The weather in the air didn't feel like it usually does at the beginning of the hockey season. There was no snow on the ground, but the howling wind made the walk up Washington Street feel like you were in a wind tunnel. There is one undeniable fact thoug. The NHL is back and the fans are excited.
The excitement has been surrounding the arena for days now. The Sabres store sale has proven a success with lines winding throughout the lobby for the week and during the hours before gametime. The store opened at nine in the morning and there was a line outside and around the building fifteen minutes later. Practices have been inordinately full, with 10,000 people showing up for an intra-squad scrimmage.
The arena was setup with balloons spelling out “Welcome Back” across the front, welcoming fans back to Sabres hockey. The fans that hadn't had a chance to check out the statue are taking pictures of Alumni Plaza and checking for their brick on the pillars. Inside the bowl, every seat in the arena had pom-poms, half blue and half gold. A healthy 50/50 raffle skyrocketed to almost $15,000 before the puck dropped and to $30,000 by the time the winning ticket was drawn.
The lights went down, the intros queued up, and hockey felt even more like it had returned. The anticipation built through the player intros, the anthems, the ceremonial puck drop, and peaked with the actual puck drop. The crowd noise was typical for the sometimes fickle First Niagara Center crowd. A smattering of “Let's Go Buffalo” chants and general noise filled the air through the first ten minutes of the game. Then Steve Ott scored eleven minutes into the games which turned the arena into a frenzy. The team kept the crowd involved in the game, with the three third period goals creating an atmosphere that hasn't been felt in this arena in a long time.
The players could feel the energy coming from the crowd as well. “It's real easy to play out here in the East when you have a full building of screaming fans like this. It's instant energy and instant rivalries that you build right away. That is just so much fun to play in,” new Sabre Steve Ott said after the game.
Sabres fans will have at least 23 more chances to see this team in action and hopefully more if the team makes the playoffs. The fans never left hockey, it was the NHL that left them. Now they are embracing it in full force.
The pace of hockey wasn't the greatest that fans have seen in a while. The first five minutes of the game looked like someone strapped invisible parachutes on the players and asked them to skate as fast as possible. The flow of the game picked up as the game went on, but expect this level of hockey for the first week or so as the players start to work themselves back into game shape.