Let’s talk goodbyes.
First, let’s talk about the spirit of a goodbye. Sometimes, parting ways is welcome. Something that you wanted out of your life is about to be. You’ll put on your best fake smile, offer some well-wishes and move on with your day. Hell, there are goodbyes that are so cathartic that you walk away with unbridled glee, like a kid at the grocery store that got to pick out all their own snacks. Life is good when you say a goodbye that ultimately makes your life better.
When you love and care about something or someone, though, goodbyes are unpleasant. We try to avoid them, to not let deep pangs of sadness stab through our more veiled, measured outward personas. You might go through the stages of grief. It may take you longer to physically and emotionally recover. There may be a dull buzz in your brain, as you highlight the “what-ifs,” poring over what you’ve lost, wondering if you spent your limited time with that person or thing you love wisely.
I’m in the latter camp when it comes to this Buffalo Sabres season, when I really thought it would have been the former. At the start of the year, I was ready to write the team off before they even set foot on the ice. It’s not like I was delusional about the trajectory of a rebuilding hockey team; it was more like asking myself, “How do I find anything worth anything in this team more than passive interest?” You can only repeat lines about the future and the young core so much, until it begins to sound like a coping mechanism. I anticipated that, at season’s end, my goodbye to this team would, like last year, feel more like “good riddance.”
Then, around halfway through the season, I started listening to Don Granato on WGR on Tuesday mornings. Not only would I get the meat-and-potatoes stuff to know what to expect for the coming week, but I heard an unbridled enthusiasm in Granato’s voice when he’d talk about players and their development, whether it was a young gun like Krebs or a seasoned vet like Okposo. He would sing Dahlin’s praises at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, to a point where I wanted to know what he was putting in his coffee every morning to be that excited. About the Sabres.
Yeah, I understand that that’s his job. He’s supposed to pump his guys up publicly, or else there’s going to be bad press. With that said, though, I don’t think he’s trying to fleece us. There’s always an authenticity and earnestness in his voice when he mentions Okposo’s desire to keep improving despite his years in the league, or when he hypes up Dahlin for the freak talent that he is. There’s a sincere belief in his group and thoughtfulness in his coaching that I could go on for days about, but I’ll save that for another day. All of this to say, though, that this genuine hope and belief in his team is infectious.
That belief — dare I say, that culture shift — showed up in flashes every now and then at the start, when it was still easy to be cynical. Then, you saw it after The Trade. You caught glimpses of it at the trade deadline, when it seemed apparent no one wanted to leave. Owen Power brought even more life into the team. Hell, there’s even been a noticeable shift in the team’s social media tone, with a sense of, “Hey, we’re just happy to be here.” The team is showing, rather than just telling, that there’s more in store. No one is phoning it in. The belief is real, even when the team still has tough questions awaiting in the offseason about how they can be sustainably competitive.
This all makes it so much harder to say goodbye. I’m not ready to watch a team finally realizing its potential leave the ice for the last time this year. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m not ready to let go.
Now, let’s talk about the substance of a goodbye, because some things merit proper sendoffs.
A little while back, the staff here collected some of their memories of Sabres play-by-play broadcaster and living legend, Rick Jeanneret, set to call one last game tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks, and then hang up the headset for good. I missed the boat on sending a memory, but even if I had, I actually don’t know that one particular call stands out.
Don’t misunderstand me, here — I don’t want to give the impression that he’s not important to me. Quite the opposite! For my entire life, Rick Jeanneret has done more than just play-by-play. He has painted vivid pictures of this sport since my toddler brain could first understand that something was on the TV or the radio. For me, he is synonymous with sport. That’s why, when it comes down to it, it’s really hard to limit yourself to one memory or one call you loved, when, in truth, his voice and personality are ubiquitous. It’s hard to find one right way to say goodbye. especially when you don’t want to.
Despite years of cynicism, I’m obviously not the only one who wants to this to end the right way. Fans packed the house for Rick on April 1 to watch a stunning, retirement banner from Oxford Pennant unfurl in the rafters. Despite differences in opinion about lots of things — trajectory of the team, impact of the ownership, whatever — we came together for the first sellout game in ages to celebrate a man who has artfully called games for half a century. The #ThankYouRJ hashtag is full of sincere, wonderful memories of the man who defined the game for us. And, as icing on the cake, the team’s “vibes” (as they’ve come to be called affectionately online) have mostly matched up with this multi-month celebration of Jeanneret’s career.
It’s been a lucky, unexpected confluence of good, wholesome things — a fun and special way to close one chapter, and start another.
When RJ gave his brief address to a packed house earlier this month, he referenced the song “Beautiful Noise” by Neil Diamond. The song itself is about the peace you find in the everyday sights and sounds of your life. Rick concluded by saying the roar of the fans, a sound I’m sure he hadn’t heard in quite a while, was his “beautiful noise.”
Just as fan jubilation was his beautiful noise, his jubilant, manic calls have been ours. The team, for the first time in 11 years, is giving us all something to connect with. How do you say goodbye to that? How do you reckon with letting go of one of your sports heroes, when we’re finally watching a team that might be worthy of the beautiful noise that RJ has offered us for 51 years?
If you’re watching at home or at the bar, you take in the fact that you are listening to a legendary, generational talent narrate a game for you one last time. If you’re going to the game, as I am, you bring the energy and the beautiful noise that heartens RJ’s calls to give him one final dose of the vibrance KeyBank Center has long lacked. Wherever you’re watching, you reward the team tonight for its efforts, because there’s plenty to complain and argue about tomorrow.
In short? To say goodbye to this season and Rick Jeanneret the right way, you live in the moment. You ride the vibes. You embrace the beautiful noise.