Two nights ago, the NHL season ended for the Buffalo Sabres when they lost Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was impossible not to get swept up in the excitement in these parts while the Sabres made their run, even for a guy like me who has never much got into hockey. It's not that I'm not interested in hockey, exactly, but rather that my opportunities to get into it have been rather limited in recent years. The Sabres were rebuilding, there was the loss of an entire season to labor strife, most hockey games are televised on cable and we don't have cable, et cetera. Here's the thing: I'm the guy whose ability to follow the game on TV was enhanced when they did that "hovering blue light" thing superimposed on the puck, and when they had that funky Tron-like streak effect when the puck was shot. So when people ask me if I'm a hockey fan, my typical response has generally been: "I don't know much about the game, really, so I just follow hockey until the Sabres are eliminated."
So this year they came within one period of playing for the Stanley Cup. And I've never seen anything close to the level of excitement around here as what surrounded this team's run. It just built and built and built and built, as the regular season started and then ground on and the suspicion dawned that maybe this was a pretty good team after all; and then the suspicion that this might be a damn good team; and then the suspicion that this team might just be the team to win it all. And I've seen that excitement around the area in so many ways. In the afternoons, I can't drive anywhere without interrupting some bunch of kids and their pickup hockey game in the street. Everywhere you look, people are wearing Sabres regalia and everywhere you look, formerly clean-shaven men are letting their playoff beards grow. A lot of razors in Western New York got some use yesterday morning.
Thinking of the way things were a year ago, when the NHL was still picking up the pieces in its disastrous labor dispute, the climate around here was completely different. On the local sports-talk radio station (WGR), the shows tended to stumble around a lot as there was no hockey to talk about and there's just only so many ways one can make three hours of talking about the Bills interesting. Now, as the Sabres are the young team that came oh so close but will return next year with the nucleus intact while the Bills are restarting a rebuilding process that's already six years old, the Bills have become Buffalo's other sports team.
What's really amazing about the Sabres' run this year is the way its premature ending has been approached. Everybody is talking Sabres, but even so, I can count on one hand the number of people I've heard couch their Game Seven loss in the light of Buffalo's long history of pro-sports futility. The only comparable example of optimism for the next season I can recall is from back when the Bills lost Super Bowl XXV. The Sabres lost, but this isn't remotely like the "No Goal" loss in the Cup Finals in 1998. I haven't met a single soul who doesn't think that this year's Sabre team is just the start of something special, and I have yet to talk to a single hockey-knowledgable Sabre fan who doesn't want to drop the puck on the 2006-2007 right now. Since I don't know much about the game, what I'm going to remember from this year's run is the sense of magic that was in the air in this town.
Yes, I'm tired of having phrases like "Wait 'til next year" and "Hey, they had a great run" in my lexicon. I want to be able to look around and say, "Hey, Boston and New York and Chicago and LA: we've won it all, too." But just think, Buffalo, of how much sweeter it's gonna be next June when the Sabres win the Cup, having come oh so close this year.
And when they win that thing, this city will dance in the streets for months.
Thanks for the magic, Sabres. Get some rest. Heal up. And then: Game on!
(Oh, one more thing: Yes, the Hurricanes earned their trip to the Finals, all right, but screw 'em anyway -- go Oilers!)