The National Hockey League lockout is sucking the life out of Buffalo.
First off, whether you like hockey or not, it should make you want to take pitch forks to the streets the way that it's eating businesses alive and punching people in the face who rely on the Buffalo Sabres for income. It's also beating down the moral of the city like Mike Tyson on Michael Spinks.
If you've ever been here for a playoff run, you get the full effect of the Sabres' presence on the pride of the city. It's pretty amazing, really. But at the moment, that sense of pride has been chopped. And it doesn't look like it's getting better any time soon. Most of us probably had the feeling that the league would start in December, but chances of that took a serious hit on Friday when the league axed games through Dec. 15 and the All-Star Game. Now it's feeling more and more like we're standing on the edge of the cliff looking down.
While the NHL and its players been taking their sweet time working out a new collective bargaining agreement, plenty of fans have made their way to Rochester Americans games. On Friday night, in fact there were 8,781 at Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester – a near sellout.
For the first time in a long time, I decided to sit in the stands as the Amerks faced the Albany Devils. In the last year or so, my only exposure to the sport has either been writing in the press box at Blue Cross Arena or working behind the scenes on the Buffalo Sabres Radio Network. Last season, there was some sort of hockey in my life nearly every day. But with the Sabres locked out, covering the Americans once per week has been my only exposure. That isn't close to enough.
I didn't decided to attend the game with the fans just because it had been awhile. I needed to get away from the frustration of the lockout and simply enjoy the game. Lately, we've all been far too angry at hockey when we really should be only enraged with the idiot parade that runs the NHL.
I've been in the press box for every home game this year, but the it's nothing like being in the stands. In the box, you are focused on a story about a player or a theme. You rack your brain for who you need to interview post-game. You worry about a lead vanishing in the final minute and making waste of all the time you spent writing and thinking about your story. It’s great work, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t the same as relaxing in the stands and taking it all in.
You also can’t feel the crowd in the press box, either. When your head is down, thinking deeply about the story – OK, OK, and arguing with people on Twitter - the crowd noise and music ends up sounding like the ocean in the background.
On Friday, I didn’t want to hear the ocean. I wanted to feel the crowd.
A long time ago, I learned that Blue Cross Arena is a good place to watch a hockey game. It was in the late 90s when my father and I watched Rochester legend Jody Gage have his number retired in front of a crowd that was near-capacity, engaged and loud.
WGR’s Jeremy White reminded me of that game on Twitter in between periods on Friday night. Jeremy noted that, because of the lockout, he had been missing the feeling of watching someone be “the best player on the ice.”
Me too. I remembered sitting way up in the stands with my dad, high above the goaltender, watching a young Sabres prospected named Eric Rasmussen be the best player on the ice. He scored, he fought. He was awesome.
I wasn’t surprised to find the arena’s snug stands similarly stacked with Amerks and Sabres fans on Friday night. It was just like the 90s. For a few years pre-Pegula, the Amerks struggled to draw while they were unfortunately affiliated with the Florida Panthers. This, of course, was a problem seeing as most people in Western New York think the Panthers either are an ECHL team or just flat out shouldn’t be in the league.
It was different then. It was so quiet during the Panthers years you could hear the goalie breathing. It was darn near sacrilegious.
But hockey is great again in Rochester. Pegula's influence is apparent from the minute the lights go down and a beautifully edited highlight video comes on the HD video board – a feature that didn't exist during the Amerks' time with the Panthers.
The fans aren't just fans. They are fans who know their stuff. They cheer when the Amerks clear the puck on the penalty kill, not just when there's a goal or fight. They also know all the players. The people surrounding me in the tight section 226 - one of the only sections still available when I bought tickets three hours before puck drop – were as knowledgeable about the Rochester stars as folks at First Niagara Center are about the Sabres.
There were plenty of opportunities for the crowd to cheer. Two first period goals by undrafted AHL rookie Brian Flynn had the Amerks up 2-0 after one. In between goals, there was a scrum or two, a couple power plays, a few big hits and a combination of 80s rock and Taylor Swift. More or less, a little something for everybody. The guy in front of me – a 40-something Italian man with big glasses, dressed in a slug jacket – jumped up after both goals and said, “we win the Super Bowl!” Everybody high-fived and play carried on.
In the second period, goaltending was on display. The Devils put 17 shots on netminder David Leggio, who is a Buffalo native and was last year's Amerks MVP (and, in my opinion is talented enough to play in the NHL). Leggio went into full battle mode as shots came at him from all angles. Sitting closer than in my usual press box perch, I got the full breadth of the goaltender's quickness and anticipation of 90 mph shots, many of which would change directions at the very last moment. It was chill-worthy.
Mistakes are a great part of the AHL. If you don't think mistakes can make sports more entertaining, see: Football, College. Just like NCAA football, leads can disappear quickly and big plays are much more common than in the pros. In Friday night's game, the fun of imperfection came in the form of two short-handed goals by defenseman T.J. Brennan. The first, with just 24 seconds left in the second period, came via a sneaky-quick steal of the puck by captain Kevin Porter, who fed a streaking Brennan for the tap-in goal. Super Bowl!
In the third period, Flynn made a similar play, passing to Brennan for the goal after anticipating the Devils' player's pass and out-racing them down the ice. Of course, the Amerks were wonderfully imperfect, too. Turnovers and missed assignments led to two goals for the Devils. But the 8-6-1-0 Rochester team was simply better than Albany, who came in dead last in the AHL. With under a minute left, Flynn scored his third of the night and hats fluttered. He was, as we like to say, “the best player on the ice.”
When it was all over, the entire Amerks roster saluted the crowd, much like the New York Rangers do after every home win – and what every damn team better do when this lockout is over. The players can't get enough of the huge crowds. The crowds can't get enough of exciting games. It was just about then when I was ready to stand up, throw up my fists in the air and declare my undying allegiance to the AHL and declare the NHL dead to me forever.
But something changed my mind. As I was walking out of the arena, I overheard a boy, maybe 11 or 12, asking his dad, “who's that guy on the Sabres that I really like?” His dad answered, “is it Pominville?” No. “Miller?” No. “Gerbe?” The boy got a big smile on his face and said emphatically, “Yes, dad. He's so small but he works so hard and hits guys. He's my favorite player.”
The AHL is terrific. But it isn't the NHL. The Amerks enhance the Sabres, they don't replace them. Watching Rochester's club makes you appreciate how good the Sabres are and how hard players have to work to get to The Show. It doesn't make you forget Nathan Gerbe. It makes you appreciate Gerbe more. It's a great two-and-a-half hours. When I was walking out, though, all I could think about is how much we need hockey. How much we need the life breathed back into Buffalo.