In the last days of spring 13 years ago, the wheels were set in motion that would eventually end the run of a core group of Sabres players, a core who had in back-to-back years reached the Eastern Conference Championship and then the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a core that included arguably the greatest goaltender in history and one of Buffalo's most revered Captains. This series, spanning over the next several weeks, examines the similarities between the end of that Sabres era and the Sabres era of present.
20 June 1999
"I can't believe how they got it."
In a room filled with middle-aged men and teenage boys, six periods into the sixth game of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, those were the only words spoken as Brett Hull slipped the controversial game winner past a sprawling Dominik Hasek. We were cramped into a living room -- probably a dozen of us -- eyes half open, pizza half eaten, beer bottles and soda bottles scattered about. My dog was in the corner, messing around with a chew toy; indifferent. We probably all would have rather been the dog at the time. But we were trapped. 20 Dallas Stars in their ugly uniforms with their fair weather fans jumping up and down and hugging and grab-assing on our ice, in our town. There it was. Just another goddamn heartbreak.
"I can't believe..."
For the rest of the night, no one said anything else.
No one knew at that moment -- in the immediate seconds after the goal in what was then Marine Midland Arena -- that the next few hours would play out in the contentious way that they did. No one knew at that moment that the goal may not have actually even been a goal. But nevertheless, there were two prevailing emotions. One: shock. Shock at how the Sabres had seemingly beat Ed Belfour twenty different times that night only to ring shots off the post. And two: exhaustion. Exhaustion with a long, tumultuous journey of a season -- a season where the team barely made the playoffs and made it through those playoffs on the back of their goaltender -- that seemed like it would never end until suddenly, unfortunately, it did.
"Can't believe how they got it." Six words repeated, just after the sixth period of the sixth game.
Those were the only words, uttered by a friend's dad as he stared into nothing, his legs stiff on the recliner.
No one could believe how they got it. And, as we rolled deeper into the night and coming days, that disbelief would only get bigger.
I remember crawling into bed that night, about a half hour after the end of the game, and turning on EMPIRE Sports to see Brian Blessing and Mike Robitaille shaking their head at the goal. In the minutes that transpired immediately after the game, while I was helping to pick up plates of picked over chicken wings and pizza, something had happened. The Sabres and their flagship station had noticed that the game winning goal of the Stanley Cup Finals may not have been a legal goal at all.
Brett Hull's foot was in the crease. The league's reasoning behind the goal standing, and the shocking lack of review, were that they intended to change the rule anyway and that Hull exhibited constant possession of the puck, thus making the move legal. Neither of these made much sense.
Just several months ahead of* the "Music City Miracle", in a town that was used to finding astounding routes to last-second defeats, it appeared as though a Buffalo sports team would be hoodwinked again; deprived of a legitimate opportunity at a championship.
(*Thanks to reader Philaster for pointing out the timeline error in the above paragraph)
It was, for a brief, hot moment in time, the talk of the sports world. Barry Melrose's pangea-scale mullet walked gingerly across the ice as Steve Levy led into his partner's analysis: That the game's last call was incorrect, that we should be, definitively, seeing a "seventh game".
No one knew that, of course. No one knew if the goal was disallowed if the Sabres would have gone on to score the next goal and force a deciding game seven or if the Stars would have marched back up the ice on their next possession and buried an indisputable game winner. But the momentum of the game made it feel as though Buffalo was on the cusp of winning. Though Buffalo was physically dominated for much of the series, the Sabres had outplayed the Stars most of the night, and if not for a set of goal posts that continuously denied Buffalo shots for more than 100 minutes of hockey, it was very likely that the game would have been over in Buffalo's favor.
There was no definitive reason to believe the Sabres were going to win that game, but it certainly *felt* like it.
"It was sort of a holy crap moment for fans," Luke Zan, a Sabres fan (who was 12 at the time and is now a robotics engineer -- this meaning he helps make machines that will some day eat our brains -- in Texas), recalled of the time. "For like three years in Buffalo sports everything seemed like it was going right until one big thing went wrong. Flutie. Homerun Throwback. No Goal. That Flyers game with the side of the net shot..."
In the aftermath of the 1998-99 season, things never quite felt the same for the Buffalo Sabres organization and that particular "core" of players. Lindy Ruff's admirable ability to balance Dominik Hasek's impatience and his talent was beginning to falter, and the front office was faced with making tough decisions on a number of players whom were considered overachievers but were now looking for big post-Cup payouts.
Dominik Hasek and captain Mike Peca were traded just a few years later, and the economic realities of the pre-lockout NHL began to take true form for the team. Hasek's contract was astronomical, and, for a hockey league at the turn of the century, perhaps asinine: the Dominator would make millions more annually in 1999 than Ryan Miller makes in today's NHL.
The Sabres history with starting goaltenders is eerily consistent. Each starting goaltender tends to spend between 6-8 years with the team, tends to start about 5 to 7 of those years and moves on to another organization, where they experience varying levels of success.
