Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade's Best

The new decade is upon us, and what better time than New Year's Eve to recap the best Buffalo sports moments of the last decade. It's been an up-and-down kind of decade for us as fans - no playoff football, no hockey at all for a year, Stanley Cup playoff runs, and some miracles on and off the playing field. Being a Buffalo sports fan this decade was interesting to say the least, and there was always something to talk about. So for today, I am choosing to focus on the 10 most positive things that happened in the Buffalo sports world over the last 10 years.

As a disclaimer, these are my personal top moments, and they were compiled after much internal deliberation and much discussion with noted experts (ie. my dad). Without further ado, let the happy trip down memory lane begin!

10.) A trio of memorable games: Bills beat Pats 31-0, the Ottawa Brawl and Game 5 of the 2007 EC Semifinals. All three of these games provided something that seemed to be missing a lot in Buffalo sports over the last decade: excitement. When the Bills shutout the Pats to open their season, it was the most excited I've been during a football game this decade. The Ottawa Brawl added even more spark to a rivalry that has defined the decade in a lot of ways for the Sabres, and it proved that we have a coach in Lindy Ruff who is a man with a tough, Buffalo mentality through and through. And I had to include that game against the Rangers because I was there. I saw the Plaza teeming with screaming fans, I heard the car horns in the streets, I felt the energy radiating from every corner of the arena. Here's hoping that the excitement provided in these three games is reflected in the next decade in far more contests and with even more chills, hugs, and cheers.

9.) The Bisons Win the Governor's Cup. In 2004, the Buffalo Bisons took home the Governor's Cup, the championship of the International League. Being there during their postseason run was extremely memorable because I love baseball, and I love when it feels like an important sport in the WNY community. Though the team has struggled lately, for that year they were the best, and isn't that what we always dream of for our sports teams in Buffalo?

8.) March Madness Comes to Buffalo. I was lucky enough to get to see the first round NCAA Tournament action at HSBC Arena in 2007. To see so many people from so many places enjoying what our city had to offer was fantastic, and it was even cooler to see some of the most amazing talents in college basketball right in front of me. As a devout Duke Blue Devils fan, seeing them at their open practice and in a game was an experience I will remember forever. And for the many out there who don't like Duke, I'm sure you will always remember the upset they were handed, one of the most shocking of the past few first rounds, and it happened right in Buffalo.

7.) Bills Hall of Fame Inductees. Though the Bills didn't see the postseason these past 10 years, we were all able to relive a little bit of the Glory Years with the inductions of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Ralph Wilson Jr. and Mary Levy into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I give Thurman the honor of having the best speech - it was funny, moving, and eloquent. While the present looked dim this decade for the Bills, during those days at Canton fans got a reminder of just how proud we should be to be Bills fans.

6.) Bandits Win the NLL Championship. I'm still a little bitter that this came in 2008, the season before I got my season tickets. But when it happened doesn't matter, what matters is that it did happen. In a decade of futility for most of the Buffalo sports scene, the Bandits brought a championship to the city. Lacrosse fans are some the most passionate fans I've ever seen, and it makes me happy to know that they were rewarded with such a great team and a great outcome. I only wish I could have been in the arena to see it happen.

5.) The 2008 NHL Winter Classic.

Need I say more? For one day, the world took notice of our city and liked what it saw. We were passionate, beautiful, and perfect. Even though the game didn't turn out right, the atmosphere of the day was amazing, and it's something we'll all be telling our kids about someday.

4.) Kevin Everett Walks Again. It was a miracle - plain and simple. He should have been paralyzed - or even worse. But there he was, Kevin Everett, walking on the sidelines of the 2008 season opener.

There was no better moment for the Bills this decade, and I don't even know if a trip to the postseaon could have topped it in my eyes.

3.) UB Wins MAAC Championship. The entire 2008 season of UB Bulls football was an incredible journey to behold. From losers to winners, from embarrassed to respected, one season changed the face of college sports in Buffalo like no other. It made Turner Gill a hero and a Buffalo legend, and even though he has deservedly moved on, he will always be remembered for what he did for that program, that season, and the hopes of college football fans in this city.

2.) The Sabres President's Trophy Season. Think about it - what other season this decade had this city so excited from start to finish? We knew from the first 10 games that it was going to be special, and that team didn't let us down until the very end. Did it end poorly? Yes. Does it sometimes hurt to think back on it? Yes. But it was still the happiest I remember this city during the 2000s for such an extended period of time. From the opening win streak to the Ottawa Brawl and Drury's goal with 7.7 seconds left, they took the city for a ride that season - one that brought crowds to the Plaza and brought people together like I never remember seeing for a hockey team before. It was truly something special - something magical.

