Excelsior

By Ryan

I didn’t think I would be this calm. Last year, after Game 7 against the Hurricanes, I cried. There, I’ll admit it. I was alone driving around in my car, and I just started crying. It started building as soon as the empty net goal was scored, and I really felt it when I said goodbye to my mother; her eyes were already welling up.

I cried because we lost, but it was also what else I was losing. Ever since I was a little boy, I dreamed of the day one of my teams would win a championship and I could come in to school celebrating. It’s been a strange dream of mine since I can remember, to be able to just hug strangers, proudly wear a jersey and know you are the best team out there. I even just wanted to consider going in to school, or taking the day off to celebrate at home. The Red Sox winning it all in 2004 was amazing, but it wasn’t the same as having everyone in it with you. I wanted that joy.

So when last year’s Eastern Conference Finals ended, so ended that dream with it. It was more than that, however. I was losing my place in the world, graduating high school and moving on to bigger and more foreign things. All of my friends were going elsewhere, and I knew from that moment on I would be alone in a strange place.

Everything was changing, and that Sabres season abruptly ending characterized everything that was happening in my life. It’s amazing how much a hockey team becomes a part of you. Mine and many lives throughout the area were modeled on this team. The emotions and turmoil of a season carried into my life as well. When this team slumped, so to did my life. When we were rolling, this city rolled right along with it.

Why is it, then, that I was emotionless when Daniel Alfredsson shot alluded Ryan Miller? After all, I was in the building, and was just as shocked as everyone else in Western New York. What was it that made my face stone and my mouth wordless at 9:22 of the first overtime?
Honestly, I still don’t know. The goal was a surprise, yes. Anyone can tell you that. Anyone can also tell you that the Senators should have been celebrating minutes before that after a miracle stick save by Miller in front of a yawning net just three minutes in. A true hockey fan also realizes that Maxim Afinogenov’s power play goal doesn’t happen if not for the refs evening things up after a questionable string of penalties and non calls against the Sabres in the second period. (Penalties that were not capitalized on, mind you)

The point is this: they had their chances. A power play with just over two minutes left is more than enough to send the series back to Kanata. In no way am I dogging the Sabres’ effort, but to me it’s clear that this was their game to lose. The same can be said for the other two home games. If we win the third period of Game 1 this series is completely different. An overtime goal in Game 2 does the same.

No, there are so many examples of “what if” and “should have,” and after all these years, that’s all we are left with. Personally, I am sick of it. No matter what should have happened, or what did happen, here’s what I know.

This may have been the best chance we had to win something. Ever. Think about this team, the learning curve the rest of the league has had to conform to. Free agency is looming. The “New NHL” is getting older and older, and this team isn’t getting any younger. But those questions are for later on, and once again, we as fans have nothing to do with them.

What we can affect, however, is the legacy this series will end up holding. The city of Buffalo has been on a roller coaster ride with this team since the lockout ended. Not only were there 18,690 people inside HSBC Arena practically willing this team to win, but there was another 10,000 fans outside. Yes, almost 30,000 people converged on downtown Buffalo for one hockey game. The absurdity of that statement is only matched by the impact the team has made on the city. That is not mere dedication, folks, that’s love. Others can say what they want, but this city loves its sports teams, whether good or bad.

If you want to knock this city or this area in any way, you better learn about us first. Ask around. Ask those tens of thousands that were downtown, praying for a miracle. Ask the people that silently filed out of the city, fleeing as if a horrific crime had been committed. It was the biggest murder in Buffalo’s history, 30,000 of hearts ripped out at once. Maybe that’s why I said nothing, what happened in there truly was unspeakable.

You see, sometimes it’s about more than just a game. Hockey is a wonderful, exciting, amazing sport; but this is about more than that. This is about the feeling of a team taking a city on its back. This is about the magic that comes from hockey meaning more than everyday life. Playoff beards overrule wedding tuxes. Graduation ceremonies cut short to make it home for face off. A week’s salary handed over just to feel that arena buzz.

This isn’t Mudville, there is no poetic license. This is Buffalo, and the cold hard truth of defeat. It is during moments like these where we realize we may never have it. There may never be a victory parade, and we may never be able to tell our children where we were when “it” happened. Thoughts like this keep me and thousands of others awake some nights, terrified by an uncertain future.

But maybe that is the wonderful thing about this city. Through all that pain, all the hurt of unfulfilled expectations, and the harsh realities of a declining city, we still exist. Sometimes existing is just half of the battle, a battle in which those that remain are more than willing to fight. In all my years this city has been hurt many times, but it has never been broken.

And so we will shed our tears and wonder what could have been. As summer sets in and flowers bloom, our attention will be split once again as lives go back to normal. The spring will fade into memories as we try to once again move on. After all, it’s only sports, right?

No. Wrong. It’s everything, and that’s why it matters.