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Sports Then and Now




It’s Over In Buffalo, And That’s Not All Bad

Posted on December 18, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

The Buffalo Sabres are still searching for their first Stanley Cup Championship.

It’s an interesting time to be in Buffalo. For so long, we’ve depended on our sports teams to give us some shred of validation, since we’ve been known to the world for blight, blizzards and chicken wings, whose hot sauce is curiously the same shade as the rust on the infamous Rust Belt, by which we have often been defined.

More recently there have been some signs of life in Buffalo. Some say a renaissance is beginning to break out.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently concluded their most successful and best attended convention, here in Buffalo. The draw was the fact that Buffalo has more turn of the century architecture preserved than any major city in North America. Further, other than Chicago, Buffalo is the only city to have signature buildings designed by all four of the first generation of great American architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and H. H. Richardson.

At least two major architectural landmarks downtown—Hotel Statler, and Hotel Lafayette–  have been saved from the wrecking ball by visionary developers, and are being restored to their original opulence.

Buffalo is beginning to garner great reviews in travel sections of such cosmopolitan papers as the New York Times and the Toronto Star. Suddenly the rest of the world is beginning to discover and appreciate Buffalo’s cultural environment which is, in size, scope, diversity and quality, comparable to places like Chicago or Boston. And by “cultural environment,” I mean more than 20 professional theater companies, a world renowned symphony, two world class art museums, a plethora of notable restaurants, extraordinary boutique shopping, distinctive galleries, as well as more than 20 colleges and universities.

Buffalo has been a relative refuge from the global economic downturn. Housing values have continued modest appreciation. Unemployment remains at least a point below the national average’ and private sector employment remains strong.

Unfortunately, the one thing Buffalonians have depended on for a sense of purpose and validation, the Buffalo Sabres and Bills—especially the Bills– have been in decline. And despite all the other signs of regeneration in Buffalo, that still hurts, because the true religion in Buffalo is its sports teams.

While there was little hope for the Bills in the near term, the community was abuzz about the advent of a new owner for the Sabres with deep pockets, a fan’s passion, and a blatant commitment to win the Stanley Cup.

Last season, while the Bills drifted along toward a top draft position, the Sabres coalesced around the new owner, produced well above their pedigrees and actually posted the league’s best record for the second half of the season. After an anti-climactic exit from the first round of the playoffs, hopes were high that the Sabres were on the express elevator to the top of the NHL.

New owner Terry Pegula spared no expense, whether upgrading team facilities or team personnel. Key new players were in place, overpaid, probably, but as long as they produced, no one would care about that. And it appeared the Sabres were among the elite few who could make a legitimate run for the Cup.

The Bills, meanwhile, started the pre-season with low expectations and ended it with even less optimism among the fans. Until game one.

In a classic Buffalo twist of fate, the Bills started out 3-0, highlighted by a dramatic last-second win over perennial division leaders New England, and went on to a 5-2 record and first place in their division. The team was flying high on the arm of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard grad doing everything his Ivy League origins and so called physical limitations said he shouldn‘t be able to do in the NFL: amassing yards, piling up touchdowns and keeping interceptions rare. He rose, in part, on the even more surprising performance of an offensive line that had been the consensus weakest link for the Bills right up until game one, when suddenly they weren’t. And of course the Bills and their quarterback also rode on the MVP level performance of featured back Fred Jackson.

For about nine weeks the Bills continued to amaze fans and foes alike, inspirong hope in their followers. Even after taking an uncharacteristic beating in game eight, from the Jets, in their first home loss of the season, they bounced back against the Redskins in Toronto and continued to look as if they just might be able to get to the playoffs—a feat which in itself would be something that had not been done in a decade—or, dare we imagine, advance.

For nine weeks it was fun to be a Bills fan again. For nine weeks the Buffalo religion was saving the souls and redeeming the lives of fans who for so long had wandered in the wilderness, as memories of great teams of old became increasingly remote and unreal. But then, three blistering defeats, three pathetic performances, followed by two more close but inadequate efforts, and suddenly all sense of hope and destiny was dashed. And then again, another disembowelment, and as the losing streak hit six, the consensus is that this team may not win another game this season.

As the Bills began to stumble, the reaction from most fans was, “at least we have the Sabres.” For a while.

After a strong start the Sabres seem to have settled into a funk of inconsistency and mediocrity. A lack of toughness, a lack of killer instinct, the inability to put together a complete sixty minute performance, have all begun to take their toll. With one-third of the season is now in the books, Buffalo fans are now beginning to wonder if the “new” Sabres will go as far as the old Sabres did last year.

