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From Hell to Breakfast: A Review of the Sabres 11-12 Season

 

And at your funeral
I’ll sing the requiem. 

 

 There will be no banners raised into the FN Center’s venerable rafters, no majestic chronicle of the season’s better moments, no town heroes; nothing, really, in the words of the celebrated Rick Jeanerette, “for the highlight reel”.  I’m sitting here, writing this, listening to the songs from bands I used to like when I was twelve years old. I don’t know why. There’s something about “Thrice” and “Saves the Day” and “The Matthew Good Band” cussing and screaming in my ears that seems appropriately out-of-control, insignificant, mediocre. Something of the youthful enthuisasm that you lose to adulthood that describes the way I might feel now about this Sabres season, having made the transformation from a steadfast evangelical to a miserable cynic.

Jesus, what is this?

There’s no one story line that can appropriately cover the Buffalo Sabres season, and so I’m not going to attempt to wrap this bad boy up with a nice bow. I want to cover all of the things that I think were important. I want this to be as thorough as possible. But I also don’t want it to be a recap. Let someone at the newspaper do that. Let them grind it down to a knub with stats and AP style. I’ll holler up from the basement. I can’t shake the feeling that, from just about everybody, there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment. I learned a lot this season. Mostly about what it means to be a hockey fan of a specific team in 2012, when there is 24-hour news, Twitter and a fast food culture. I’ve learned that it’s not exactly easy or all together fun, and that kind of stinks. 

Here I am, reminiscing that going-through-puberty strand of mixed emotions, heart heavy, exasporated, confused. We didn’t get the girl, guys, that beautiful trophy called the playoffs, and we are twelve years old, filled with regret and relief. So scream and spit and bring me into a rage, “The Bouncing Souls”, fire it up, “No Use For a Name”. I am the pathetic, bears-no-responsibility, there-must-be-an-explanation soul of sweaty palms and nervous guts and ugly hair cuts. I am every kid at every freshman dance in America, hopeful but underwhelmed. I am also the Sabres fanbase. I am happy and I am sad. 

Grab a coffee, an energy bar, a sandwich. Lower the volume on your head phones. Sit down in your cubicle and put the spreadsheet away except when your boss walks by. Settle in. This is going to take a while.

I WAS LIVING IN A DEVIL TOWN

It was February 2011. It was Terry Pegula choking up when talking about Gilbert Perreault, it was when his daughters on Twitter was still a novelty, and when one season was lost  but the rest of them — all of the rest of them — would be saved. Hope is just about the most powerful thing you can give to people on any subject. It keeps them going. In this case, it keeps them buying tickets and merchandise and “in” to the product before them.

Buffalo did things they didn’t do before. They not only re-signed their guys, but went after top-tier talent through trades and in the free agent market. They brought in over $12 million in contracts in the form of Regehr, Ehrhoff and Leino. They rebuilt the locker room, exiled the slug, opened the borders to the bloggers. 

And wasn’t it always supposed to be this way? Isn’t this that larger-than-life, sort of fucked up nonsense that you see in the movies, with the slow motion montage and the kissing in the rain? We’ve been waiting all this time, you guys, and finally, it’s here. It’s all we ever wanted as fans, and it’s finally here.

If this boundless, born-again optimism was against the law or the rules than we are all guilty as charged. I sat here, on this web-site, with Joe and talked about how there was nothing one could complain about with the Sabres. It was finally, at long last, perfect. We were doodling “Terry Pegula” with hearts and rainbows during recess. We’d asked him to hold on to our retainer. 

Things started out well enough. There was the brief stop off over in Europe to open up the season, and then some uninspiring wins, but wins all the same. The Sabres carried a division lead into the second month of the season while the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins gurgled on their own tongues, struggling to get things going. No one was in striking distance. Until, suddenly, they were.

Then Milan Lucic ran into Ryan Miller. It was obnoxious and frustrating and brought about that helpless feeling that people get sometimes when things just aren’t going your way and there’s nothing you can do about it but accept it. Sabres Nation was adrift on an avalanche of controversy. Sort-of tough guy Paul Gaustad was on the ice… why didn’t he retaliate? What does it say about this team, you guys? They’re yellow, they’re cowards. They’ve never defended this guy. That’s what this team is, just a bunch of people who won’t stand up for each other. 

But what did it all matter? Ryan Miller already wasn’t playing well. Nobody on the Sabres was going to do anything to Milan Lucic that would change him from being Milan Lucic. The stage was set for this long before that moment. Nothing that could have happened differently in the ensuing moments was going to change anything about it except the feeling and the perception. When you are dying of cancer, it is not that they misapplied the intravenous that kills you, it is the cancer. It is why you are there in the first place.

