A Sabres Carol

After practice on Friday, Ryan Miller hung his head in the locker room long after the rest of the team left. He hadn’t noticed that he was alone in the locker room, until the lights went out.

"Wait! Dave! I’m still in here!" he shouted down the hall, thinking the janitor had figured everyone left already. But it wasn’t Dave the janitor that came down the hall to meet the Sabres’ troubled goalie. All Ryan could see was a glowing, blue figure, with the sound of chains lingering behind it. Frightened, Ryan ran back into the locker room and took refuge in one of the bathroom stalls. It didn’t help. From under the partition, he could see the blue light coming towards the stall. Before he could think about what to do next, the door flew open. Standing there, in the shape of a blue aura surrounded by chains, was a figure that looked like…

"Dominik Hasek?" Ryan’s shock to see the legendary Sabres net minder could not be described. He stumbled backward and fell into the toilet. "You…you look like a ghost! But that can’t be possible! Dominik Hasek is still alive!" The blue figure resembling Dominik Hasek leaned over to help him up. It was then that he spoke.

"Alive in the sense of a living being, sure. But in this building, and the great city of Buffalo in general, I might as well be considered a ghost. The greatest span of my career was here, between the pipes. But since then, I’ve rarely returned. Perhaps it is frustration from never winning the cup. Perhaps it was bad blood with the previous ownership. Or perhaps I just have better things to do than hang out in Buffalo. Think of me more as the Spirit of Hasek, rather than the real person."

Ryan Miller was still dripping with toilet water, and after examining the ghostly figure up and down, only one question seemed to come to him. "But…but…what’s with the chains?"

The Spirit of Hasek frowned, and responded. "Well, genius, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a Sabres version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Duh. I’m the Jacob Marley figure."

"Ohhhh…so does that mean we’re going to do the whole Past, Present, and Future thing?"

Hasek groaned. "Yes. You see, it’s no secret that you guys have been struggling out there. I know the injury bug has been tough, but that’s no excuse. Did you see some of those teams they built around me? We still managed to make some playoff runs! You and I have a lot in common, Ryan. I was obviously the superior player, and more handsome than you are…although you did pretty well with that wife of yours…but we’re both considered elite goalies when we’re at our best. I want you to avoid the path that I did. My career was marked by close calls and an unceremonious exit. The people of Buffalo, and even you, Ryan, deserve better. It’s time to turn this ship around and bring this great city a championship. But, it’s time for me to leave. To start your journey, head back into the locker room."

Hasek turned and began to slink away, the sound of chains following him. Ryan attempted to grab his arm, but he found only air. "But wait! I have so many questions!"

"If you’re going to ask about what really happened with Ted Nolan and my wife, you’re not getting an answer, kid. It’s a long flight back to the Czech Republic. I gotta get going."

As the Hasek figure flew up and disappeared through the roof of the bathroom, Ryan Miller stood with his jaw dropped. How could this be happening to him? He wasn’t even a captain! Why couldn’t he just have caught Pominville on his way out? But the Spirit of Hasek had a point. This team was only going to go as far as Ryan took them. It had been a rough year so far. Many fans had turned on him. He was short and grumpy with the media. His own teammates didn’t have his back after Milan Lucic took a run at him. Maybe this journey would help him and the Sabres get their mojo back.

***

But before he had time to dissect this bizarre incident any further, he saw another bright light coming from the locker room. Ryan took a deep breath and headed for the doorway. The light blinded him at first, illuminating all the skates and used athletic tape that littered the ground in the locker room. Once his eyes adjusted, Ryan made out the figure that stood before him.

"Rick Martin?!? From the legendary French Connection?!?" For the second time that night, Ryan Miller fell backwards and landed on his posterior.

"Glad you at least keep up on your Sabres history, kid," the Ghost of Rick Martin said as he turned and smiled at Ryan Miller. "And unlike that Spirit of Hasek, I’m a genuine dead dude."

Ryan looked confused. "Don’t you think it’s a bit too soon for some punk on a blog to be using your ghost in a story? I mean, you haven’t even been dead for a year yet…"

The Ghost of Rick Martin laughed. "That’s your problem, Ryan. You worry too much about the media. I’m here to bring you back to some great moments in Sabres history, and to kindle your competitive fire. I’m the Ghost of Sabres’ Past."