Both teams have played with our emotions more than usual this year, not only from game to game but within games as well. Today the Bills showed signs of life for a short time, coming within 6 of San Diego after falling behind by 16, only to get pummeled the rest of the game.

Last week the Sabres had the Flyers down 3-0 at home, near the end of the first period, only to lose in overtime.  They have won some big games but lost lots of little games. They have given up five shorthanded goals already this season.

And, they have failed to perform well at home. With a road record of 8-3 to date, the Sabres are below .500 at home. And if you analyze the quality of play, you have to feel that even their record, such as it is, overstates the quality of the team we have this year.

After a hopeful start to 2011, the Buffalo Bills have again fallen on hard times.

Terry Pegula spent lots of money on three new acquisitions: Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, and Ville Leino. These three players were supposed to offer just the right tweak to the roster to take the team to the next level. Supposedly they were chosen for a combination of skill and chemistry, and compatibility with the existing players.

So far, at least, the three additions have had more of a subtraction effect on team performance. Several of the call-ups from the farm team in Rochester have had a more positive effect on than any of the expensive new “stars.” And the natives are getting very restless.

After last year’s dramatic turnaround, most fans were willing to give Head Coach Lindy Ruff and General Manager Darcy Regier the benefit of the doubt, and accepted, with only minor trepidation, Pegula’s decision to keep Regier and extend Ruff’s contract. But now that the team seems to be regressing, there are calls for both of their heads as well as calls to trade goaltender Ryan Miller, until now, a team icon.

While there is still hope for the Sabres, perhaps the dirty trick played on fans’ hearts by the Bills has left us more fearful, more doubtful, and much less patient in our assessment of the Sabres.

It is the norm in Buffalo to fall too fast for either team at any sign of life, and to fall too hard at the eventual dashing of said hopes. But this year feels different somehow. This year feels like death for the Bills and it seems like a return to the wilderness for the Sabres.

Our once overflowing cup of hope is full of bitter bark. With each uninspired performance, even in victory, Sabres fans become more anxious and thus less forgiving. And where the Bills are concerned, we’re at the point of gallows humor.

And yes, I blame the Bills for the worst of it. Our relationship with the Bills has entered that “Won’t be fooled again” stage. I have a feeling we won’t be hearing much more about “Fitzmagic,” no matter how strong the Bills might start any future campaign. I can see the Bills going 10-0 and still unable to quell the expectation of a shoe about to drop. This may have been the last time those Bills capture our imaginations. We won’t be fooled again. It’s over. They’ll find a way to lose, to miss the playoffs, even with a ten game run. Because Ralph Wilson has given up.

I mean no disrespect but Wilson seems to want to take the Bills out with him. And it can’t be long now. He may live just long enough to kill the Bills in Buffalo, to make fans so disheartened and disgusted they will be relieved to finally see them go—just as Braves fans were, after being betrayed by an uncommitted ownership.

Ironically, the Bills may join the Braves in LA-la land. And if they do, I hope they carry the same curse with them.

Don’t you feel it? With the ‘lights out” on Fitzmagic, I feel an eerie cosmic shift, a slow, steady hiss of the air going out. The Buffalo Bills are over. It seems inevitable now. Somehow we all know it, and somehow we all are beginning to accept it.

And after they’re gone, we will still have the Sabres. And yes, thanks to Terry Pegula the Sabres will probably eventually win a cup or two. But it seems less likely it will be this year, and maybe not next. Another re-tooling seems necessary. It may or may not involve a change in the front office or behind the bench, but one thing is almost certain. We still don’t have the right players to win the cup.

But Buffalo is a city that refuses to die. Just when the buckle on the “belt” seems “rusted” shut, out of nowhere, something happens to bring a great old landmark back to life, and with it a city and its hopes.

We’re saving the Statler. We’re celebrating that salvation, the redemption that new years always bring, by reviving Ice Ball. I have this strange but certain feeling that the Ice Ball means more than any of us can know about both our ends and our beginnings.

Hopefully the more the city bounces back, the less it will matter if the Bills stay or go, or when we win the Cup. But of course all of that will still matter enough, if less than it might have.

And in the sense that it does and always will matter, here’s the way I see it shaping up.

The Bills are like the live-in boyfriend who kept promising a ring but never delievered. The longer the wait, the stronger that sinking feeling that he can’t or won’t deliver. Hey may not be packing boxes yet, but both he and she know there won’t be a wedding, and both know there won’t be many more auld lang zynes.

The Sabres are like the best friend who’s been in love with her all along, just waiting for her to see the old lout for what he is. Once he’s gone, the best friend becomes the love of her life. Soon enough, the hardware will follow. They may not live happily ever after but they will be deliriously happy for a while, and maybe again.


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