Now Do You Believe?

I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but I’m not really into it for more reasons than are worth recounting right now.  Let’s just all be glad that the only person LESS interested in this holiday than me is my wife.  We’ll celebrate a different holiday tomorrow – Chocolate Mark-Down Day!

But it does seem a good excuse to go on at length about something else I love.

HOCKEY!

Let’s begin with a little bit about my hometown region.

I have to say region because the town in which I was born and raised is a damn small place, and not just in terms of population or square miles. The town in which I was born is very like the bantam rooster – its pride vastly outweighs its actual glory. But that town was my gateway to Erie County, to Buffalo, to the whole area known as Western New York, from the eastern edge of the Finger Lakes region to the southern tier dipping to the south and west of Lake Erie.

It’s a pretty weird place, actually. It’s the original birthplace of the Mormon religion. It’s where Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began their activism in the Seneca Falls Convention. It’s the legendary meeting place of the Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy. It was a hugely significant stop on the Underground Railroad. The Finger Lakes region has become known for wine, I think (hell if I know the first thing about wine), and the whole area was brought to life by the Erie Canal and other water traffic throughout the area.

So let’s talk about Buffalo.

It’s a proud member of the Rust Belt, fighting back from extinction in an economy turning away. It has something ridiculous like 100 buildings on the National Historic Register. Buffalo has legendary snowstorms in winter and less legendary nice summers. Everybody I’ve ever known from WNY knows how to drive (or knows not to) in 3 feet of snow, and shrugs off any snowfall less than a foot as no big deal.

It’s a weirdly musical city, spawning the Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs, and Ani DiFranco plus others I don’t remember right now. Buffalo gave the world people like Wolf Blitzer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, David Boreanaz, Don Messick, Rick James, Grover Cleveland, Millard Fillmore, Christian Laettner, the inventor of air conditioning (no, really!), a few astronauts, the guy who first sequenced the human genome, one of the founders of IBM, and the list goes on. Science, literature, music, politics. And sports.

Now, let’s talk about sports and Buffalo.

Western New York doesn’t have either an MLB team or an NBA team. In football, we have the Buffalo Bills. These are people who will sit in an outdoor stadium in the middle of winter, during a storm, shirtless so they can show off the B-I-L-L-S chest paint. These are fans who have watched their team lose and lose and lose – never have they won a Super Bowl even with 55+ years of trying it. And yet you can’t walk down a street anywhere in WNY without seeing somebody with a Bills decal on their car, their mailbox, their house. The team is beloved. I’m sure if I were an NFL fan, I’d have lots more to say, but let’s move onto my real love: hockey.

Because then there are the Buffalo Sabres. MY Buffalo Sabres.

I live in Minnesota now, and we call ourselves the “State of Hockey.” It’s probably true – there aren’t many places in this country that care so passionately about the sport at every level, that instill it in the children in elementary school and play when they are way too old for the game in seniors’ leagues.

There aren’t many places where you can virtually guarantee that any high school has at least one hockey team and usually more than one, that every township and neighborhood has an ice rink (and in winter a lot of them are outdoors in fields and yards and parks). Minnesota’s pastimes are simple – in summer, we fish and go “up north.” In fall we hunt. In the winter, we play hockey. (There is no spring – it’s still winter in April, trust me.)

But Buffalo, NY will always be Hockeytown, USA to me.

You have to understand, hockey in WNY isn’t just a game or a sport. It’s about community. It’s a city’s pride. It’s that which binds us and holds us together. We of Buffalo are a people born with steel in our veins, and we spend a lifetime shaking off the rust to get on with our duty. We have looked at the Falls or the Niagara Whirlpool and been awed, cowed, and also emboldened. We have dug out HOUSES from snowstorms, pulled one another into shelter when the snow fell and blew so thickly there was nothing to see but ice and frozen white.

We are the part of New York nobody cares about, nobody remembers. When we say “I’m from New York” people look at us all star-struck – because OOH BIG CITY – and we have no less pride for our true origins. (But don’t fuck with NYC on our watch. Seriously. NYC is like our big brother – we get measured up to it and lost against its dramatic glory, and we’d really rather pretend we aren’t family, but if you cross it, we will be right there to kick your ass in defense of our own.)

Buffalo is a city with a bright future and, at the same time, no future. Everywhere you look you can see deterioration – abandoned houses, factories, even neighborhoods. But there, stubbornly, you find people starting new businesses, expanding, cleaning up the old and making it new again. It’s not the dramatic rebirth of a phoenix, all sprung from ashes as a shining new wonder, but it’s the steady, resistant, tenacious, determined, pick-yourself-up-and-get-moving-again of a people who have been through too many storms to let one cold wind keep us down.

Come on – if we can endure a winter of multiple 7-feet-of-snow falls, you really think we can’t hack an economic downturn? It won’t be pretty – neither is winter driving – but we will absolutely get there eventually.

I tell you all this so you might start to understand what the Buffalo Sabres mean to me, to my city.

