking away for a while because they can’t do this anymore. The only way the Sabres are righting this ship is with a lot of winning and it is so difficult to fathom that at this point. 10 years is not that long ago yet the Sabres have never felt further away.