After years of struggle, the Buffalo Sabres need something special to ensure fans that they’re a team worth watching.
Through the first two games of the 2021-22 NHL season, the Sabres have looked, well, good. It’s an incredibly small sample size, and years of suffering are finally visible at KeyBank Center in the small crowds who came to each of those first games.
I watched Thursday night’s home opener from the comfort of my couch. While I knew it probably wasn’t going to be a sold-out arena, I was still surprised at the very visible pockets of empty seats as they introduced the players prior to puck drop. As the game went on, and photos and videos from around the arena surfaced, it became clear just how many people had decided not to attend.
There were 8,467 in Thursday night’s crowd, likely the smallest in team history for a home-opener. (Last season, when fans were not permitted, excluded. Attendance figures aren’t readily available for every season in franchise history.)
It's no surprise this is the smallest home opener crowd anyone here has ever seen. It's gonna be that way this season. Fans sending message to #Sabres ownership about the last decade. But Credit Due Dept: The building erupted on the Okposo goal. Those here definitely into it. pic.twitter.com/6ityjk69gw— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) October 14, 2021
It may have been a small crowd, but even to those watching on TV like myself, they made their presence known. You could hear their chants and feel the energy. They even started the wave at some point, because hey, why not? When Buffalo finished the game on the right side of a 5-1 decision, the fans sang “Na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” to the Habs and gave the Sabres a standing ovation. It was a fun game to watch, and an entertaining one at that.
Robert Hagg said he had goosebumps when fans started singing during the 3rd period last night. It was a topic of conversation on the bench. #LetsGoBuffalo— Jourdon LaBarber (@JourdonLaBarber) October 15, 2021
Alternate captain Kyle Okposo penned a touching message to fans after the home opener. In it, he’s realistic - acknowledging that they knew the building wouldn’t be full for the opening night - but optimistic. He also spoke about how the team feeds off the energy that the crowd, no matter how small, brings to the game. You can read his letter here.
For Saturday’s matinee against Arizona, I was in the press box. I got to the rink early, almost two hours before puck drop, and waited cautiously to see what the crowd would look like. On one hand, Buffalo had looked great in the home opener and a Saturday matinee makes it easier to bring kids. On the other hand, it’s the Coyotes - not exactly a top-billed team, and tickets on the secondary market weren’t great.
When the teams hit the ice for warmups, there had to be fewer than a couple thousand people in the seating bowl. It looked like a practice, or a training camp session. In my head, I thought, oh gosh, this is... bad. This is so bad.
Attendance did fill in a bit prior to puck drop, but there were still so many empty seats. You can’t blame fans, of course, for being tired of watching a losing team, for not wanting to shell out the money for tickets, and parking, and food. It’s been a long few years.
I wasn’t in the building for Thursday’s game, so I can't exactly compare the two, but it seemed a similar pace for the crowd. They were quiet at first as the game dragged lifelessly in the beginning, and then the Coyotes took an early lead. A few “Let’s Go Buffalo” chants rang out here and there, and as time went on, the fans got more into it. Vinnie Hinostroza’s attempt to spin-around and deke out an Arizona player elicited some reactions. When Johan Larsson was announced as having assisted on the Coyotes goal, the fans booed.
It wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it was something. When Cody Eakin found the back of the net with a power-play tally early in the second and his goal song “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” rang out over the speakers, it felt like hey, maybe we haven’t seen anything just yet. The crowd, small as it was (7,872), got into it. You could feel their presence, and that’s clearly important to the players.
One of the big things players missed last season was having fans in the seats, as evidenced by the fact that pretty much every player noted they were looking forward to seeing the fans again in their season-opening survey. Playing in empty arenas just isn’t the same, for obvious reasons. Even having as small crowds as they have in the first two games, Buffalo players are clearly happy to be able to play in front of people again.
See: Okposo’s letter.
“We were just talking about it in the locker room, how fun it was to play in front of the fans. So, more to come.” - Sabres’ Kyle Okposo— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) October 15, 2021
“It’s totally different, especially from last year,” said Rasmus Dahlin after Saturday’s game. “Oh, I love it. They’re the greatest fans, and I wish they were here last year, too. They’re just unreal. They help us a lot.”
The fans feed off what happens on the ice, and the players feed off the fans’ energy. It’s a two-way street, but the first step is getting people in the door.
The Sabres have lost roughly 10,000 season ticket holders. They haven’t had a winning season since 2012. Over the years, they’ve had chances with talents like Ryan O’Reilly, Taylor Hall, Jack Eichel, all flubbed.
While in most pro sports cities, fans were eager to return to stadiums and arenas after COVID-19 altered seasons (shortened, or without fans, or both), Sabres fans aren’t exactly racing to get back to KeyBank Center.
It’s 100% understandable. The Sabres have had some dreadful years. Buffalo sports fans are loyal - so, so very loyal - but even so, there’s only so far you can push them, only so much they’re willing to take. When things go well, the fans will be there - see the Bills, who had over 68,000 fans at their home opener - but for the Sabres, it’s a bit more of a process.
They have to prove they’re a team worth watching. They have to build people’s trust again, build a winning team and rebuild the culture around being a Sabres fan. I think the team themselves said it well in the opening video montage narrated by Rick Jeanneret, scripted by Jourdon LaBarber: “If you earn it, they’ll stand alongside you. On bad days, and better days.”
Maybe, just maybe, if the Sabres build it, the fans will come.