It was a March night in 1996, and the hated Philadelphia Flyers were in town to face the feisty Buffalo Sabres. This rivalry was as heated as ever. You could sense something was going to happen that would set off a firestorm, and it did.
Matthew Barnaby bumped goaltender Garth Snow. Six minutes of intense, entertaining, even comical brawling mayhem ensued. Every player on the ice, including Buffalo's Brad May and Bob Boughner and Philly forward Rod Brind'Amour, stuck up for their respective teammates with a level of energy and determination that would make you believe that they loved the game enough to play for free.
The old Aud in Buffalo was rocking that night. The team wasn't very good but it didn't really matter. Everyone in the building was on their feet, and it wasn't just about fighting - it was about the enjoyment of watching a very tight knit group of determined scrappers who would go through walls for their coach and for each other.
It's 14 years later - a March night in 2010. The Flyers and Sabres are locked 1-1 midway through the second period of a yawnfest at a morbidly silent HSBC Arena. Both teams are skating back and forth and going at it with a level of intensity and passion that could only be found at a September scrimmage. The game is half over and there hasn't been a single penalty. Had vendors been selling No Doze tablets it might have launched the discovery of a new revenue stream.
Brawling certainly isn't a prerequisite for an entertaining hockey game. The two seasons in Buffalo following the lockout are proof of that. Those Briere-Drury teams were special for other reasons.
Fans at HSBC Arena aren't difficult to please. A cold beer and an entertaining hockey team will do the trick. Whether said entertainment is derived from some amusing borderline thuggery or from using a speed advantage to outskate opponents embarrassingly into oblivion, both formulas have been proven to work very well here.
But win or lose, talent or lack thereof, this is still the entertainment business. And if you ask a lot of fans who have made trips to the arena this season, despite watching a team enjoying the success of being a division leader, many folks will tell you that too many of these games have been just flat out boring.
Patrick Kaleta was a 9-year old Sabres fan at the time of that fun game in '96. He claims that as a kid he watched every single game. If he wasn't watching that one he certainly saw many others just like it. He grew up rooting for a team that brought everything to the table night after night, and he donned a #27 jersey in juniors after being inspired watching Michael Peca sacrificing his body against much larger players.
The intensity will certainly be ramped up in mid-April when playoff hockey returns to Buffalo after a two-year absence, but the Sabres forward certainly wouldn't complain if things got a little rowdy in the meantime.
"Getting the fans into it is going to be a main part of our game," Kaleta said during a recent Buffalo News interview. "When you're on the ice and you hear them, it gives you that much more energy. When you have them behind you, it gives you a good atmosphere and the other team kind of tightens up. If we can get these guys rocking in here, it's going to be a tough place to play."
That's all well and good, but what exactly is it about this group, loaded with above average second line finesse forwards, that could get fans riled up enough to rock the house? Having an all-world goaltender in Ryan Miller is a good start, but a guy who doesn't score, hit, or fight can only be a piece of the puzzle. Having a big, young, exciting potential future Norris Trophy candidate like Tyler Myers on the blue line certainly helps.
But for the most part, based on the collective personality of a team that has come under criticism for its apparent unwillingness to show a hatred for losing and to stick up for each other when pushed around by frisky opponents, it will just have to be about winning in the playoffs, which can never get boring.
Part of the answer is Kaleta himself, who has earned a lot of admiration in Buffalo as an overachiever who early in his career looked like he was skating through quicksand. Since then he has scrapped, pushed and shoved his way to becoming an indispensable part of this team - in large part due to the fact that opposing players despise him for making life difficult for them.
And now he's asking for some help in that department. "We know we've been struggling for the past while but we're playing our game again," Kaleta said. "If we can have these guys just going nuts, it's going to be difficult for people."