It was the spring of 2007 — almost summer actually — and the Buffalo Sabres were locked in a desperate battle with the Ottawa Senators for the Eastern Conference Championship. The winner of the series would go on to play for the Stanley Cup and hopes were high in Buffalo. The Sabres finished first in the NHL standings and barely edged out the Detroit Red Wings for the President’s Trophy. The Sabres played a couple of shaky series against the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, but now the team found itself four wins away from another shot at the Stanley Cup.
All season long, Sabres fans had been ratcheting up the intensity throughout the city and showing support for their team. By the time the playoffs arrived, the fans were delirious with excitement as the Sabres were genuine favorites to win the Stanley Cup that season. The fans were flying Sabres flags from their cars, their homes and their office buildings. Buffalo city police and fire vehicles were flying Sabres flags as well in a show of unified support.
Things got so crazy in Buffalo that the city made up a stencil and started painting the Sabres logo in the city streets. Even at the height of Super Bowl excitement in the 1990s with the Buffalo Bills, the city of Buffalo never painted a Bills logo in the city streets. Buffalo is a city with a hockey addiction and a football hobby. The Bills bring the international news to the city of Buffalo, but the Sabres have the region’s heart.
Playoff games for that run were sold out instantly, but that did not stop fans from coming to the arena for the games. The Sabres put huge projection screens outside the arena and had more people in the First Niagara Center parking lot watching the games on television than they had in the actual arena. There were bands playing, vendors selling food and a carnival unlike anything anyone had seen before.
The Sabres lost that series to Ottawa in five games and have only been back to the playoffs twice since then. Both subsequent trips to the postseason resulted in first-round losses by the team which meant that the team was out of the playoffs before the projection screens even had a chance to be put up.
Ever since 2007, the city has been desperately looking for a reason to cheer again. The last few years of the Darcy Regier era proved to be futile and fans started losing interest. Today, the Sabres are trying desperately to build a winning team, and despite claiming near sellout numbers for each home game, the arena sits empty and quiet. The fans who had been there during the playoff runs don’t have a reason to cheer anymore, so they don’t come around.
The city of Buffalo and all of Western New York loves its Sabres. If there is one thing that Buffalo hockey legend and Sabres’ president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine knows, it is that the fans will come back when the team is winning. All Buffalo needs now is to put together that winning team that will capture the imaginations and hearts of people all over the area.
It won’t take much to bring back the fans to the First Niagara Center. Many of the current Sabres have no idea just how fanatical the region can really be about the team because they have played on losing teams for so long. When the fans do come back and that energy is put back into the arena, maybe then Sabres owner Terry Pegula will finally get the hockey heaven he has been talking about.