An old friend with a deep passion for Western New York left me a simple text Saturday that didn’t require an explanation. It was the quote of the day from some website that read, “Where hope grows, miracles blossom.” It was something any long-suffering Buffalo fan could understand.
Buffalo has cornered the market on hope. The Bills and Sabres spent years selling it by the barrel to unsuspecting suckers who failed to realize they were being held over a barrel. They bought false hope because they felt they had no other choice. Alas, if they looked back, they would realize the Bills and Sabres were hopeless.
Genuine hope in the Bills and Sabres appears to be making a resurgence after being absent from one or both for far too long. There’s a sense recently that Buffalo can claw its way from the depths of sports irrelevancy. In a refreshing departure from the past, the Bills and Sabres appear committed to winning rather than taking your money.
Allow me to suggest that this is the dawn of a new and improved – and for some, unfamiliar – era for tortured Buffalo sports fans. They shouldn’t be getting their hopes up too high just yet, but both organizations have shown subtle signs of progress. Sunshine is breaking through the darkness. Finally, both teams appear to be in good hands.
Russ Brandon, Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone have helped changed the culture along One Bills Drive, made possible after Ralph Wilson relinquished his hold over the organization after years of holding it back. Pat LaFontaine was a gift from the hockey gods, made possible after the Sabres fired Darcy Regier.
Let’s not forget UB, which is having a great year in football and began a new era in basketball under Bobby Hurley. Terry Pegula is building a palace along Jim Kelley Way that will serve amateur hockey. There’s talk of a downtown stadium for the Bills. The waterfront has become a project in motion rather than a local punch line.
Is it me or does the future look bright?
Hope alone doesn’t win games, of course, and it certainly doesn’t win championships. Both teams need to continue making good decisions and create an atmosphere that attracts free agents. They need to draft well and develop better. In certain areas, they need drastic upgrades in talent. Hope is nothing more than a start in the right direction.
It brings people together and builds confidence and competitiveness and chemistry. It comes from the neck up and can make a team infinitely more dangerous than talent from the neck down. Real hope has been so missing for so long that people forget that it was once a quality Buffalo shared year round.
You need to go back more than two decades to find the last time the Bills won a playoff game and the Sabres won a playoff series in the same year. It was 1992-93, back when the Internet was in its infancy and cell phones were the size of toaster ovens, back when Jim Kelly was leading the Bills and LaFontaine was leading the Sabres.
Kids, ask your parents about May Day. Children who were in kindergarten when Brad May scored the winner over the Bruins have since become parents, for heaven’s sake. An entire generation has grown up without seeing the Bills and Sabres simultaneously enjoy any measure of success. It hasn’t happened in the lifetime of a college sophomore.
Boston, meanwhile, has won a championship in each of the four major sports since 2005. The Patriots and Red Sox have won three titles apiece in the last 11 years. Both were troubled franchises that were rebuilt from the top. They’re proof that titles are within reach if intelligent people who understand sports are placed in the right positions.
Let me be clear. The Bills and Sabres aren’t fixed by any means. The Bills haven’t won a playoff game since 1995 and will likely miss the postseason again this year. The Sabres haven’t won a playoff series since 2007 and are on pace to finish with fewer than 20 victories for only the second time in franchise history.
But there are reasons for optimism.
The Bills appear to have their franchise quarterback in EJ Manuel despite the growing pains ahead. Marrone’s no-nonsense approach fits Buffalo. Whaley seems to have a nose for talent. They have a nucleus of good young players. If enough things fall into place, they could make the playoffs this year. If not, they’re trending in the right direction.
LaFontaine is working from the bottom. He and Ted Nolan are figuring out which players are worth keeping, which could take another month. He could be several weeks away from hiring a general manager after examining his options. They could be years away from the playoffs. But with him comes a belief that he’ll make the right decisions.
You can only hope.