I gotta get some things off my chest.
My thoughts from the trenches of Buffalo Sabres fandom have been simmering for a little while, and, after a shocking 3-0 start to the season, have come to a boiling point. Though my entire existence online is based on not shutting up, please indulge me in some thoughts that are longer than 280 characters in length.
First, and this is going to upset some folks: the Sabres are not the Bills.
I can’t believe I have to say this. They do not play the same sport. Jack Eichel is not Josh Allen. Granato and Adams are not McDermott and Beane. Their only common threads are this city and shared ownership. You cannot compare them.
Sure, sometimes the teams feel like they’re on parallel journeys. Neither have won a championship, but have come extremely close. The highs are high. The lows are incredibly low. But to assume that your fandom and belief in how the football team rebuilt should transfer to the hockey team is faulty at best. The relentless optimism that those of us in Bills Mafia have attached to Allen and co. does not necessarily transfer to the Sabres. The vibe of Buffalo Bills fandom, lately, requires undying loyalty without deep critique; if we can make it out of the drought years, anyone can if they keep the One Buffalo faith. I don’t think that toxic positivity carries over for the average Sabres consumer that’s paid attention in the past ten or so years. This leads me to my second point…
Jack Eichel is a symptom, not the disease.
Because I rarely heed my own words, I actually made a Bills-Sabres comparison earlier that was 70% a joke, but seems timely. Fans in Buffalo are talking about Jack Eichel’s public displeasure with the team just as Minnesota Vikings fans complain about former locker-room-problem-turned-Buffalo-darling Stefon Diggs. It’s similar to the end of Ryan O’Reilly’s career in Buffalo, too, and honestly? It’s a tale as old as time — guys are locker room poison, cancerous to the team’s mentality, thinking only of themselves. They’re divas. Selfish and disloyal to the team they play for or the fans who bleed their colors.
It’s nice to have a scapegoat, especially when a team is losing. You have an easy target to set your sights on. It feels good to have that person to nail to the cross and crucify, and I don’t blame you one bit for setting your sights on Eichel. But divas are everywhere. Self-centered athletes who mar a team’s culture exist even when they win, you just don’t hear about it. If the Sabres were a playoff darling during Jack’s time here, and the team were still declining his requests for disc surgery, I hypothesize that the discourse about him would be quite different.
Surely, the Eichel camp as of late has cast a looming shadow on the rest of the team. It blows that he so publicly has one foot (and all the discs in his neck) out the door. However, with the faintest whiff of success without him, some of us are solely placing blame on Eichel, rather than seeing him as one in a series of issues across the decade of organizational failure during the Pegula reign.
Finally, and I think this is most important: shut up and enjoy the ride.
Where I think a big chunk of casual fans are too quick to scapegoat, or say that loyalty to a sports team requires undying positivity, there are just as many cynics ready to kill the vibe. So many of us (myself included) are quick to be snide that about the bottom falling out soon. We take every opportunity we can to remind ourselves of the deep failures of upper administration. Amid the surprise start, we’re so adamant on finding a new problem with the team that it seems like we want to deprive ourselves — and others — of joy.
Stop it! Touch grass! Enjoy what’s happening for now, because it’s not going to last forever.
This squad, of all squads, recorded the fifth 3-0 start in team history. They looked legitimately convincing against the Canadiens and the Canucks, and muscled a shootout win against Arizona. All those snide comments about Tage Thompson at center are (for now) turning out to be wrong. Craig Anderson, the 40-year old goalie many derided as too old, is playing like he’s a much younger man. Against all odds, alternate captains Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo are backing up their leadership with play that makes them look better than fourth-liners. The analytics crowd and the grit crowd both know that the talent isn’t there to sustain this. The same problems with PSE and others will still be here when the team regresses. It’s just sports. Save your cynicism until the time is right again.
I went to the Arizona game last Saturday. Maybe it was the global pandemic that deprived me of live sports, or the extremely expensive High Noons at the arena, but I felt like a little kid seeing the team play. I felt connected to the team and the 7,500 or so others that bothered showing up. For a few hours, the team didn’t suck, the front office didn’t matter and I had a damn good time.
I won’t let up on my criticism of those in the ivory tower or pretend that Jack Eichel is a paragon of innocence, and I don’t hate Bills Mafia’s propensity for glee. I’m just going to enjoy the string quartet on the Titanic before the ship sinks. I’ll heed my own advice to shut up and have a nice time while the team brings me some semblance of joy.