For Dominik Hasek, who made $8,000,000 dollars when traded from Buffalo to the Detroit Red Wings, he would go on to win the Stanley Cup with the team before brief stints with Ottawa and a returning campaign in Hockeytown, and then retirement. Even Don Edwards, the Sabres net minder in the late 70s and early 80s, spent 5 forgettable seasons as the team's starting goalie before moving on in his career.
Why is that the case? Why is there a finite amount of time in which a Sabres players has to win a title for the team before they move on, and why is that finite amount of time so comparably small, even for the team's great players? Why does this seem to especially be the case for the team's goaltenders? Sure, Ray Bourque eventually went to Colorado to try and win a championship, but he spent 20.5 seasons in Boston. Jarome Iginla might now be on the move toward the twilight of his career, but he's been a Calgary Flame for 15 years.
Why is the lifespan of our affection for our players so short? Why is it that we are ready to move on from players in such a quicker time frame than other cities, our love faded, our patience worn?
Some may argue that Hasek's trade demands and the economic realities of being what was absolutely a small market in the NHL in 2001 were the reasons he was moved. But Mike Peca was thrown into the mix of a contract talks which were exceptionally unreasonable, even for the time. Goaltenders before Hasek had suffered the same emptying of the hour glass when money and free agency were not realistic excuses.
And, had the franchise and fans not grown tired of Hasek to some extent -- had they not felt as though he began to dog injuries and that his age and lack of effort were no longer worth the head aches -- perhaps the Sabres would have kept Hasek around and been able to build a contender with him.
These are massive prognostications, based only in a fantasy world where things could have played out differently. Hasek could have easily played significantly worse in 2002 and 2003 for the Sabres, tired of the organization and tired of where he was. No one knows. The fact remains: Dominik Hasek spent roughly 9 seasons as a Sabre, about 7.5 as the starter. He is maybe the greatest goaltender who has ever lived -- in the conversation anyway -- and that was it for him.
The summer of 1999 was a coming-of-age one for me, and all the hockey fans I knew. Many summer days we'd cart out cheap plastic goalie nets and Sherwood hockey sticks, rubber balls and tennis balls and shin pads down to these two tennis courts behind a Middle School. And, rain or shine, we'd spend most of the day stumbling over ourselves and playing pick-up hockey.*
(* We once showed up and a band of *gasp* college kids had taken over our court, where they were playing their own pick-up game. They needed an extra goalie, and feeble little me volunteered. I let up 9 goals. But the other guy, a *gasp* college kid, let up 10. I would have Max-Afinogenov-dove to center, but we were playing on clay so there was probably too much friction and knee-scraping potential. Instead, I went home and celebrated with fast food and pornography. Ah, to be a kid again.)
We'd imitate Jason Wooley's "shot heard round the world", kids would throw playful but faux-devastating Mike Peca hip-checks into one another, and I, ever the Hasek fanatic, would mind my net by flopping around like a wounded seal, attempting to make saves with my ears that I probably just could have made by staying on my feet and getting a good angle.
It was wonderful. Some of the best memories of my childhood. But inside the Sabres organization, where the real hockey existed, the hockey that made fans of many of my friends -- brought them to the game -- things were changing. There was a young, personable goaltender whose tall frame and freshness made many believe he had the potential to be the Sabres next great starter. He wore 43, spoke endlessly but joyfully and, wait for it, seven years later left the organization.
There was a creeping sensation starting to surround the team that even kid fans could feel: things weren't going to be the same on the roster for very long. Suddenly, the accessibility of hockey, its smallness and community feel had blown up into this out-of-scale enterprise. We were at odds with our superstar, unsure of the future. It was all suddenly very serious business.
When certain segments of the media and the Sabres fan base got on Ryan Miller this past season, it felt like a road we'd all been down before. Not necessarily just with Miller, but with the team's goalie and with the direction of the team as a whole.
There is something about the present off-season -- something about the fierce urgency of the now with Pegula and the Sabres organization -- that makes me feel like we are approaching a paradigm shift with the team.
And on top of all the restlessness and frustration with Buffalo's performance, on top of the dismay with Miller's inconsistent outtings, there exists, yet again, one camp that wishes that we stick by him, and another camp that wants to run him out of town.
It should then be no surprise to you that Ryan Miller has just finished his 9th NHL season. His 7th as the Sabres starter.
There remains only a few questions about Ryan Miller: Do we love him or hate him? Do we praise him as the goaltender who put Team USA on its shoulders and has so frequently for months-long stretches done the same for the Sabres? Or do we hate him for being yet another guy who has spent nearly a decade with the team and not been able to get them over the hump? Do we love his cynicism and sarcasm in the locker room, or deride him as a cancer? Do we play this game again?
Really though, all that we're asking, when it comes to Ryan Miller and the Sabres and a team whose core, whose goaltender, whose stars are in those transitional years when they will either be lifetime Sabres or longtime pariahs is this fundamental question: For this roster, for these fans.... what's next?
Matthew Stewart is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. You can contact him on Twitter at: matthew1stewart. Next week, we'll discuss the crazy career path of Ryan Miller.