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What the Heritage Classic Should Mean to the Buffalo Sabres

The answer ought to be a whole lot.

On March 13th, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres will meet for what will surely be at least their most photogenic matchup ever. Apart from a set of new, one-off jerseys there seems to be very little beyond mere geography drawing interest to this game. Seldom few beyond the easternmost Great Lakes will be able to call anything to mind in terms of the supposed rivalry. Even Buffalonians may question what exactly this game means for their beloved Sabres.

The answer ought to be a whole lot.

The rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs is a fun one as far as NHL rivalries go. It’s not entirely made up as NBCSN tried to fabricate a rivalry between Columbus and Buffalo at the height of their “Rivalry Wednesday” promotion. But on the other hand, most of the greatest moments fans would point to in this rivalry are off the ice or in games that straight-up don’t matter. The one playoff meeting between the QEW highway opponents was a rather one-sided Sabres win in the 1999 Eastern Conference Final in route to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance. Don’t ask us Sabres fans how that ended.

The reality is that these two teams have seldom been good at the same time. The late 1990s may be the only time the two were both high-level playoff competition but a near-sweep for the Sabres doesn’t really lend credence to that either. The two teams have been in the same division since 1998 and that has allowed for many of the on-ice storylines to form. Sabres enforcer Rob Ray had a notable love-hate relationship with Leafs great Mats Sundin in the early 2000s. Their dust-ups had old-time hockey levels of hype until Rob Ray was spirited off to Ottawa in 2003. If you want to look further back for a Sabres-Leafs player connection one might look to the legendary defenseman Tim Horton who won several Stanley Cups with the Leafs in the Original Six era before spending his last two seasons before his tragic death with the Buffalo Sabres from 1972-1974.

As any good Leafs-hating Sabres fan will tell you: looking to photos in black and white and Cups won before Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon should be left to our friends in the Six. In more recent history the Leafs settled into a long winter of mediocrity in the mid-2000s while the Sabres went in the opposite direction. Back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2006 and 2007 saw perhaps the best rosters in Sabres history. At least one of those years it was merely injury that kept Buffalo from its long-awaited Stanley Cup title but as Leafs fans will retort from their own trauma: everyone gets injured in the playoffs, good teams deal with it.

After a handful more seasons clinging to a thinning playoff roster the Buffalo Sabres fell into the pits of irrelevance with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 2010s. From there the Leafs would emerge first in 2016-2017 with the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. At that 2016 Draft held in Buffalo where Matthews became a Leaf, the front office in Western New York may have seen a renewed rivalry brewing when they drafted William Nylander’s brother Alexander with the eighth overall pick. The fantasies of Jack Eichel versus Auston Matthews with a sibling rivalry on the side were not to be. Both Eichel and Alex Nylander were traded away by 2022 and the Sabres slipped back into the pits while the Leafs became a regular playoff contender if only a reliable first round exit.

The truth is most Maple Leafs fans probably scarcely think of the Buffalo Sabres at all these days. Well… at least the ones who don’t flood KeyBank Center whenever the Leafs come to Buffalo. Everything in Toronto is expensive, so the middle class of Leafs land might see the inside of Scotiabank Arena for hockey with their own eyes maybe a handful of times over the course of their entire lives. Meanwhile, Sabres season ticket holders see the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: sell their tickets to a flood of Ontarioans at a profit and also do a good service to their fellow hockey fan yearning to see their team play in the flesh. Indeed Buffalonians are a charitable bunch: they call us the City of Good Neighbors for a reason.

What lies ahead of these two teams is their first outdoor matchup. Both sides, in spite of their distinctly northern climates, have only seen three outdoor games each in recent history. Toronto is 2-1 in those games while the Sabres are yet to win a game that did not happen under a roof. The Heritage Classic is to be played in Hamilton, Ontario’s Tim Hortons Field. The stadium has seen numerous high-profile events since its opening including a USA vs Canada soccer match and a CFL Grey Cup last year. After two years of a pandemic making cross-border travel difficult to impossible and sporadic lockdowns in the province of Ontario, the matchup is likely to draw a big crowd in a city that is geographically dead center between the Leafs and Sabres in more ways than one.

In a U.S. state south of Buffalo there once was a financially struggling Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2006 the club was the fancy of one Jim Balsillie who explored possible relocation options. Before the NHL persuaded Mario Lemieux to retain ownership of the franchise to keep it in Pittsburgh, Balsillie showed great interest in moving it to Hamilton, reportedly selling thousands of season seat deposits in Canada’s Steel City. The following year the same man attempted the same relocation with the Nashville Predators before again losing out. A second NHL team in the Southern Ontario region has beguiled NHL observers and executives alike since the Hamilton Tigers dissolved in 1925.

Whatever your stance on the NHL coming to Hamilton may be, it is undoubtedly a hockey-obsessed region. Leafs fans might even tell you Hamilton is the first city west of their home venue that feels like its not actually just a suburb of Toronto. Though past Toronto Maple Leafs training camps have occurred as far south as St. Catharines and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, neither the Leafs nor Sabres have a concrete claim to the Niagara Peninsula region as far as the loyalties of its local hockey fans are concerned. On every variable you might contemplate in such a fan-territory debate the result comes up rather even except for national loyalty and television access if either of those matter greatly in such a hypothetical.

Not hypothetical at all is the fact that the Buffalo Sabres are the first NHL club based in the United States to participate in the league’s Heritage Classic series. Normally reserved for all-Canadian matchups highlighting our northern neighbor’s historic connection to the game, this development might provide rivalry fodder if only in the form of mere bragging rights and two points in the regular season standings. Juicier more is the subtle reality that the squad from Buffalo is listed as the home team in this game. Are the Buffalo Sabres invading Canada? Shall we declare everything up to Hamilton Harbor Sabres territory?

The Sabres come into the picture in a season they’re going to see their 11th straight non-playoff qualification in spite of a competitive mix on their roster that is no pushover either. The Leafs on the other hand have been dependably eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year since Barack Obama was President of the United States. Once again we ask: What is any of this worth? The Sabres are growing something from the ground up in Buffalo with numerous talented under 23s. Several of them are still yet to arrive. Less than five months after trading away Jack Eichel, it’s not as doom and gloom for the blue and gold as one may have predicted.

This young Sabres squad is playing for pride and probably knew it early in the season before the curly-haired New Englander was even gone. In a season like that you circle the games you want to have fun with and maybe imagine giving your fans, so far largely disinterested in seeing games this season, something to cheer for. Meanwhile Leafs fans can get nothing really intrinsically exciting from their club until the playoffs so all the players can do is try to hold off some late-season jitters and try to enjoy an outdoor game they probably have to take a bus to. They are skating to a franchise-best point total like they’re en route to a funeral. You can already hear Leafs fans trying to rationalize reasons their front office won’t be on the chopping block with an evitable first round loss to one of two absolute world-killing Florida teams. It would not be surprising to any professional observer of this league if this roster is, even if in limited ways, blown up following another first-round exit.

What does this game mean for the Buffalo Sabres?

At the very least they have the opportunity to tie a late-season anchor on the confidence of a club rattled by the losing legacy of their crest. They could put a down payment on an off-season blowup for a hated rival. As the Sabres look to finally make their assent after a decade-plus of mediocrity, a comprehensive win over Toronto could provide them their first outdoor win in dramatic fashion. If the future is as bright as we hope with this crop and the pieces yet to arrive few opportunities outside the playoffs could provide such a glowing first chapter as a win against the Leafs deep in contested territory. At 4 PM eastern on Sunday, March 13th we’re going to have a memorable match on our hands.

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