My life officially began October 5, 1989.
I know, chronologically, I’d just celebrated seven years of wandering ’round the blue planet … but that era’s foggier than a San Francisco morning. As I grow older, depressingly, I remember even less. I’m told early childhood was quite pleasant – overflowing with toys, games, smiles and discovery.
But oh, do I remember donning my nicest threads to my induction as a red-blooded Western New Yorker: My very first Sabres game at the Aud.
My grandfather held season tickets (in the blue section, left corner behind the shoot-twice goal, next to some foul-mouthed, casually racist old hag) and, I suppose as a gesture of good faith hoping I’d someday repay him, took me to the season opener as my birthday present.
Before the game, we ducked into this swanky backroom restaurant/lounge where a luxurious prime-rib buffet awaited in a smoke-filled cathedral with numbered tables. I remember the chocolate chip cookies. They weren’t my mom’s, but they sufficed.
When I was plopped into my creaky, faded-blue wooden chair, I opened the program in my lap, and I desperately tried to learn the numbers of each player, and took a crash-course in scorekeeping. Ready, here we go.
The lights dimmed, and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blared over the loudspeaker. I emphasize loud. I’d never heard a noise so deafening in all my life, and while the rest of the 17,000 strong whipped neon-glowing plastic pucks onto the ice to commence the Sabres’ 20th anniversary, I covered my ears. I’d make a habit of doing so in response to similar crowdbursts, and especially along with the damned goal horn, which I don’t think I realized was a pleasant cacophony until sometime after I’d turned 9.
My fascination with hockey (and the Sabres, specifically), the artistic, free-flowing game, as pristine as any this side of soccer, unfurled that night. The Sabres beat the Quebec Nordiques, 3-1, and it launched yet another playoff year (Fact: Since they entered the league in 1970, the Sabres have the second-highest win-percentage of any NHL franchise). My grandfather would take me, and occasionally a friend, to many more games when I was young. He always wore a suit. I’m told he did this because his day job in construction is not conducive to wearing one at work, so he had to wear it somewhere.
The cognac-smooth Ted Darling called the action on the tele, the circus-crazy Rick Jennarett manned the fortress on radio. These were the only two men I’d ever willfully invite into my home 80 times a year without seeking a restraining order.
When I left the area before the start of the 93-94 season, I packed my fandom with me. I never missed a game on ESPN, and my parents would let me stay up extra late to watch.
I remember weeknights in May and June propped up on the couch watching Sabres playoff games on CBC, eating strawberry shortcake and listening to Don Cherry wax on about soft European players and coaches of questionable manhood in his 150-decibel suits.
I remember my first trip to the new arena, as we drove the 180-some miles to Buffalo, and I went with my uncle to the game. I felt like I was walking into an airport. I was surprised I didn’t need to show my passport to reach my seats. I’d never seen a building so new and palatial in all my life. It was a welcome escape from just before the trip, when I found out my parents were headed for divorce.
I remember being stricken with pneumonia during the 1999 Stanley Cup run, and staying up late through horrific illness and unspeakable pain, coughing my way through the Triple-OT “No Goal” game. I may have been 16, but I cried like a little baby, as Buffalo sports teams often made me do. All I wanted was to call someone with whom to share my misery, but not a soul was awake. Being a true fan, sometimes, means sticking it out alone. The longstanding joke in my school was I was actually out grieving the Sabres loss.
I never got the chance to attend a final Sabres game with my grandfather. He died less than a year after I’d returned to Buffalo, and wintered in Florida during hockey season. I suppose I’ll be forever indebted.
My mom would drive out to Buffalo nearly every year for my birthday, and since the date coincided neatly with the dawn of each new hockey season, we often scored tickets for the home opener. At the most recent puckdrop, I was shocked to find my best friend from when I was young sitting in the seat to my left. Can nostalgia be coincidental? Is it 1991 Flashback Weekend?
Nearly every time I roam the streets of this hockey-insane town, there’s some drunk buffoon chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo,” a hockey cheer that’s morphed into a city’s battle cry. I’ve never not joined in. It’s a compulsion, much like singing to “Living on a Prayer” when it plays on the jukebox at the bar.
Though it can’t be argued I live and die with the Buffalo Bills (and it’s been a slow-agonizing death this past decade), there is no single entity (sports or otherwise) I value more than the Sabres. They keep me warm all winter, always felt like they were mine, and I’ll forever associate them with my family. I grew up along with them, yet they still remind me of being young, when the games were all that mattered, and played by heroes in home white. If they ever win a Stanley Cup, make no mistake: I’ll sob. It will rank a close third behind my first-born child and marriage.
All told, I’ve probably attended nearly 100 Sabres games, and watched 2,000 more. I still get goosebumps when I walk into the arena, and not just because it’s cold.
And I still dress up when I go. I do this because my day job where I commute to my living room is not conducive to doing so at work, and I have to dress up somewhere. In a world where all players and coaches retire or fade away, and change is certainty, the only constants in life – the constants that anchor and define your existence – are what you choose to keep with you.
Let’s go Buffalo.