With that, the ghost grabbed Ryan’s arm, and they shot up through the ceiling. By the time Ryan was screaming with a mixture of excitement and terror, they were flying over the City of Buffalo. As they headed for the roof of HSBC Tower, a massive black hole opened in the sky. "Hold on!!" Rick Martin shouted as they headed straight for the portal in the night sky. Before Ryan Miller could react, the duo was through the portal and out the other side. They were still flying over Buffalo, but it looked very different. Old cars drove on the roads below. The HSBC Tower was still there, but looked much newer and was missing the Hexagon logo. The ballpark was gone…and the First Niagara Center was gone! The air was much warmer. It didn’t seem to be December anymore. It was then that Ryan saw where they were headed, to a building that no longer was a part of the Buffalo skyline. The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

"The Aud!" Ryan exclaimed. "Where are we? This can’t be possible!"

The Ghost of Rick Martin smiled. "May 20, 1975 – Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals." The two men descended through the roof of the Aud, and landed in the press box. Ryan was a bit distracted staring at the young version of Rick Jeanneret seated next to him, but Rick Martin continued. "The infamous fog game. We tied the game up to send it into overtime. The game was delayed seven times in OT thanks to the fog you see on the ice."

Rick Martin was right. Ryan looked down to the playing surface, and saw the fog that had enveloped the ice due to the lack of air conditioning in the Aud. Before he had time to take in the entire scene, the young Jeanneret’s voice picked up next to him: "Around it comes to Rick Martin, up ahead for Perreault. Perreault coming to center, dumps it off the boards into the corner....Robert going after it......he SCORRRRREEESSS!!!! Rene Robert!! And the Sabres win it again!!!"

The crowd exploded. The Ghost of Rick Martin was staring down and smiling at his real life counterpart. After some time, he turned back to Ryan Miller. "One of the greatest moments of my career. It was moments like this that got The French Connection up in the rafters. But I wanted to contribute to a different banner to hang up there – The Stanley Cup Championship banner. We lost this series, Ryan. It was the last chance we'd have at the Cup as a trio. I thought we would get back there together, but we never did. You need to treasure every moment on the ice, because you never know the next time you’ll get a chance to win it all."

Rick Martin and Ryan Miller visited two other events in Sabres history that night. One was the most recent trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, where they saw Brett Hull’s foot in the crease as the Sabres sulked off the ice. The other was Game 7 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, which the Sabres lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes. As he watched himself let in two third period goals, Ryan Miller finally snapped.

"TAKE ME BACK!!!" Ryan screamed, as the memory proved to be too painful.

Rick Martin’s expression did not change. "In order to succeed, you need past events like this to fuel your fire."

"But I miss Briere and Drury!!! We don’t have any leadership or accountability on today’s squad!!"

Now Rick Martin was angry. "You fool! Have you learned nothing from this journey? What have the past successful Sabres teams all had in common? Teamwork! It wasn’t about whining after the game, or blaming other players. We went out, played hockey, and had fun doing it! I hope that you can come to your senses before this is all over. Goodbye, Ryan."

With that, Rick Martin was gone, and so was the vision of Game 7. Ryan Miller was back in the Sabres’ locker room. In silence, he looked down and stared at the floor.

***

But as he stared at his feet, a new pair of feet stepped into his field of vision, in dress shoes. He slowly looked up. It was the man that signed his checks, Sabres owner Terry Pegula. He had a scowl on his face as he stared down at the distressed Ryan Miller.

"You said some pretty mean things about me the other day," Ryan said.

"Mean?......or true?" Pegula took a step forward and helped Ryan to his feet. "And technically it wasn’t me, per se. You see, I’m the ‘spirit’ of Terry Pegula, similar to the Hasek spirit that visited you earlier tonight. I’m the Ghost of Sabres’ Present. But that doesn’t change my thoughts on the comments the real Terry said the other night. You need to step it up, Ryan. The whole team needs to step it up.

