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Maybe Western New York never realized that something was missing until the Buffalo Sabres returned to a hockey-starved town Sunday afternoon.

Call it the “hockey buzz” – that intangible feeling infecting hometown fans fired up about a National Hockey League game.

There it was Sunday, at full strength, as die-hard Sabres fans streamed into First Niagara Center for the first time this season following a four-month lockout. From regular old fans, to ticket takers and vendors inside the arena, to downtown bar and restaurant proprietors, the Sabres’ return – not to mention their 5-2 victory over the visiting Philadelphia Flyers – seemed to add a sunny tinge to a cold and blustery Sunday.

“The crowd, the atmosphere – it’s just so energized in here,” said security official Victor Aguilar between periods above the arena’s main lobby.

Indeed, an aura missing from the downtown scene for months returned Sunday, even if only for a truncated 48-game schedule. Scalpers hawked tickets along previously quiet downtown streets, young people on hockey dates showed up in matching jerseys, and nobody seemed fazed at all over traffic snarls spawned by a sold-out audience.

A few hours before game time, arriving fans experienced a special welcome from the entire Sabres team, who suddenly appeared at the main gates to greet returning fans. They shook hands, signed autographs and posed for photos.

“All of a sudden, everyone saw the players coming out to see them,” said Ed Cotter, a Buffalo Police Department detective who was also working security at the game. “It was just a real nice gesture.”

Around the ice, hockey fans enthusiastic over the Sabres’ prospects this year seemed poised to vent their pent-up frustrations. After loudspeakers blared “The Boys Are Back” just before referees dropped the first puck, a full house roared to the announcer’s rally cry of “Let’s play hockey.”

Then it was only a matter of time before the first fisticuffs of the season erupted, prompting a lusty roar from a crowd that seemed to ask: “What took you so long?” And when the upper reaches of the 300 section spawned a “Let’s go, Buffalo!” cheer, it was obvious these fans had been waiting a long time to proclaim their loyalties. All it took was a power-play goal by Steve Ott – his first as a Sabre – at the 11:07 mark of the first period to rock the house.

It all added up to a fun afternoon for Jenny and Colin Ramsey, enjoying not only a beverage but the whole atmosphere at the Aud Club bar.

“It’s great having so many people down here, and there’s just so much excitement,” Jenny Ramsey said.

“It’s finally nice to be able to make out my sports events list for the next few months,” added her husband.

More than a few fans, however, were still playing hard to get after being jilted by the NHL over the past long months. Tom Buchan of St. Catharines, Ont., was ready to rekindle his love affair with hockey, but with a little less passion – at least for now.

“I don’t feel the real excitement in the air yet. It will take time,” he said. “All the teams will have to prove themselves to the fans.”

“It’s not resentment, but a little apathy,” he added. “Maybe we have to just warm up to them. If the team plays well, it won’t take long.”

But the return of the Sabres means much more to hundreds who depend on the team for their livelihoods. With a 50-percent-off sale of all merchandise inside arena shops, sales personnel such as Dawn Prynn had little time to chat while tending to long lines of customers.

And outside the Old Time Hockey store, Bill and Michelle Blythe of Oakville, Ont., had just picked up an official jersey, two pairs of gloves and a decal.

“The lockout was a good deal for us at 50 percent off,” Michelle Blythe said.

“We got a new Nexus card just to come to all the games,” her husband added, referring to the pass that provides express clearance through customs at the international bridges.

While tending a busy bar above the main lobby, Bob Durham of South Buffalo said it was good to return to the “great job” he has held for a decade and see so many familiar faces.

“I’m glad for all the businesses around here, too,” he said.

Nobody agreed more than Melissa Smith, bar manager at the Liberty Hound on the inner harbor. The lockout forced the new restaurant and tavern to suspend operations earlier this year, but the doors swung open again for business on Sunday.

“Are we glad? That’s an understatement,” Smith said, adding the bar was full and lunch business was brisk even before the 12:30 p.m. face-off.

And over at the Irish Times on Swan Street, owner Marie Stachera pronounced herself the happiest businesswoman in Buffalo now that hockey fans are returning to her downtown mahogany.

“I never want to live through another four months like that again,” she said. “I had to borrow every month and max out my credit card. It’s all about events down here.”

But with the Sabres posting a healthy lead late Sunday afternoon, early arrivals were already streaming in – just the way they were supposed to.

“And with the Blue Jays across the street for baseball, I think it’s going to be a phenomenal season,” she said.

Perhaps few people could appreciate the return of hockey more than Tom “Conehead” Girot, the legendary beer and snacks hawker at both First Niagara Center and Coca-Cola Field. He’s now in his 41st season of slaking the thirsts of hockey fans.

“When I woke up this morning, I didn’t say ‘good morning’ to my wife,” he said. “I told her it’s going to be a great day.”

Then Conehead turned toward the stands with his familiar refrain: “Cold Buds, Bud Light, peanuts. Get your cold Buds here.”

Hockey was back on this Sunday afternoon. So was life in Buffalo.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com