It was nearly two years ago to the day that I ran this post about the Sabres putting on their own version of a skills competition. Obviously the Sabres and Pegula Sports appreciate my very big brain and think all of my ideas are very good. The best ideas you’ve ever seen.
Kidding aside, the Sabres resurrected a practice they dabbled with in the 90s, with the Sabres Skills Challenge. I’d venture a guess that Sabres Showdown, which debuted during the 2016-17 season was a litmus test for the full-scale event from this past Sunday, and they knocked it out of the park.
Going into Sunday I was worried that the fans may not show and there would be scores of empty seats which would likely doom any future iteration of the event. But the lower bowl and 200 level were each well-filled with some spill over into the 300 level. The Buffalo News reported the attendance to be just shy of 10,000, which is a pretty good turnout for something that a vast majority of the fanbase probably hadn’t seen previously.
The entire affair took just over an hour to complete and the Sabres Store was packed to the gills after the fact. Concessions weren’t overcrowded and from what I observed there were plenty of kids enjoying seeing the Sabres up close and personal. The special jerseys the players donned looked terrific and even though there was maybe a little lack of compete in some of the drills, it was a lot of fun to watch, especially Tage Thompson in the shootout and the Remi Elie, Marco Scandella, Rasmus Ristolainen trio in the 3-on-0 drill.
All of the comments in Sunday’s wake were positive and while some of the drills lacked the necessary juice for the players to really dazzle the crowd – understandable given the need to prevent injury – this seems to have set the table for an ongoing event.
My hope is that future iterations will include the Amerks alongside their Sabres counterparts. That would require the challenge to go longer than an hour, which might be a dealbreaker, but it would add a bit more excitement and would allow more players to participate in events appropriate to their skillset. For example, if Alex Nylander, Victor Olofsson were present they could have taken the place of Scandella or Wilson in the 3-on-0 portion.
Including the Amerks would further incentivize fans from the Rochester area to venture to KeyBank Center for the Skills Challenge while also opening the door for other fun stuff like additional uniform combinations, an Amerks vs. Sabres format and the chance to pit prospects against vets across the board.
It was probably a challenge to find an ideal date when both the Sabres and Amerks had enough down time to rendezvous in Buffalo for the Skills Challenge. The Sabres were in the midst of a light portion of the schedule but the Amerks would’ve been traveling to Buffalo after a back-to-back in Laval. Including the Amerks in the future isn’t a guarantee due to scheduling conflicts but it would be the logical next step for the event if the Sabres are thinking of growing It further.
My friend who accompanied me to the event and I both foresaw a scenario in which the Sabres use non-rostered goaltenders in future iterations. Inviting goalies from the Jr. Sabres, using their stock of emergency backups or finding goalies from other organizations (UB’s club team comes to mind) would be a treat for the guys who were invited and would completely eliminate any opportunity for Buffalo’s starter or backup to be injured trying to make a difficult save on an unusual play. Using invite goalies possibly motivate the players to try a bit more on certain drills since they also wouldn’t have to worry about putting Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark in a vulnerable position on a 3-on-0 or shootout attempt.
They don’t really need to do much of anything to the event though. It was an entertaining way to get fans into the arena who may not otherwise see the team in-person and it was packaged in an easily digestible span of time. I never felt like time was being wasted and even though the Sabres opted to skip fastest skater – a good decision as there’s a risk of injury – each event was enjoyable. I might’ve sprung for some form of souvenir if they opted to produce some Skills Challenge merch. Perhaps next year they’ll have some pucks or other Skills Challenge branded apparel or other collectibles.
Even if they don’t, I’m looking forward to the 2020 version of the Sabres Skills Challenge.