Video screens proclaimed “Welcome Back, Sabres Fans” throughout First Niagara Center on Monday evening, as hockey-hungry fanatics streamed back to the arena for their first live glimpse of the team they were deprived of during the nearly four-month NHL lockout.
“It’s great to see them,” said lifelong fan Kevin Quinnan of South Buffalo, as he watched the players swoosh up and down the ice during the first period of an open scrimmage session. He got to the arena at 4:30 p.m., an hour before the scrimmage was scheduled to start.
“As soon as I walked in, I hit the store,” he said, “and then I got a nice seat.”
He was wearing a brand new Marcus Foligno jersey. In the bag he was carrying, there was a French Connection commemorative cap.
“Thirteen dollars with the discount,” he said of the cap.
Everything in the Sabres store is half price from now through Saturday, the day before the team plays its first home game of the shortened season.
Quinnan was not so lucky with his seat. Returning from the washroom, he found that he couldn’t get back into the section where he had been sitting.
“The guy told me it was filled up,” he said.
Since admission was free and seats were not reserved, ushers began turning fans away from the most desirable sections, such as center ice on the 100 level, half an hour before the puck dropped for the start of scrimmage at 6.
There was unrestricted access to the premium seats on the 200 level, although the concession stands there were not open. The uppermost seats in the 300 level were closed.
The Sabres announced that 10,175 fans showed up for the scrimmage.
“I don’t think they were expecting this many people,” said an usher. “It’s fantastic.”
The intensity of fan enthusiasm surprised everyone. When availability opened Sunday for season ticket and mini-pack holders, the Sabres set a single-day sales record of 31,213. Team President Ted Black noted that the sales volume “blew us away.”
A similar rush is expected today when single-ticket sales begin.
The Sabres announced Monday that four home games already are sold out – the opener Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Feb. 17 game with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the March 12 game against the New York Rangers and the March 30 contest with the Washington Capitals.
Only single seats remain in the 100 and 200 levels for the remaining 20 home games, the team added, and fewer than 18,000 seats are available in the 300 level for all of those 20 games combined.
Although Monday evening’s exercise wasn’t a real game, the players skated hard and scrapped intensely for the puck.
Special attention was directed at 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, the Russian rookie sensation who showed a lot of energy and speed during his shifts on the ice.
A round of applause followed a spectacular save by star goalie Ryan Miller, and moments later, when a classic two-man attack sent the puck past reserve goalie Jhonas Enroth, it almost felt like the season was in full swing.
The crowd drifted away during the second period of the scrimmage, however. Many went to the Sabres store, where it was so packed with shoppers it was like Christmas week at the mall. Ryan Miller jerseys were sold out, except for some children’s sizes. Same with Patrick Kaleta.
Lines 10-deep formed in front of the first-level concession stands, where discounts were also in force. Pizza slices were $3. Hot dogs were $2. Draft beers were $4. An exception was the Pile High Deli Sandwiches counter, where there were no discounts.
“It’s not like a real game,” said cashier Melissa Milligan. Counterman Tyrique Gibson, who said he spent the past four months watching ESPN for news about “the pointless lockout,” added that he looks forward to being busy during the abbreviated 48-game season.
“And,” he said, “I expect us to be in the playoffs.”