A fairly innocuous observation between Eric and myself on the last Instigator Podcast has suddenly become a big story in hockey circles. Maybe if there was hockey being played this wouldn’t even matter. But since this ridiculous lockout continues, Max Afinogenov’s inclusion on the Alumni Plaza mural is a story.To offer a recap, Afinogenov was included on a photo mural of former Sabres that adorns the walkway in the newly anointed Alumni Plaza. The decision to cover the walkway with former Sabres was not only a decision likely forced by the lockout (and inability to use current players for promotions) and the convenient fact that the creation of the Plaza would make the black and white headshot mural quite out of place. For what it’s worth, the team picture mural concept was getting old fast and I commend the Sabres for having a new option that they can renew each season, if they so choose.
Afinogenov is one of the last players pictured and is sandwiched between Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller. Both Drury and Afinogenov are featured in “slug” jerseys and tie together the current era of team history on the mural. The question surrounding Afinogenov’s inclusion asks not only how deserving he is of the honor and how many other Sabre greats were passed over for him.
However, I understand why he is part of the mural. While former greats like Hawerchuk and Ray were not included, they played during a time as players such as Pat LaFontaine, Alex Mogilny and Dominik Hasek – all of whom are included on the mural from the mid-90s. It is clear that the mural was designed to embrace every era of the team and not just to serve as a ring of honor of past greats.
When you consider the most recent years of Sabres hockey, there are some slim pickings for players to choose from. This is two-fold because many ex-players are still in the league or don’t have the credentials to justify their inclusion. As Eric pointed out on our podcast, Afinogenov was the leading scorer on that magical 2005-06 team. He also had the rare ability to create a buzz every time he touched the puck. Of course, that buzz often turned to boos late in his career. But he still had a profound effect on the fanbase. For those reasons, he certainly could serve as a worthy placeholder on the mural.
However, he isn’t someone many fans likely think of as a Sabre great. While I understand and embrace the goal of including every era of team history in this design, I think ceding recent alumni for those whose history with the club was more profound would have made a bit more sense. It would have caused for less debate at the very least.
Another thing to consider is that this mural will change on a yearly basis just as the team pictures did in previous seasons. If that’s the case – and it’s not a stretch to assume it is – you can expect to see a new roster of alumni portrayed up there on a yearly basis. That could mean Hasek in red and black (Eric will be so pleased) and the debut of King Kong Korab and even Hawerchuk.
Dale Hawerchuk and Rob Ray are probably the two most obvious snubs from the mural. Others to consider are the Knox brothers, Ted Darling and – as John Vogl pointed out – Don Luce. The big picture shows more of a focus on celebrating the entire history of the franchise more than individuals. If this was truly supposed to highlight the greatest players in Sabres history, there probably would be far fewer current players and more individually iconic players.
A safe bet will be that this mural will change from time to time. When it changes, expect to see some various combinations of players. Maybe one will include more of an enforcer motif with players like Korab, Ray, Playfair and Barnaby. Perhaps there will be a Stanley Cup or playoff version that revisits big moments from franchise history.
The best part of the Alumni Plaza is that encompasses all of the Buffalo Sabres’ alumni, not just the ones enshrined in the Hall of Fame. While it may lead to some questionable choices when it comes to the mural, it opens the door for some equally cool decisions to be made.