Jhonas Enroth was, quietly, being rendered ineffective by the subtle misuse and apparent adherence to some arbitrary schedule which seemed to hold little resemblance to the realities of what goalies need. This was the guy, by the way, who many rallied around to be the new starter on this team in the opening months. Because he was that good and Miller was that bad. Before the Panzer tank that was Milan Lucic steamrolled him. Before Paul Gaustad made us mad. 

And then Jhonas Enroth faded, and Ryan Miller came back and he was playing with half a concussion and whiplash and a couple of players in front of him injured. The locker room was upset because it didn’t realize that playing together might be important to formulating some sort of chemistry. The locker room was upset because some guys were bitter that some new guys came in with some fancy contracts. 

There was talk about how the new locker room and the new weight room and the new logos and the renewed spirit of the fans had “coddled” the team. There was talk about how guys like Ryan Miller are just overrated whiners. There was talk about how Pominville was too quiet and too reserved to be captain. It was all talked about as though these things shouldn’t have been expected by all of us from a mile away.

Eddie Vedder just came on my iTunes. He’s drawling something. I think it’s about broken hearts. 

Until You Have It All, You Won’t Be Free

One of the things that scares me to death about being a Buffalo fan is not that I’ll never get to see a championship. There’s something in me — maybe it’s an irrational confidence, but it’s there — that sooner than later that’s just going to happen. Call me crazy. The thing that scares me is that Buffalo will turn into this hateable, rustbelt version of Boston. That we are somehow programmed to transform from being really sore losers to really sore winners. 

I think we got a little taste of that this year. This was the year it was supposed to work out, after all. What was going to stop us, exactly?

December came and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we wish it hadn’t. It was when the Sabres were at their most vulnerable due to injuries, when their six-million-dollar goaltender had returned but had not found his legs. The team went 2-9 against playoff teams, started a stretch in which they captured zero points in twelve road games, and plummeted toward the bottom rungs of the standings. 

This is one of those things where it feels like everything changed overnight but it didn’t, really. One bad loss turned into two, which turned into three, and then oop, there’s a win, we’re back on track, and another loss and another and another. Before you know it, there isn’t a floor beneath us anymore. 

There weren’t a lot of answers at this point. The old adage is, “If we knew what was wrong, we’d fix it.” And I don’t even remember if there was all that much outrage as much as there was some acceptance that all of the things that we initially thought probably weren’t true and the season was probably over. We’d been badly, badly mistake. 

The clues were there for us far earlier. This was a team that rewarded Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford with letters on their jersey. These are the guys who took over this team as their own in 2007-08. These are the guys who have never quite been good “enough”. And this was their reward? That this was “their team”, now? If it was theirs now, whose was it before? Who had we been watching fail time and again all these seasons?

There wasn’t a lot to believe in, and the idea that the primary purpose of the Sabres was to win the Stanley Cup, as Pegula said only half-a-year earlier seemed kind of ridiculous. 

Everybody Hurts. Jackass. 

Ahem.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Christian Ehrhoff played 66 games this year. Tyler Myers played 55. Here are some examples of excellent players who missed similar or more amounts of time:

Pavel Datysuk

Nik Lidstrom

Sidney Crosby

Marc Staal

Martin Havlat

Travis Zajac

Mikael Sammuelson

And so on (seriously: so on. There are lots of other great players who were hurt this year who, wait for it…)

THOSE GUYS ARE ALL ON PLAYOFF TEAMS.

The Buffalo Sabres Top 6 Defenseman* played on average, 61 games this year.

(*This determined by the 6 who played the most in a Buffalo uniform)

The New York Rangers, who are the most points-rich team in the conference and perhaps the Presidents Trophy champs this year? Their Top 6 Defenseman played, on average, 63 games this year. 

Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek? Those four guys who all got letters sewn on their vests this off-season? Those four guys who make up 4/6ths of the vaunted “Top 6″ forwards? At the time of this post they’ve missed a combined total of 12 games. 

Maybe lots of players were also playing hurt. Maybe Thomas Vanek had fifteen hernias, maybe Robyn Regehr was playing with a severed carotid artery, maybe Ryan Miller is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after Jordin Tootoo swan-dove into him in Nashville. But everybody gets hurt and plays hurt in hockey. It’s an 82 game season that lasts seven months. It’s one of the most rigorous sports in the world, with one of the shortest off-seasons. They chuck octopus and plastic rats at you, for goodness sakes. No team is very healthy right now because that is the metamorphosis of an NHL season. Everyone starts out as a tiny little caterpillar, and by the end of the season the last team standing looks like a bunch of bearded aliens who’ve come down with leperosy. 

This is always the excuse, is it not?

