Shades of Gray

I used to have a lucky shirt.

Actually, I used to have a couple. The first one I remember was a gray Sabres shirt with the red and black Buffalo on it. During the 1996-97 season they went on a big unbeaten streak and I was going to Catholic school. Sometime during that 12-game run in late January and February I started wearing that shirt on game nights, trading my uniform of green pants and green sweater vest for a different sort of uniform altogether.

That was the year I really fell in love with hockey. The Sabres used that regular season run to win the Northeast and make a run in the playoffs. I remember going to the mall to get a “Northeast Division Champions” shirt when they clinched it. The season wasn’t even over but that shirt, a slightly different shade of gray, became my go-to shirt after school.

Washes were scheduled on off-days, because I wasn’t alone in this thing. Pizza became the family’s go-to dinner as the temperatures rose outside and the Sabres went deeper into the playoffs. That’s how I learned to follow hockey: slowly slipping into the rush of emotions along with everyone else. Lunch in the Prince of Peace cafeteria was filled with coin hockey games (although we used the hook ‘em horns as a goal).

The Sabres had better results (you know, relatively speaking) in the playoffs when I was growing up, but that season was really the start of it all with hockey. Football came first, but I learned something about superstitions and sports that year. Those shirts, those rituals and game day habits, those are what we focus on during the good kind of streaks. We all do it at some point. Even if it’s simply fighting off that irrational thought in your mind about what to wear or what to do. Once you go through it, that’s always there.

I was thinking about those lucky shirts on Saturday night as the Sabres were letting yet another road game slip away. I don’t have lucky shirts anymore, and I’m not really sure where those gray shirts are these days. Every shirt in my closet is a men’s large, and none of them mean as much as those Sabres shirts once did.

Things change. You get bigger and look at things differently. I haven’t played coin hockey in years and tend to look at things objectively now. My job demands it, sure, but objectivity is an easier go of it with this team lately. There’s so much loathing and bad energy around this season that it’s easy to just push it away.

Winning streaks bring people together, but no one wants to grasp on to much of anything when the losing comes.

Right now, no one wants a piece of this team. Fans would much prefer they blow it apart, package up the pieces parts and send them to the other cities they don’t much care for. As the losses mount and the bad kind of streaks grow longer, the pressure builds. Something has to happen. Something must change.

The rational part of me says that nothing will. Terry Pegula, Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier are sticking around, and no one in that triumvirate has an itchy trigger finger. There are no plans to blow it all up, no matter how many road losses this team mounts.

I’d like to think the bad streaks can teach you something about hockey. About fandom. There’s got to be a reason to sit through all the bad. If there’s a lesson in those hops towards the roof, there must be lessons in the dips on the graph as well.

I’m starting to think that losing streaks don’t teach you as much as they make you forget what you’re already learned. All that losing can hide all the things you actually like about hockey and the team you call your own. The color, the emotion, everything you build during those days and weeks of winning gets buried in monotone grief. Shades of gray much different than my favorite shirts.

Those memories I have are never really coming back. The Summit Park Mall is dead and that store I ran around in with my brand new shirt closed well before the wake. Prince of Peace re-branded itself and changed its uniforms. So have the Sabres.

That’s not what anyone wants, really. The past was never really all that great, especially for a team that’s never actually won anything important. What fans want is to feel connected again. They want a reason to come together. The big payoff can come later, or maybe never. It’s never really stopped anyone from coming back before. More than anything, the Sabres need a new streak, or at least stop the one they’re currently on.

We don’t know how deep the bottom of this thing is. I said that earlier in the week and, two more losses later, we still don’t know. It might get worse. I have no idea. I’m just a kid wearing bigger shirts that doesn’t believe in superstitions anymore.

I do believe that there will be a bottom, and soon enough we’ll hit it. Then we can work our way back up and remember all the reasons why we all went swimming in the first place. Who knows, maybe there’s something worth seeing down there after all.

Either way, I hope I still have that shirt somewhere.