Ryan Miller wasn’t in the mood for another lecture from a ghostly figure. "Well what am I supposed to do?!? You bring in players that came here only for the big paycheck! They don’t play with any heart! It’s like everyone’s just going through the motions every night. Why put in the extra effort when no one playing in front of me is doing so?"

The PegulaGhost had heard enough. "SILENCE!!!" His voice echoed off the lockers, and the Sabres logo in the center of the room flickered, "I’ve heard enough complaining! You’re one of the veterans on this team. It’s up to YOU to provide some leadership and guidance for the young players, and even long time teammates. You may not wear the C, but I expect more from you, Ryan, both on the ice and in the locker room."

"Why am I even bothering to argue with a ghost, or whatever you are, anyway?" Miller asked. "I’m not the one with something to prove. I’ve been an All Star. I’ve won a Vezina Trophy. I was even in the Olympics!"

Pegula frowned. "Foolish. A silver medal in the Olympics, and a list of individual accomplishments. You’re forgetting the biggest prize of all…the Cup itself. Come with me. Let’s see what’s going on in the Present time of the Buffalo Sabres. I believe you’re missing out on the big picture."

Ryan did feel a bit ashamed. Did he really feel that way, or was it just an outburst? The truth was, hockey in Buffalo just wasn’t as fun as it used to be. But before he had time to contemplate his feelings any further, Pegula grabbed his arm and they were teleported to the middle of a wide open space with lots of cubicles and desks. They were mostly empty, except for one towards the end. Ryan immediately recognized the man as Jerry Sullivan, Buffalo News sports columnist. He was talking to someone on the phone.

"I mean, can they make it any easier to write a column these days? I have so many options for tomorrow’s paper that I’m having trouble deciding on one! Fire Ruff? Fire Regier? Trade Miller? Seriously, what happened to that guy? He goes from ‘American Hero’ to boringly average NHL goalie?"

Ryan Miller turned to Pegula and said, "I hate that guy."

Pegula laughed, "It’s his shtick. He’s the doom and gloom reporter. The sky is always falling. You can’t let this stuff get to you, whether it’s from him or the fans. Yes, this is a tough town, but only because they’re starved for a winner! You remember how close you were, Ryan. The Ghost of Sabres Past showed you."

The image of Jerry Sullivan faded away, and Ryan Miller found himself in the kitchen of a nice looking house. He could see through to the dining room, where a man was talking to his wife.

"I just don’t know what to do anymore, Kim. The injuries are just killing us. It’s no excuse though. The effort just isn’t there. Guys are just on cruise control. I know it’s the holidays, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m the captain…and I just feel helpless."

It was Sabres captain Jason Pominville. Pegula turned to Ryan, "We better leave before he cries. That would just be awkward and pathetic."

"But what does it all MEAN?" Ryan Miller asked. "What do you want me to do???"

The Spirit of Terry Pegula simply stared back, and then disappeared.

***

Ryan Miller found himself face down in the street, outside of an arena. It was raining. As he gathered himself and stood up, he saw a sign on the building, "Nationwide Arena." What was he doing in Columbus? The street was empty, but when Ryan looked towards the side of the building, a tall, hooded figure, dressed all in black, motioned for him. Ryan followed the figure, and eventually caught up to him, until they were side by side as they walked into the arena.

"Who are you?" Ryan asked. The hooded figure did not answer. "Are you the Ghost of Sabres Future? What am I doing in Columbus? Shouldn’t we be in Buffalo?"

The dark, hooded figure just kept on walking, and Ryan Miller continued to follow. Eventually they found themselves in one of the aisles, looking down to the ice. The arena was barely half full, with the indifferent crowd ignoring the PA announcer’s player introductions.

"WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT???"

It was then that Ryan Miller saw why the tall, hooded figure wasn’t talking. As he turned to him, he saw under the hood. It was the Sabres mascot, Sabretooth, and everyone knows Sabretooth doesn’t speak. But Sabretooth pointed to the ice, and Ryan Miller followed the direction of his paw with his eyes. What he saw was his worst nightmare. He heard the PA announcer.

