It is the beginning of the end of the suffering. Hallelujah.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula came to his senses Wednesday and put people in high places who will – unless I miss my guess – allow this area to start feeling good again about its hockey team.
That’s all I care about. The intricacies of players and strategies are expertly covered by The Buffalo News sports department. What matters to me, and I think to a lot of people, is having a team that we can be proud of. A team that reflects the tough, character-laden nature of a place where snow blasts in horizontally across the lake. A place where smokestacks and grain elevators reflect a broad-shouldered, no-excuses mentality. A place where hard times have lasted for a lot of our lifetimes. That kind of team, for this kind of place.
That is, sadly, not the kind of hockey team we have had for most of my 32 years here. Instead, the Sabres in the post-French Connection years – except for a few memorable stretches – have been too small, too soft and too frilly.
Wednesday’s overdue jettisoning of General Manager Darcy Regier removes the architect of 16 years of mostly mediocrity (with his promise of more “suffering” to come). The worst of his shortcomings was a failure to build teams that reflected the identity and character of their city.
The lowest point, aside from this season’s abyss, was when Boston tough guy Milan Lucic took out defenseless goalie Ryan Miller in a road game two years ago and no Sabre had Miller’s back. It felt like the whole town hung its head the next day. It’s tough to hold a heart-challenged team close to your heart, much less pay money to see it.
Professional sports teams, for better or worse, represent to the outside world the town in which they play. Granted, pro athletes are mercenaries whose time here is usually brief. But during their stay, they wear the colors and carry the civic flag. We want a team whose identity reflects how we see ourselves and want to be seen by the world. That’s especially true in a city that outsiders don’t believe has much going for it.
That’s why it’s particularly painful to be stuck with character-lite, heartbreaking pro sports teams. Between the Sabres lately and the long-dry Bills, Buffalo’s pro teams have – instead of providing a point of pride – fed our communal inferiority complex.
It is no accident that Pegula hired Pat LaFontaine, an all-time Sabre whose modest physical stature enveloped a huge competitive heart. Nor that LaFontaine brought back Ted Nolan, who in his brief ’90s tenure here coached the “hardest-working team in hockey” – a character-laden squad that still is fondly remembered. It was an easy team for us to embrace. It’s a mystery why that sort of tough, talented, no-quit squad was the exception here, not the rule.
Buffalo is not a three-shift town anymore. But for all the talk of a health-and-service economy, we still make things. Nearly 1 in 10 workers here has a manufacturing job. We have two auto plants and plenty of hands-on labor.
We deserve a hockey team that reflects who and what we are. For the better part of 30 years, it is all this city has asked. With Wednesday’s upheaval, our civic prayers will finally begin to be answered.