My poor Sabres, founded in 1970, have never won a Stanley Cup (ahem thanks to NO GOAL and I still hate the Stars for all time because of it). My poor Sabres have been amongst the worst teams in the NHL the last several years, sometimes record-settingly worst. My poor Sabres have been mismanaged, underfunded, and almost sold so many times even in the 20+ years I have followed them. We’ve traded players as often because we needed somebody new as because we owed it to our best to give them a shot at a Cup with a team headed up.

And you know what? Buffalo loves its Sabres.

Oh, we fight about it. Lots of people bad-talk them. But you don’t get to come here and say we aren’t a hockeytown. Some of the loudest detractors of the Sabres are actually the team’s biggest fans – they get angry because they want MORE. And there’s more to want.

To be a Sabres fan you must have a puck for a heart, the patience of a goalie in a shootout, the speed of a breakaway in your attention-span, and the fortitude to come back for as many OT rounds as it takes to get us there. The Sabres play a fine game of hockey – not the goonish game of some long-time rivals (ahem Flyers ahem) or other teams that put Hulk-SMASHing over swiftness and skill. The Sabres are the original underdogs, the scrappy team of kids who are not expected to win, and yet they find ways to do it. They hit slumps and downs, of course, but they are resilient, moreso maybe than any other team out there. If the Sabres have a bad year, next year will change. If they have a bad month, next month it ends. They fight. And they never give up.

Kind of like Buffalo.

The stats for the recent NHL All Star event in LA were released last week; Buffalo watched the event more even than almost anybody else, only just behind people from Pittsburgh (Minnesota came in 3rd). It’s not even our Sabres other than our one representative, but we’re there, watching. Because we love hockey. Because we’ve got former Sabres to see and maybe future Sabres to check out. Because we care about the sport, the players, the game, the excitement, and the league.

Buffalo Sabres hockey is like a religion, almost. It’s an act of faith, of true belief. It’s where people come together from either side of the tracks, where steelworkers and stockbrokers mingle, where you can stand and scream as RJ calls the game and you have a brotherhood to share in it with you.

We know the calls of “May Day!” or “Top Shelf!” or “La-la-la-la-LaFontaine!” or the spine-tingling “Now do you believe? Now do you believe!” We bleed gold and blue. My favorite of the websites is called DieByTheBlade.com because we do. We will. There are jokes about the Sabres being the “team of destiny” because when you walk into that arena, you can FEEL it. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but the Cup will come to Buffalo. It is our future and our legacy. Just as Buffalo herself will find a way to thrive in a world no longer built on its steel mills, the Sabres will find a way to win.

And my team, my beloved team, isn’t just about sports. Hell, in some ways it isn’t even MOSTLY about sports. I can’t even begin to list or name the charities supported, founded, and funded by the Sabres either as an organization or as individuals. Dominik Hasek hasn’t been a Sabre since 2001 and he still keeps up Hasek’s Heroes. Michael Peca and Pat LaFontaine still visit sick kids in the kids’ cancer hospital in Buffalo, and they still know their names.

The Buffalo Sabres were the first organization to throw its full clout behind getting players and their families out from behind the Iron Curtain so players could play the game they loved in a free country without worrying about Soviet governmental reprisals.

And then, like I said, the team often does the right thing even if it isn’t the popular thing. We’ve let players go, players we truly wanted, because they deserved a shot at the Cup and we couldn’t give it to them. It’s still a business and it isn’t all altruism all the time, but there’s no denying that there is an honor and an inherent goodness behind the core of the organization, even in the dark days of mismanagement.

Hockey is an amazingly honorable sport, anyway.

(Don’t start with me about fighting – I can talk for HOURS about how a straight-up fight is a better thing than the crappy underhanded shit that goes on in other sports. All games have a few bad apples, but fighting in hockey isn’t synonymous with that.)

It’s the only sport of the Big Four (and many others) where at the end of a playoff series, when one team moves on and one team goes home, the entire team and management and coaching staff shake hands on the ice at the end of the game before they even celebrate. No, seriously, they do. No matter how bad the series, no matter how bad the blood between the teams, they congratulate one another and thank one another. Scorers slap goalies on the back and tell them how impressed they were, and the goalies ruefully respect the goals that got past them. Players who put each other in the locker-room with split lips and bleeding cheeks hug and go out to dinner together (true story – see the epic fight between Rob Ray and Matt Barnaby).

Buffalo fired its coach of 16 years in 2013 and yet when he returned later to coach against us, we honored him with a full video montage of his time behind the Buffalo bench as both coach and player, and the fans gave him a standing ovation, even those who had wanted him gone. We fired him, but we still respected the years he had given us, the victories and the defeats, and we still considered him ‘one of ours.’

And when something really happens, the teams all feel it. When Rich Peverley from Dallas collapsed during a game against Columbus in 2014, the league suspended the game in the middle of the play. Columbus really needed that game, and needed to win, but they refused to play when their opponents had been hurt like that. Hell, a lot of them had been Peverley’s teammates – hockey’s a pretty small world and you kind of get to know everybody eventually. The game didn’t matter when their brother in blades was down.  And nobody, NOBODY had to think twice about it.

Of course, nobody let him play and they took him to the hospital because the team doctors are NOT as insane as the players.

