Ed Note: I was originally going to make this video a quick FanPost, but as I wrote it it grew more and more into something I'd been wanting to write for a while now. It's a bit long and I wish I was better at writing so that it would make more sense, but I hope some of you feel the same way.
Late Saturday night after the Sabres game ended, it was decided that something should be done for the Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula's birthday. The idea that was suggested, courtesy of ubiquitous Twitter presence Lindy Ruff's Tie (@LindyRuffsTie) and buffalo74 blogger Scott Michalak (@ScottyMCSS) was to gather at HSBC Arena yesterday at noon in a very flash-mobby way and sing Happy Birthday to Terry -- or T-Pegs, as he's sometimes called these days.
(By the way, if you're a Sabres fan who's not on Twitter, I'd suggest giving it a try, if just to follow all the Sabres writers/bloggers/fans and fake accounts. You're missing out on some good times. Hint: you can start by following @diebytheblade and @andyboron)
There was general feeling of excitement about the idea, but were also a few naysayers who wondered: why? What's the point? This sounds silly. And when you think about it, it was a pretty silly idea - that 30 or so people, most of whom had never met, would gather in the lobby of an empty arena to sing a song to man they've also never met, but who has, in the short time they've known him, done great things for the sports team they love.
Six months ago I probably would have been in that group of naysayers, wondering what the point was. Two months ago I probably would have thought, "Oh, that's neat, but I'm not gonna make the effort to go." But yesterday I literally ran out of church in order to get there on time. But the question remains, why?
If you're referring to the event itself, I went because I thought it'd be a fun, spontaneous way to spend yet another cold Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. But if you're referring to the change in sentiment, that's a whole other story, one that started many months ago.
I went yesterday because I wanted to go. But not just that -- I went because felt compelled to go; I wanted to do something to show my appreciation for what Terry Pegula has done not just for the Sabres organization, but for me, personally. He's done something that I honestly doubted could ever be done -- he's made me feel like a kid again, falling in love with a sports team for the first time.
As anyone who's been a serious fan for most of their lives already knows, you lose a lot of sports innocence over the years. When you're a kid, or when you're too naive to know any better, next year can always be different; next year can always be the year you win it all, no matter how little things change, simply because it's a new year. But after so many seasons of watching your beloved sports teams lose and your favorite athletes get traded or arrested the loss of your sports innocence simply can't be helped. And once it's gone, you never think about sports the same way again.
I remember losing four Super Bowls in elementary school, losing in the Cup Finals in middle school, an NHL lockout in high school, and losing in two straight Eastern Conference Finals series in college. Eventually, you stop using 100% of your brain for the enjoyment of the ride and you start using a little brain power preparing for the worst. You always hope that the Rebels can defeat the Empire but 99 times out of 100, Vader doesn't turn on his master, Lando runs the Falcon into some Death Star plumbing, and the teddy bears don't beat the giant mechanical death machines.
Eventually watching the playoffs turns from a fun ride into stressful experience.
The 2005-06 NHL season was different, though. We went from three years of missing the playoffs and a year with no hockey to suddenly being one of the best teams in the entire NHL, and definitely the most exciting. The future was bright, tickets were cheap, and the city was in a honeymoon phase with the team -- it was the Year Of Destiny. Then, Connolly, Numminen, Tallinder, Kalinin, and McKee got blown up/crushed/lightsabered and the Death Star blew up our little band of hockey Rebels.
The next year, the team won the President's trophy and was the odds-on favorite to win the Cup, but it didn't feel quite as "right" as the year before. I've talked with so many people and read comments on this site saying that fans didn't feel as good about our chances in the 2007 playoffs than they did in 2006, even though the team was statistically superior. Why? Because we had lost that briefly-rekindled sports innocence. We had become the Empire, with everything to lose, rather than an exciting upstart band of Rebels just enjoying the ride.
I only bring up this history-in-the-form-of-forced-metaphor to drive home this point: in two months, Terry Pegula, with the help of his new team, has helped to rekindle that sports innocence in me.
Think about the first two months of the season: things had gotten so bleak that I remember having multiple conversations with my roommates about how none of us cared if the team won or lost because losing meant a chance at a top-5 draft pick. Nothing had changed drastically within the organization and there was no hope that it really ever would. Lindy and Darcy would always be here, we'd never attracted any real free agents because of our frugal cap situation, HSBC Arena was boring, and guys like Connolly and Hecht couldn't be traded fast enough.
How do you feel about the Sabres these days? The word that comes to my mind is "magical," but not for the reasons you might think. It's not so much that the team's playing great (which admittedly helps quite a bit) but it's that so much has changed with the organization so quickly: the fan experience at HSBC Arena, a better TV experience, a suggestion box that's actually being used, "Hockey Heaven" and a rug with a logo, and a deadline deal that not only worked for once, but never would have been made under the old regime. After a decade and more of complete organizational stagnation, so much has changed for the better in such a short period of time that the only explanation my brain can fathom is that someone cast a magic spell over the city; Terry Pegula is what Harry Potter would have become had J.K. Rowling grown up a Sabres fan.
Is it just the rush of a playoff run that has me feeling this way? No -- we were fighting for a playoff spot in 2008 and 2009, but those seasons felt more like trying to climb the standings by scaling a sheer cliff wall rather than riding a unicorn to the top of the mountain.
As silly as it is to say, I feel like anything is possible in the Pegula era. I have no idea what he'll do next, but I know it will probably make things better for the team and the fans, and that's the kind of excitement that makes me feel like a kid again; I've got that sports innocence back, if only for a little while, and I hope some of you feel that same way. I'll watch the playoffs and be more excited than nervous, I'll greet strangers downtown with a "Go Sabres," and I'll do crazy things like sing a birthday song to a billionaire.
Are the Sabres going to win the Cup this year? Probably not, but that's not why I went to sing in an empty building with a group of strangers. It was because I felt like I had to give something back, even if it was just a song, to a stranger who's given something very special to me.
Besides, once we win the Stanley Cup we'll go back and sing again, and you can join us this time.