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Hockey, Pandemic Style

There is no doubt the times we are living in are extraordinary. The moments we are creating now will be remembered for a lifetime and many lifetimes beyond ours. If we look at a dictionary definition of “history in the making” we find the following citation, “An event happening now that will be remembered in the future because it is very important.” The definition does not tell us why it is important or to whom. It is generally thought of as an event that the mass population will recall, but in my opinion it can mean anything to anyone. 

There is an event that is happening here quietly in Buffalo that no one is taking notice of nor seems to care about. I understand; I was one of the nonbelievers for a long time until convinced otherwise. A few weeks ago when my son approached me and asked me if I was interested in buying Buffalo Sabres tickets to see the team in KeyBank Center when tickets became available to the public for the first time in over a year, my response was the same as most of yours probably would be. I think my exact words were “You gotta be kidding me, why would I pay to watch that?!” The Sabres at that time were mired in one of the worst losing streaks in NHL history and had become very difficult to watch even for myself. I, like many of you, grew up on the Sabres. For me it was the Blue Seats in the “Aud” and watching the teams of the 80s and early 90s take the ice. Maybe for you it was the team that won our hearts and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. For Buffalonians there are many phrases that will always get an emotional rise. Two of those are the “French Connection” and “No Goal!” But today’s Sabres are different and other unprintable words come readily to mind sometimes watching their struggles. 

My 20-year-old son ended up convincing me to go mainly because he bought the tickets and I went along for the ride begrudgingly with much complaining. One of his main reasons for attending was with the hope to see NHL history in the making as future Hall of Famer Alex Overchkin and his Washington Capitals were facing the Sabres on Friday, April 9th. Ovi had a chance to pass fellow Western New Yorker and Los Angeles Kings Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne for fifth on the most goals scored all time list.

To gain entry to KeyBank Center you must have both COVID-19 vaccines and be fourteen days past your second shot, or a negative test from 72 hours prior or a rapid test within six hours of gametime. (A hint:  Quest Diagnostics has a tent set up across from the arena and the Sabres are offering discounted rapid tests.)

Once I entered the arena, my complaining soon ceased as I realized what a special occasion this might be. Walking through the gates and having the single ticket taker wait for us and no one else to find our tickets on the app and then being the ONLY people on the escalator traversing to our seats was surreal. When I walked out and saw most of the lower bowl covered and looked around at the few others scattered around the reality of what I was about to see truly hit me. Think if you will of a true VIP hockey experience where the team is playing for you and about 500 of your closest friends. At our seats were Sabres goodie bags with a letter hoping we enjoyed the game. The sheer wonder of being the only two people in the entire section was incredulous as I began to think of all of the other Sabres games I have attended in a packed arena. As Doug Allen’s majestic voice echoed in the rafters and soon after the puck dropped, the game took on another level. Think if you will of watching your son or daughter play in a local rink. The sounds of the game, skates on ice, a booming slapshot, the chatter from the bench and the ice. Then knowing that this is an official NHL game and only you and a very few select others are watching it live. 

The author hanging out with his new “friends” at the game.

I stood up to heckle Zdeno Chara and it is an odd feeling to KNOW that a 6’9” NHL veteran can HEAR you and he looked directly at me. After getting the evil eye, I sat down amongst my other “friends” around me. The nice thing about them was they didn’t mind me standing up or walking back and forth, for I was nestled amongst the cardboard cutouts that the team sold to fans to attend the game in their stead. 

Washington’s 4th goal scored by Jakub Vrana. The cutouts seem unimpressed.

As the teams skated and played throughout the period, the whole reason my son attended happened right in front of us. Ovechkin scored his 21st goal of the season, leaving him five goals shy of Dionne’s record 731 career goals. Ovi is one of my son’s favorite players and seeing the joy on his face when finally getting to see his idol score in person was a priceless moment. But what of our Sabres as this goal would put them in a 2-0 deficit? 

Fans, this is where I think you need to think strongly about coming to the arena and watching these Sabres play. These are not the “scary good” Sabres of old, but a YOUNG team that is finally learning how to play together and give us a glimpse of the future. This night was a glimpse of Sam Reinhart at Center Ice, of Arttu Ruotsalainen’s first NHL game, and of a defense pairing that may be here to stay. Rasmus Dahlin looks like the smooth skater we longed for when he was drafted and his defense partner, fellow youngster Henri Jokiharju with his blister of a wrister brought the score to 2-1. These Sabres are playing with fun and purpose. The hot hand of the reinvigorated Casey Mittelstadt who showed off a pair of “sick mitts” as he scored a beauty of a goal to bring the team within one in the second period, giving him four goals and two assists in six games. When Washington scored the goal to give them a two-goal edge in the third period, the team that we watched for the past few months may have succumbed at that point. These young bucks, however, were not finished and played hard and pushed the envelope to try and get the equalizer. Tage Thompson who has three goals in five games, potted the last goal of the night, but unfortunately the team lost this one to the Washington Capitals 4-3. 

When you take your seat in KeyBank Center before the end of this year and experience this unique setting, the team that takes the ice will not be one you are used to seeing. They are a genuinely fun team to watch. There is frustration with the years behind us and with wanting to get back to a packed house both literally and figuratively, but this team WILL entertain you. They will bring you out of your seats as Rasmus Ristolainen delivers a good-old-fashioned hip check for the Carubba Gerber Collision of the game. 

Sabretooth in his lonely perch.
The author and his son’s tv appearance. (No I was NOT Sleeping!)

I was the biggest skeptic of going to this game, of this experience. I made up a thousand excuses why I didn’t want to go, but I was blatantly wrong. Sitting in an NHL arena designed for 18,000 people and knowing you are witnessing something unique and special is an awe-inspiring moment. When Sabretooth points at YOU and only you to lead the cheer, it is special. Being on television and the jumbotron were things I always wanted to do–Cross both of those bucket list items off in the same game. 

If you think about not going, think again about what YOU can give to this team, to OUR team that plays for the pride of OUR city and the Blue and Gold. These kids, like Arttu Ruotsalainen, have waited their entire lives to play in the greatest league in the world. Let your voice be the deafening one that he hears as he makes his dream come true, not the resounding silence of the past year. 

Thank you to my son, Jake, for helping me make history this night and for letting me experience it with him firsthand–Arttu’s first game and Jake’s first time watching Ovi find the twine. 

Written by Paul Langendorfer

Paul Langendorfer

Paul Langendorfer is an avid sports fan with a deep passion for the National Pastime, especially when it comes to the New York Yankees. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Paul holds a B.A. from Canisius College, a M.A. from the University of Colorado at Denver. He is the author of the book Baseball in Buffalo. His current project is a contributor to the Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020 book, which is being published by Billoni Associates Publishing and is due to be released in October. Paul currently resides in Buffalo with his wife and two children.

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