Much has been made lately about the Sabres play at home. News reporters, fans, and hockey pundits everywhere have been quick to point out the flaws of the team at the F’N Center. However, there’s something else that’s been bothering me about the games in Buffalo. It’s a factor that’s not on the ice.
Its the fans sitting in their seats.
Ever since last year it seems Sabres fans, as a collective group, have been terrible.
When I go to the games, I’m excited. Therefore, I stand and cheer for my team. Even though I do get critical of the team, I try to avoid booing them because I consider myself a fan, not an opponent. I actually discovered at a recent game that being optimistic when the team is down by one is a lot more fun than sitting in my seat with my arms crossed and a frown on my face. A majority of Sabres fans seem to act like this through a majority of the game.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to start a “Let’s Go Buffalo!” chant and have been stared at by other fans like I’m crazy. It’s a hockey game! I am always baffled when people act like I just shouted a profanity at a small child when I cheer, even though there’s not necessarily something to cheer about. I’ve actually been challenged by other Sabres fans when I tried to cheer on Ryan Miller after he gave up a goal that wasn’t his fault. I was astounded.
I feel I’ve had a poor outing as a fan if my voice isn’t partially gone by the end of the night. I can remember the first game I had a chance to go to. I had just turned 16 and my parents got my brother and I tickets to a Friday night game against the Hurricanes. Honestly, that game is one of my favorite Sabres memories of all-time. Not only did the team cruise to a 7-1 victory over the hated ‘Canes, but the crowd was constantly engaged. If the “Let’s go buffalo!” chant wasn’t already drilled into my head, it was then. I’m pretty sure the Sabres didn’t really have a shot at the playoffs at that point, but nobody cared about the standings, even if it was just for one night. That game turned me into the die-hard I am today not only because of the win, but because of the crowd. I felt like I was in the happiest place on earth that night (yeah Disney, I said it). The other thing I noticed was that most of the crowd stayed to watch their team to the very end.
I also remember a game in the 08-09 season against the Sharks. It was the night after the plane crash in Clarence that claimed 50 lives. Fortunately, I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, but the crash was roughly 5 miles from my house. Realizing how lucky I was, I was more than amped up for the game, as was the rest of the crowd. Even when the team blew a lead, the final minutes were electric. Everybody was loud, standing up, hanging on the edge of their seats. Then the tying goal found its way in with just seconds remaining. I thought the roof was going to cave in from all the noise.
Those are the Sabres fans I remember. Those are the fans I thought were the best in the league. Those were the fans I considered myself proud to be counted among.
Now, things are different. The arena is like a library most of the time. Sometimes I don’t even feel welcome in the arena. Instead of feeling like part of the group, I feel like I’m being judged when I chant “Let’s go Buffalo!” I’m not sure what happened over the course of the last few years. I try to do my part still. I’ve even started to bring my own Sabres flag to games to wave when the team scores. My friend and I wear our Sabres pajama pants to the games because we like to let people know we love this team, in case the jerseys didn’t give it away. That may have been great a few years ago, but now it feels like we’re walking into the Bell Centre, or the Air Canada Centre for a game. People look at us like we’ve lost our minds. I’ve actually had a Habs fan compliment our fan attire before I’ve heard a Sabres fan say anything.
When I look around now, I see people parading for the exits with 5 minutes to go in a one-goal game like the game has already been won or lost. I can’t imagine the players like looking up after a hard fought victory to find the lower bowl practically cleared out because everyone had this notion that staying the full 60 minutes would be a hindrance to them. It gives Sabres fans a bad image. I would also imagine it makes the players feel like they’re not fighting for much. Obviously, most fans would say they make millions of dollars, and that’s what they should be fighting for. I don’t disagree, but think about when you’ve had a tough day at work. Doesn’t it feel better when there’s someone to support you through it rather than telling you to quit acting like a sissy? Wouldn’t the former situation make you want to press on through a tough stretch?
I imagine that when Stafford scored to tie it up against Philly, he was rather disappointed to see the lower bowl half empty. He may not have shown it, but it probably wasn’t a welcome sight.
I’ve been critical of this team several times, this year included. You can check my Twitter feed, and you’ll see I’ve been a crumudgeon at times. However, I realized recently it’s better, easier, and a lot more fun to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. I see hockey heaven as the whole package. A great team and a great crowd. We seem to be missing both of those right now. Knowing I can’t change the team, I want to try to change the crowd.
I miss the uninhibited passion and the unconditional support. They’ve been replaced with cynicism and skepticism.
I want the unity I’ve felt at games past. I want the feeling that I would have a bunch of other fans behind me if I was getting chirped by an opposing fan. I sense a sort of “everyone for himself” attitude in the crowd. Like I said earlier, I’ve been challenged by fellow Sabres fans for trying to support the team after a goal was given up. I wish I knew I why.
I see some shades of the old crowd. The occasional unified chants, cheering for Miller when he comes up with an amazing save. Unfortunately, it’s become mostly “what have you done for me lately?” and Bronx cheers. It’s upsetting to see the crowd I was once so proud of go away and turn into a crowd of cynics. For the rest of the season, I’ve taken a vow of optimism. When the team goes down by one or two, I believe they can get it back. When they go up by one or two, I believe they can hold the lead and win. I think the crowd would be a lot better if everyone had this attitude.
I know there are fans out there who know what I mean. I’m not blaming the team’s struggles entirely on the crowd, either. They have a lot of things to work on. But I feel the fans should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I heard someone bring up a good point the other day. When impending free agents roll into Buffalo with their current team, I can’t believe they’d be overly excited to come here if they think that’s what the crowd is like. I can also imagine how a player on the team whose contract is about to expire might want to consider his options if he can find a better place to play. It’s a lot easier for a player to get up for a game when they know the 18,690 people in the crowd are cheering for them, rather than against them.
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