"And now, welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets’ new starting goaltender, acquired via trade this week, RYAN MILLLLLLLERRRR!!!!"

And there was Ryan Miller himself, skating onto the ice in a Blue Jackets sweater, as the audience politely clapped.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Ryan Miller fell to his knees. This was the future of the Sabres if they continued to struggle. Ryan Miller was traded to the worst team in the NHL. He tugged at the hooded Sabretooth’s robe.

"Please!! What am I supposed to do to avoid this from happening?? Help me!!! HELP MEEEEEE!!!!"

***

"Help me!! Help me!!!!"

"Ryan…Ryan! Wake up!!!!"

Ryan Miller woke up, as Dave the janitor shook his shoulder. He was still in a cold sweat and practically on the verge of tears. "Were you here all night?" Dave the janitor asked. "It's Christmas Eve!! Go enjoy some time with your family!!"

Was it a dream? Ryan realized that the vision of the future wasn’t set in stone yet. He still had time to change the outcome. It was then that all the feelings from his journey the night before, real or not, came rushing back to him. Hasek, Rick Martin, Pegula, and even the silent Sabretooth were right. This was his team, and he needed to take control of it. It was time to bring the camaraderie back to the ice. Time to show the rest of the NHL what this team was made of. Time to inject some fun back into Hockey Heaven.

He gathered his things, and ran out of the locker room as fast as he could, but Dave the janitor caught him on the way out.

"Hey, isn't this the part where you tell a little kid to go buy a turkey and bring it to Bob Cratchit's house?"

How Dave the janitor knew that Ryan's night had followed the arc of A Christmas Carol, he didn't know. But he asked Dave to buy the biggest turkey he could find and bring it to Jason Pominville's house. He gathered up the rest of the team and they all headed over there.

When Jason Pominville opened the door, he was shocked. "Ryan? Guys? What are you doing here?"

Ryan took a deep breath and contemplated what to say next. Surely he couldn’t share the tale of the journey he had over the previous night. He already looked kind of like a stoner, and a story like that wouldn’t help to disspell such a notion. Once he gathered his thoughts, he stood up on Jason Pominville's front step and began to address the team.

"Teammates, it’s been a rough stretch for us. Injuries, blowing leads, poor play – we’ve seen it all. But I’m not here to point fingers. This is a period we need to get through as a TEAM. The rich history of this franchise, as well as the great fan base we have here, demands that we leave it all out there on the ice every night. The holiday season only highlights this more. While our fans are struggling to make ends meet, but still finding ways to come to the arena, we need to remember how lucky we are to play the game of hockey for a living."

The volume in his voice was slowly rising, as he continued. Many of the Sabres look confused, since Ryan Miller never did much else besides mumble.

"As I look over this group, I see a group of men who I’d gladly go into battle with any day. I am making a pledge to you all, that I will never leave the ice with a feeling that I could have done more. I only ask that you do the same. Now let’s give Sabres fans a Christmas present of their own, and start playing Sabres Hockey!!!"

The confusion of the players turned into cheers, as this spontaneous pep talk was a welcome surprise. Out of nowhere, Doug Allen emerged and started singing Christmas carols. Presented with this wacky turn of events, the other Sabres couldn’t help but sing along. Paul Gaustad interrupted.

"Isn’t this the part where you lift up Tiny Tim, wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and end the story?"

There wasn’t a Tiny Tim in this story, but Ryan liked this idea. He lifted up the smallest person he could find. As Nathan Gerbe was hoisted off the ground, he began kicking his legs and shouting.

"Hey!!! Wait!!! What do you think you're do----"

Ryan ignored Gerbe's complaints, and bellowed out, "GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!!"

***

I’d like to write a sequel to this story next year and talk about how Ryan Miller’s trippy visit from the Ghosts of the Sabres ended up helping the team to a Stanley Cup. This story is obviously fictional [to which I should add, any portrayal of actual people or events should be considered farcical and simply for entertainment value], but hopefully the real life Sabres can bottle some of that holiday spirit and have it translate to the ice as well.

Most importantly, Merry Christmas, Sabres Fans!!! And thanks for reading.


follow me @buffaloexplorer

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