  • 05-06: Our entire defense all died at once. But don’t worry you guys, we’ll be back!
  • 06-07: We weren’t really tough enough and we peaked too early. But don’t worry you guys, we’ll give you the tools to finish the job!
  • 07-08: We lost all of our tools. How can we be expected to win without our tools?! Goli-what-now? He’s awesome. He saved the team! SAVED THE TEAM. But don’t worry you guys, our young guys are about to be awesome!
  • 08-09: Miller got hurt, fucking Scott Gomez. How can we be expected to win with Patrick Lalime? But don’t worry you guys, Miller will be back. And our young guys are about to be awesome!
  • 09-10: Johnny Boychuk boards Vanek in the playoffs? Are the refs even WATCHING the games? How can we expect to beat Boston without Thomas Vanek? But don’t worry you guys, Vanek will be back. And these new young guys are about to be awesome! Nathan Gerbe! *Blows a horn*
  • 10-11: Woohoo! We got in, just be happy. But how can we be expected to beat the Flyers when our entire season was basically a playoff already? And now Pominville goes down when we need him. But don’t worry you guys, now we’ve got a great owner, not like that carpet bagging Golisano who I never once said anything nice about, ever. And a whole crop of young guys who are going to be awesome. Tyler Ennis~! *Humps air*
  • 11-12: If only this team never got hurt, ever, and everyone played 82 games, and Ryan Miller got his bruises rubbed with castor oil, and The Buffalo News was only ever nice to them, and Drew Stafford/Ville Leino/Brad Boyes/Thomas Vanek/Nathan Gerbe earned their contracts, and the refs did whatever we asked, if only all of those things just shook our way, we’d have been a playoff team. But don’t you worry guys, because we’ll tinker a little and next year, pfft, in like a sin. Oh, and did I mention? Marcus motherfuckin’ Foligno. Here’s my fist, you may give it a pound.  

I blame myself for this. I should have seen it coming. There must always be a reason. It cannot just be “these guys weren’t good enough”. We are bound to the idea that there must be a reasonable explanation, because if there isn’t, what could that mean about all of this which we’ve bought into? That we’re…we’re…rubes?

Never. Not a chance. 

Oh Baby, I Know This For Sure. I’m Walking Out That Door

We have a German Shepherd. He’s pretty smart. But he’s still a dog. When he was a puppy, he was signal trained, which means you don’t have to verbalize your commands to get him to do what you want. If you want him to shake, you just extend your hand in the appropriate motion, and he’ll come over to you from several yards away and shake your hand. You can impress people by saying, “Dylan understands several different words for shake. Watch.”

“Watermelon.” Dylan shakes. 

Ford Taurus.” Dylan shakes. 

“Buttcrack.” Dylan shakes.

“Marmaduke, Wyoming” Dylan shakes.

It’s all bogus. He just reacts to the signal. But people who don’t know, or don’t know a lot about dogs anyway, are pretty impressed. 

This is kind of the way a good marketing department like the Sabres have are able to get their fan base to do basically whatever they want. It’s just, instead of the end result being a paw-shake and sometimes a milk bone, its the ka-ching of a cash register and people’s hard-earned money being shat away on an inferior product.

“Steve Bernier.” ka-ching.

Dominic Moore.” ka-ching.

Raffi Torres.” ka-ching.

“Brad Boyes.” ka-ching.

“Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehroff and Ville Leino.” ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching.

Don’t you feel stupid after a while? I mean, just, dumb to be excited about this thing over and over again? As Joe mentioned in our podcast last night, I’m a recovering kool-aid drinker, a guy who has been optimistic about this franchise even when the team was really bad, even when there were plenty of things to be pessimistic about. I checked out for the first time since I’ve been breathing air when Terry Pegula, our hero owner, went on the radio and said that injuries were a fact of life when, ok, they are, but they are for everybody and it’s no excuse. 

I checked out then and there. It was, at that moment, time to stop believing in everything. I wanted to be a consumer again — something with real control over things I spent my time and energy and money on — based on the quality of what I was receiving. I was tired of twisting myself in a pretzel to justify things which clearly weren’t justifiable.

Why did I do this before? I think for the same reasons that a lot of people did it and do it. Because enjoying something makes one feel good, it’s more fun to root for your team than to bash it and that particularly twisted sister known as “loyalty”. 

So, I don’t know. Maybe we deserve this. Maybe the Sabres fan base isn’t mature enough to yet realize that it isn’t really all that cool to be eternally optimistic, that it kind of hurts the chance for us to have real optimism and that the lack of accountability makes it too easy on the guys making the decisions. I think we’ve forgot that this isn’t really a marriage, not really, and that this is actually a business, actually entertainment, where the primary goal is to cajole you into spending your money regardless of if the outcome is what you wanted. 

Where else in life would we devote so much of ourselves to being constantly and actively disappointed?

This doesn’t, of course, mean to close up shop and run away from the team totally. It just means that it is okay to say, “You know what? You guys failed at doing your job. This is not good enough. We need better and we need it now.”

