The other day, as I was driving home from work, the guys on the radio (Schopp and the Bulldog, WGR-550 AM!) were asking callers for their “greatest Sabres playoff memories”. The NHL season is ending and the playoffs are getting ready to start, and the locally beloved Sabres have managed to play their way back into the playoffs after a sluggish start to the season; thus, hockey fever is starting to sweep around the region again after falling off a bit in the last year or two. (Plus the team has new ownership that is so adept at saying the right things, that it’s almost like Buffalo’s hockey fandom has found itself inside a corny sports movie. But anyway….) So, here’s my personal greatest playoff memory.
The NHL endured a lockout earlier in the 2000s that wiped out an entire season, but when the league returned to play a year later, suddenly the Sabres were…really, really good. They went to the Eastern Conference finals both years, and most folks around here tend to think that, with a few luckier breaks (especially in 2006, when injuries ravaged the team the longer the playoffs went on), one or both of those teams would have brought home a Stanley Cup. (And believe me, folks: if/when the Sabres actually do win the Stanley Cup, this entire region is going to throw a party that will make Mardi Gras look like Thanksgiving with the Donner Party.)
Here’s the thing about me, though: I’m not much of a hockey fan. I enjoy it when I see it on teevee, but that’s not very often because we don’t have cable and I don’t go out much. (I should go out more, but I don’t. Because I’m dull, you see.) And because I don’t get to watch much hockey at all, I end up not knowing all that much about it. Remember back in the 1990s when whatever teevee network had the NHL rights decided to make the game “easier to follow” by superimposing a blue dot on the ice wherever the puck was? And whenever someone would actually shoot the puck, there’d be a red laser-streak thing on the teevee to show where it went? Most hockey fans I knew back then scoffed at this and made fun of it…but I was the guy that was meant for. No more could I complain that I had no idea where the puck was! I could follow the most important aspect of the game, and thus could turn my attention to other matters, like learning the rules. I remember seeing games, getting caught up in the action of the guys skating every which way, the sheer speed of it all, and then everyone suddenly stopping skating. “Why are they stopping?” I’d ask. “Icing,” came the reply. I’d just nod, because no matter what sporting event is on teevee in a bar, you do not want to be the guy asking for explanations of the rules. Even if it’s the Winter Olympics and you’re watching curling, a sport which by all accounts has no rules at all and only crowns a winner by an off-screen game of Rock-Paper-Scissors after the curling is done.
So anyway, the Sabres in 2005-2006 were really good and only got eliminated from the playoffs pretty much because by the end of their run, injuries had reduced their team to seven guys and two Zamboni drivers. The next year, though, they were better: they won more games than any other team in the league, and were strong favorites to win it all. They dispatched the New York Islanders with ease in Round One of the playoffs, but their Round Two opponent, the New York Rangers, proved a bit more difficult.
Gave Five of the second round in 2007 came on May 4. This happened to also be the opening release date of Spiderman 3. A friend of mine at work was going to the movie, so we agreed to meet at the theater. Problem was, he was going to the game. Now, we were going to a late enough showing that this shouldn’t have been a problem — it was a 10:15 pm showing or something like that, and the game should have been over somewhere shortly after 9:00. So I hung out at home with my family, noodling about on the computer, doing this and that. I couldn’t watch the Sabres game, so I brought up the game-tracking page on FOXSports.com and kept refreshing. And I was torn.
See, the Rangers led the game 1-0 most of the way. So on the one hand, I’m rooting for the Sabres to come back and tie it. But on the other hand, I know that if this game goes to overtime, my friend is unlikely to be able to make the movie. Thus I was rooting strongly for the Sabres to put two quick goals on the board, take the game in regulation, and then everybody goes on. Except that didn’t happen, and with 8 seconds to go, the Rangers still had their 1-0 lead. So I was resigned to the Sabres losing, but my friend making the movie.
Which is why I both cheered and became dismayed when Sabre Chris Drury put in a shot with 7.7 seconds to go to tie the game. Into overtime it went. Now the start time of the movie was less than 45 minutes away, and I knew that getting out of a sell-out arena and getting to the movie theater (about ten miles away, maybe) in that time was unlikely. My friend called me at home from the arena (I could barely hear him over the crowd noise in there) to tell me that if the game ended quickly, they’d still try. I told him I’d wait outside until the last possible minute.
Overtime didn’t go on too long, but long enough to make me think that there was no way he was getting there on time. The Sabres won the game, though, and the nature of that win — snatching victory away in the face of certain defeat that would have had them trailing in the series had they lost — only fueled the Sabre-fever that was sweeping over the town. I saw online that the Sabres had won, and then I left for Regal Cinemas to hopefully await my friend.
Who got there ten minutes after I did. Before the movie started.
He was actually riding with another friend of his; how that guy got his car out of parking near the arena, out of postgame traffic, and onto the highway south out of Buffalo in that little time, I consider among the things I’m probably better off not knowing. But they got there. I’d already bought tickets, so we went inside. The ticket-taker guy saw that my friend and his friend were in Sabres gear, and said something like, “I can’t believe I had to work through that game.”
“Oh dude, it was awesome,” my friend said. “I was there.”
“You were there?” the ticket-taker said. “Didn’t it end, like, fifteen minutes ago?”
“Yeah. I’m still tingling.”
And away we went into the theater, with the ticket-taker guy probably wondering if they’d driven from the arena to the theater in the Batmobile. (Which would have been ironic, as we were seeing Spiderman 3. You know, using a car from DC comics to see a Marvel movie.)
Funny thing was, the movie didn’t start on time. They never do, and there was the fifteen minutes or so of trailers, Coca-cola commercials, and all the rest of it. The auditorium was pretty full, and as it filled up, there was one final great thing about that game that happened: every single time someone else came into the auditorium who was wearing a Sabres shirt or jacket, everyone in there would cheer. One guy came in wearing a Chris Drury jersey, and he almost got a standing ovation. Everybody was a fan. Everybody was talking about that game. That game wasn’t a Cup-winning game; it wasn’t even a Conference Finals-winning game. It wasn’t even a series winning game: the Sabres only had a 3-2 edge in the series after that one, and ended up dispatching the Rangers from the playoffs two days later in Game Six. At that point, no one thought for a second that the Sabres were doing anything other than winning the Cup, and that that game would give them the unstoppable momentum that would carry them to winning it all.
It didn’t work out that way, unfortunately; in the next series, the Eastern Conference Finals, the Ottawa Senators would leap out to a 3-0 series lead and then eliminate the Sabres in five games. And during the ensuing offseason, a bunch of miscalculations and errors by the Sabres management led to the team’s best players, including Chris Drury, leaving for other teams. But on that night, that was it. The Sabres were on the way. Before the movie started, I said to my friend, “Do you realize that you were present for what may end up being one of the very greatest moments in Buffalo sports history?” And even though that win didn’t lead to ultimately winning the Cup, it was still one the greatest moments in Buffalo sports history.
And that’s my greatest Sabres playoff moment. From a game I didn’t see.