If this was a hyperbole-laden SI piece, I’d start by calling the BankAtlantic Center a “gleaming new temple to a god shunned by the locals.” Or something like that. The bottom line is that the BAC is a great building supporting a struggling team in arguably the worst hockey market in the country. Last Wednesday night I made the 35-mile trek up from Miami to Sunrise for the Sabres game, and encountered nothing that gave me cause to change that opinion. It wasn’t my first trip to the arena, but it was the first Sabres game I’d been to there. What followed can only be described as strange. A hockey game in a non-hockey market is indeed an odd experience.
I arrived at the arena about 5 minutes after the puck dropped (Don’t ever take 75 without checking to see if there’s construction first), and immediately found a spot on the outskirts of the arena’s enormous lot. Say what you want about the Panthers as an organization, but they definitely understand the importance of adequate parking. Rocking my new pro-weight Ryan Miller jersey, I felt good about the state of the universe as I made the quarter-mile hike in from the parking lot.
Before I even got the the box office on the far side of the arena, I was intercepted by the scalper. Not a scalper, the scalper. There was one guy scalping tickets. Again, I guess it’s the market. My point in this is that I’ve always been a friend to the scalper (generally out of necessity), so I figured I’d see what he had. I walked away after dropping $40 on a $110 seat fifteen rows from the ice. Granted it was a corner seat, but for what I paid I’m certainly not complaining.
The girl who scanned my ticket offered to bet me that the Sabres were going to win. I politely declined. (More because the Panthers always seem to play us tough than anything) Still, that’s sort of…not a good sign, right? When members of your organization are offering to bet patrons that their team is going to lose?
Getting to my seat about 12 minutes into the first period, I was told by an usher that I “didn’t have to look for your exact seat; most of that section’s free.” Again, I appreciate the honesty but…c’mon.
The first period came to an end and I circled the spacious 100-level concourse to see if I could get a feel for the makeup of the crowd. What little I saw of the opening period was pretty quiet, so crowd noise was no indicator. Once I got into the concourse however, I realized that the crowd was easily 40% Sabres fans. To tell the truth, what really made my night (game aside) was the bizarre sequence of interactions I had with some of these fellow Buffalonians:
A guy in a Tim Connoly goat-head jersey spied me from across the hall, pointed at me, screamed “Go Sabres!” and then proceeded to give me a combination chest-bump/rump-slap. I was confused, but whatever. We’re on the same side.
Continuing my wanderings, I ran into a crowd of about 40 like-minded people in blue and gold. I arrived about 20 seconds before a loud, raucous “Let’s Go Buff-a-lo!” broke out. The Panthers fans around us did not retaliate, they did not counter-cheer, they simply avoided our side of the corridor, shrinking back along the far wall.
The first minutes of the second period brought the game’s only goal. Honestly, it was nice to see with my own eyes that Vanek is not dead. As the period went on however, I noticed a few more things that can only be categorized as “the Panthers being the Panthers.” For one thing, as far as I can tell, their powerplay song is “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” complete with the SNL “More Cowbell” clip as an intro. Bizarre.
Also, at one point during a stoppage in play, a promo ad began to play on their jumbotron. This in itself is not weird. What was a little hinky about the whole thing was that the background music during this time was the Sabre Dance. This was not meant as irony, I promise. They just…didn’t know.
Feeling pretty good after the second period, I had another series of entertaining encounters with fellow Buffalo backers. I chatted briefly (and unsuccessfully, I might add) with a couple of pretty girls in those “I Heart Buffalo Hockey” shirts all the trendy hockey fan girls seem to like so much. After cutting bait with that situation, I got in line for a delicious $8 draft, but realized the line was way too long (and that as a college student, I am morally forbidden from spending eight freaking dollars on a 12-ounce Bud Light).
While returning to my seat, I caught a glimpse of a gentleman in an original-style white Sabres jersey. I got a few steps past him before hearing him call out, in one of the best Rick Jeanneret impressions I’ve ever heard, “Miller!” (Any Sabres fan knows exactly what I’m talking about, unfortunately I can’t figure out how to appropriately translate it into writing)
I turned around, saw that the guy was wearing a #16 jersey with the “C,” so I responded in the only way I could think of: with my best attempt at a “LalalalalalaLafontaine!”
The third period was as standard as a 1-0 game could be, I guess. A couple of opportune poke checks in the defensive zone kept the Panthers frustrated, and Miller (thankfully) didn’t let in his once-a-game softie. After the final buzzer, I navigated the great distance back to lot D67 and managed to locate my car. That in itself was a small miracle, because I apparently have a form of ADD that makes me forget where my car is the moment I park anywhere.
Drew Stafford injury aside, it was a good night of hockey, and it also gave me a chance to see how the atmosphere of a hockey game is different in a non-hockey market. It was an interesting experience for sure, but man…I’ll take a Party in the Plaza over a beautiful, half-empty building in South Florida any day of the week.