Somebody say that. Shout it from a mountain top.

A Day Too Soon

And then they got good again. 

This is Tyler’s raging aneurysm. 

‘Cause, you know, they got some players back; they were healthy again! (If rotating sequences of Mike Weber, Alex Sulzer, Corey Tropp, Matt Ellis, Cody McCormick, Nathan Gerbe & Pat Kaleta can be considered ‘healthy’)

And also because, despite the fact that the Sabres still seemed constitutionally incapable of scoring goals, Ryan Miller decided that he was going to be really awesome again for a little while. And just like what happens during every 5-week stretch in which he decides to be great, everyone needed to complain to everyone else about how everything that people thought about Miller was just an egregious prejudice that has been clearly, once-and-for-all, proven wrong.

But then Christian Ehrhoff died and Tyler Myers died and it was like, “If these two guys aren’t around, we’re doomed.” Which is crazy, because I thought we had this really great goalie. But it turns out we don’t, we just have an average goalie who we pay a lot to pretend to be a great goalie occasionally, but mostly he needs every single person in front of him to be the greatest that has ever been, and if a gnat farts on his shoulder he suffers thirteen concussions and complains about it for a month. 

What happened during the magical run? Well, a couple of things. First, the Sabres did what most every other team not named “Columbus” did in 2011-2012. They got good for a while. They had a hot streak, in other words. You want to know why Toronto was above the Sabres for a while? Because the same thing happened to them. Same for Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay.

And then something happened. All (or most) of those teams that were ahead of the Sabres reverted back to the mean just about the same time that Ryan Miller decided he was going to screw with us. We’re good again! Hooray. 

But it was just bogus, wasn’t it? They weren’t really that much better. They were just about the same, flacid, mediocre team that won some coin-tosses that they were in October and November. They were the same collection of we’ll-have-positive-explanations-for-this-we-swear knuckleheads that blindly and quietly fumbled through the early trappings of the year until Milan Lucic put their bull-shit into lower orbit. 

They were just a bunch of teases, and now we had to walk around the freshman dance with half an erection, balls blue, and not so much as a peck on the cheek. 

Phil Ochs Stone Cold Throwing Hurtin’ Bombs

Call it peace or call it treason
Call it love or call it reason
But I ain’t marching anymore

 So exhale now, the season is over. The lights will be off for a while at the FN Center except for overpriced concerts for crappy hearthrob teenage bands like the ones I mentioned, or guys from the 80s who should no longer be allowed to wear sleeveless t-shirts. People will do what they do in the summer in Buffalo which is obsess briefly but passionately about the Sabres off-season and stress about whether or not the fifteenth linebacker on the Bills depth chart is a guy who we should keep around for his potential because he looked good that one play in mini-camps. 

Then October comes around, and just like autumn, it will be colored with the same nonsense it has been colored with forever. Regier and Ruff, a roster of mostly-familiar faces and a couple of additions that we’re hopeful but not confident about. Everything feels a little more vestigial. I’m running out of organs to lose in surgery. I’m running out of reasons for my wife to feel sorry for me that the Sabres lost and I’m bummed again. But I’m hopelessly sucked back into it. Maybe Marcus Foligno really is good.

Whatever. 

Last year, during game seven against the Flyers, I left the house. I went with my wife to look at houses on the market, for purchase. Tonight, I skipped about 60% of the game so that we could go have dinner. There are bigger things in life, even the ones that turn out to be ridiculously small in the end. 

It’s not that I don’t love the Sabres as much now as before — I do — just in a different way. I think that with something like a small town with a team in a small sport, we tend to project the best and worst things about those teams on each other. When we insult the thoughts of people who disagree with our viewpoint, we tend to just project all of the horrible  things which we could think about ourselves, because, after all, those are the things which must be the worst about all of us.

Of course that makes no sense, but that’s how we think.

I’ve been told I hate Buffalo this year. I’ve been told I’m not a true fan. The list goes on. I’m kind of tired of all of it. 

I’m a Sabres fan. I’ve learned, through that prism, some intersting things about myself and who I’d enjoy that with and how I’d enjoy it. The thing I’ve learned about Sabres fans this year is that there are some great ones and some bads ones; I’ve learned that fiery passion is not always the best thing. I hope what we’ve taken out of this is that we can all be better fans — better to each other. 

Because I’ve learned, most importantly and somewhat unfortunately, that right now we’re not really all in this together. We’re all in this for ourselves. There’s something really kind of sad about that. It’s when you grow up, and face reality. It’s the silence when the music stops playing and the dance is over.

The Sabres are going to be great someday. But there’s nothing I can say or do now to make today be that day. I just hope the destination is worth the trip.

Matthew is an occasional writer living in Austin, Texas. Say hi to him on Twitter: @matthew1stewart

 

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