Searching for Hockey Heaven

A clarion call should go out to the league and to hockey players everywhere, that Buffalo is hockey heaven. – Ted Black, February 22, 2011

Those words will be difficult to forget. It marked the start of what was expected to be a long, happy relationship between the Buffalo Sabres and their fans. However, just over two years later things aren’t as rosy as they were on Pegula Day.

Give Terry Pegula and his management team credit, they took strides towards improving things on and off the ice. They renovated the locker room, upgraded the concourses and introduced numerous new features throughout the arena in an effort to make First Niagara Center a hockey mecca. The under construction HARBORcenter project proves just that. Pegula even gave the go-ahead to empty the Brinks truck in free agency as the Sabres went out and snagged a pair of the most sought after free agents in the 2011 crop.

Yet, here we are. The Sabres are languishing for a second-straight season, the coach has been fired and the hot topic of conversation now centers around booing. It seems like Buffalo has become Hockey Purgatory, not Hockey Heaven.

All of the good will generated in the 2011 offseason seems to have been erased by two seasons of largely lethargic hockey and below average results. Losses on the ice have transformed to frustration in the stands as the ever enlightened fan base with the high #hockeyIQ has resorted to booing at the drop of a hat at some points this year. Now, as the Sabres draw closer to a lottery selection than a playoff spot, the question I ask is: How far gone is the mindset of Hockey Heaven?

This isn’t about the incessant boos the rain down on the team almost every night. Booing isn’t a subject I care to delve into as fans will always have the liberty to do whatever they please with their tickets; particularly when the product they’re paying to see is underperforming. Of course, that doesn’t mean that piling on a group of players who only have a partial responsibility in the current situation doesn’t seem like the best way to spend that energy.

Perhaps if they at least waited until the end of a particularly horrid period, no need to jump on a team after one or two shifts in a game they’re winning.

Regardless, what I’ve begun to wonder is what the growing volatility within First Niagara Center will do for the Sabres rep with players around the league. Even with the dazzling locker room and the bottomless pockets and sincerity of the owner; how attractive is Buffalo going to be for those outside the organization?

When Pegula flew to Calgary it was on the promise of a state-of-the-art locker room, win now mentality and plans for a major haul in free agency. That attitude helped shape Robyn Regehr’s opinion of the team he was going to. Perhaps, with his help, the Sabres would become a true contender and take a deep run into the playoffs. Now Regehr is in Los Angeles after playing a year-and-a-half for a struggling team in front of a listless fan base that has been called out for its reticence more so than its rowdiness in that time frame.

Less than a week after the departure of a trio of veterans, Steve Ott has been the focus of many hockey outlets for his stance on the support his team is getting. In fact, he worries that the storm clouds hovering over the team could have a long-term effect.

If I’m a UFA guy or trying to attract players, there’s nothing better than coming into a building knowing, ‘Wow, this is a fun place to play.’ And that’s obviously concerning in the aspect of UFAs and trying to attract the right players into the Buffalo Sabres. – Steve Ott

In this case Ott is right. Young players and guys around the league don’t want to see a team that trots onto the ice only to get piled on by the home fans. It is a bad message to send and raises red flags about an organization with enough surrounding them already.

In fact, one report indicated that a player was not willing to waive his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo at the deadline. Less than two years after Robyn Regehr saw enough to waive his, Buffalo slid back to the ranks of undesirables amongst some in the league.

Now, the team’s place in the standings and pending rebuild could have had more to do with that decision than how the player felt about the organization. But something to remember is that everything is related. If the organization isn’t headed in the right direction, the team will play poorly and the fans will react negatively. It is a vicious cycle.

I’m not all that concerned with fan morale at this point. I’ve sat and listened to fans spin yarns based on their limitless hockey knowledge despite 75% of them being incorrect (like Brandon Wheat King and Memorial Cup champion Mark Pysyk). To me, this is a fan base that has become intoxicated with the idea that they’re part of a “great hockey town” and that ego allows them to scoff at anything that doesn’t resemble the 1980s era Oilers.

The key needs to be the on-ice product and the attitude in the locker room. This needs to be an organization that players want to come play for. Build a winning attitude in the locker room and it will reflect on the ice and on into the stands. The general manager needs to take strides towards improving the roster for today while securing what he has for tomorrow.

Regier (or whoever replaces him) won’t be convincing any players to waive a no movement clause this summer, especially if Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are sent out of town. However, If he is able to use the currency of picks and prospects at his disposal, he can acquire NHL talent that can play on the roster immediately. This rebuild is going to be just as much about the 2013-14 Sabres as it will be about futures and stockpiling picks and prospects.

Buffalo has 11 picks in the first two rounds of the next three drafts. They also have a handful of promising prospects in the pipeline that will eventually have an opportunity to impact the NHL club. Packaging some of these assets with the proven NHL players already on the roster will allow Regier to continue to build his club without fully sacrificing one particular aspect of the team. While this summer’s deals likely won’t yield a Cup contender next year, they don’t need to be step one in a five-year plan.

Sabres fans have a right to be disappointed with their team. The people that set out to create Hockey Heaven two years ago are still staring up that mountain. The key now is to prove that this will ultimately turn into Hockey Heaven, despite this year’s hiccup.

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