But the Peverley story tells me something else about hockey. The players are about as badass as it gets. This guy went down with cardiac arrest, and the first thing he said after they brought him back to consciousness after confirming he felt okay was to ask if he was needed to go back in.

Players have had broken legs, but they skated through it to end their shift if their team needed them. I’m not even kidding. 2013, Gregory Campbell from the Boston Bruins got a broken leg blocking a shot, but he stayed on the ice because his team needed him to help fend off a penalty. Smart? Probably not. But DAMN.

They get hit in the face by a puck and come back with a broken jaw in a special helmet. The only rule is you can’t play when you’re actively bleeding, so you see players getting literally stitched up on the bench so they can get back in. When there’s only 6 or maybe 8 defensemen, and nobody to just jump in mid-game, you don’t give up. It’s a tough game and there’s lots of room for injuries – as in most sports – and so the courage of those who do it again and again is outstanding.

They play through hairline fractures, sprains, and torn ACLs. Routinely. My favorite is the guy (Brandon Prust) who had a rib get knocked out of place – totally separate from his cartilage – in a bad check and popped it back into place HIMSELF to get back on the ice for overtime.

This is my sport. It isn’t just about goals scored and games won. It’s about a community that polices its own and gives back to others. It’s about people who have deep and abiding personal courage and make honor and respect a regular practice. My favorite illustration of hockey was via a meme was on Twitter a while back. They counted up the number of times Lebron James talked about himself vs his team in getting the NBA championship = 18 uses of “I” and 0 uses of “we.” When Jonathan Toews spoke about the Chicago Blackhawks getting the Cup in the same year, he said “I” 0 times and “we” 14 times.

So take this gritty, demanding, immensely difficult sport and add to it a city on the edge. On the edge of collapse, on the edge of the biggest winter storm most other people would ever see in their ENTIRE LIVES, on the edge of Niagara Falls, on the edge of a state remembered only for a couple islands to the southeast. And you get THIS.

In 2004, the Goo Goo Dolls came back to Buffalo to give a special performance for their hometown. They held a free concert on the steps of City Hall, to which more than 60,000 people came. In a deluge of pouring rain. There was a delay and many feared there would be no concert at all, but as soon as it stopped raining, the band came out to play. Then, in the middle of a song, the rain started up again. It rained so much and so hard the crew was starting to pull the stage apart for fear of it being destroyed. The band on stage actually asked the crowd if they wanted them to go and the crowd said no. So they let the stage-hands make things safer and then stayed. They played an hour in that storm, for free, for the people of Buffalo. That’s where the live show clips come from.

Watch that video again, you guys. That’s what Buffalo Sabres hockey means. It’s people. It’s a city. It’s a common denominator, a common hope for better days. This video was played before the start of every game that season – not just a heart-pounding intro, but a reminder. A reminder that WE BELIEVE. We didn’t get the Cup that year. But we will.

The players change, the coaches change. But the Sabres remain.

We, Buffalo, remain.

It’s a game. It’s also a force. A collective trust in something that tests patience, skill, hope, strength, courage, and determination. It’s a team. It’s also all of us, all of us together on that ice and in the stands and watching from home. It’s a passion so bright people take down their business signs and billboards to welcome new players and coaches where they should be advertising cars or insurance. It’s the sport where both teams cheer for a job well done, where there are ALWAYS hugs after goals, and maybe the most beautiful thing – the sharing of the Stanley Cup. Every player gets to lift that Cup and hoist it in salute. Many do it crying. And every single name from the winning team is inscribed upon it, so the lowly 3rd goalie stands beside the greats of hockey legend.

It’s also the sport of the hilarious Butt Goal, the sport where a Sabre had to hit a bat out of the air during a game, the sport of the epic “fog game,” of my 2 favorite commercials of all times (the “Die Leafs Die” bit and the one where Ryan Miller insults somebody in Chinese to beat a buzzer). It’s the sport of RJ aka Rick Jeanneret, the best announcer in all sports (and that’s not just me – actually, apparently he’s won a bunch of awards and stuff?), the sport of guys who patch up the ice by spraying their water bottles on it, the sport of Rob Freaking Ray and all his glorious antics.

In non-Buffalo specifics, it’s the sport of Detroit’s octopus, the condor, rats in Florida, playoff beards (and mullets), and an amazing reverence for the Zamboni.  The sport of every park and school in Minnesota, the sport which manages to thrive in the desert and the tropics against all logic – but that same scrappy spirit carries through no matter where you lace up your skates.

I don’t get many Sabres games out in Minnesota, so I’ve adopted the Wild as a surrogate team and I’ll be cheering for them tonight.  I’ll probably watch the Stanley Cup later this year even though I think my Sabres are as likely to be in contention for it as they are for the next Super Bowl.  Because I’m cheering for hockey overall, too.

And I’m waiting for the day my Sabres lift that Cup. Because it will come. Sure as a storm in winter, sure as the torrent over Niagara Falls, my Buffalo Sabres will have their day. They’ll never give up. And neither will I.
Let’s go Buffalo!

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