1.) Pominville's Shorthanded Goal Sends the Sabres to the 2006 Conference Finals. I know this wasn't the best moment of the decade, or maybe even the most memorable. But I think it was the most positive, the happiest. That goal symbolized that entire season - a player no one had heard of, one who everyone else had written off, scored a goal that never really should have happened. But it happened - just like that whole postseason run never really should have happened if you asked people coming out of the lockout about the "new" Sabres. From the looks on the players faces to the cheers coming from living rooms all over WNY, the joy in that moment was the purest joy of the decade in terms of sports. There was nothing to lose in that moment, no downside or doubts. There was only that "scary good" team that changed the perception of hockey in Buffalo - made it important again. Watch the video of it again, and think if there was any other moment this decade, in terms of Buffalo sports, that made you that ridiculously happy. For me, I know that this was it; the hope I felt after that goal was greater than any other time - I thought they could take on the world, and they did their best to put up one heck of a fight to the end.

What were your top moments of the decade? Think I'm crazy for my picks? I'd love to hear your choices!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding a Common Ground

I hope that everyone had a very Merry Christmas and that you are continuing to enjoy the holiday season. This time of year always makes me think about those that I am closest to, and it gives me time to reflect on those things that are central to our relationships.

Of course there are the usual things like trust, affection, and, in some cases, genetic ties. But there's also something to be said for common interests. And in a city like Buffalo, one of the most common of interests is sports.

Think about it - How many of you spent time at family holiday parties talking to a cousin or an in-law about Ryan Miller or who the Bills next coach should be? How many of you spent time watching a game with your friends over these last few days or are planning to this week? How many of you knew that someone really knew you because of the sports-themed gift you found under the Christmas tree? Please tell me it's not just me.

Sports bring us together. One of my favorite parts of Christmas day was the few minutes I spent with my cousin and my dad talking about the Sabres this season. It may have just been a discussion about Tyler Myers and the play of a certain #28, but, to me, it's what living in this city - or at least living in my family and with my friends - is all about. I never played sports, but I learned about them quickly because that's the language we speak. Conversations always come back to quarterbacks and powerplays; some game or another is always on TV wherever you are.

I've had so many amazing moments with my family and friends because of sports, whether it was listening to WGR on the radio every morning in my dad's car when I was in high school or cheering on the Bandits with my two best friends every home game last season. My sister and I bonded over trips to Duke University to see the basketball court and autograph signings with Jason Pominville. I love teaching my little cousin about hockey and taking her to open practices because it's something that brings us closer than anything else could.

In Buffalo, family time is often time spent watching the Bills on Sundays, no matter how horrible they are, because it's what we've always done. A night out is often a trip to HSBC Arena, and "big gifts" for Buffalo kids are often hockey jerseys or sticks in addition to iPods and video games.

Over and over again I am floored by the unifying power of sports. At a time of year when family and friendships are focused on more than any other, I am awed by just how much better those relationships are because of the common ground that the Bills and Sabres have provided over the years. They've given us shared enemies, shared heroes and shared dreams.

We need sports - if only to have something to talk about at all of those holiday parties.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Christmas List this Year

Dear Santa,

I'd like to think I've been a good girl this year. I even sacrificed blogging to do big-girl things like get an internship and write a thesis. I try to be nice (except when it comes to Chris Neil), and I try not to overreact (except when properly labeled "Overreaction Central"). I've even stopped throwing things at the TV during Bills games (which may have more to do with apathy than actually being good, but that's beside the point).

With those things in mind, I hope you have it in your heart to deliver at least one of the things that I, as a Buffalo sports fan, am dreaming of this Christmas.

I would like a Sabres win against the Senators on Saturday. Any variety of win would do - I'm not picky. I would just like to see Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu, who are always naughty boys, lose to nice ones like Paul Gaustad and Ryan Miller for once.

I would like a young, passionate new coach for the Bills next year. Again, I'm not picky, but someone outside of the current organization would be nice.

I want Paul Gaustad to make Team USA like I haven't wanted anything since that Barbie Dream House when I was seven years old.

I want this year's Bandits season to be even better than last year's, and I want those passionate lacrosse fans to get rewarded with many big wins by their team.

I'm wishing like crazy for Ryan Miller to stay healthy for the rest of this season and for Patrick Lalime to continue to play well so Miller can get some rest.

I want more intermission features like last night's Festivus one with Drew Stafford. I love when the team and Lindy show how much fun they can be because you know that they are in a good place.

And Santa, I would like to send a wish from all of the long-suffering Buffalo sports fans out there. We've been very good and very patient for a very long time. We believe in our teams with the blind faith that kids have in you. I can only hope that, someday, we are rewarded for that undying faith with a championship. Please, Santa, all we're asking is for a reason to believe again.

Finally, I really want nothing more than a happy, safe, and healthy holiday season for all of the fans, bloggers, and readers out there. They and their families deserve the merriest of Christmases.


Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a very happy holiday season!

Friday, December 18, 2009

He's Back!

I know I'm not the only one who has missed Paul Gaustad in the Sabres lineup. He brings to the ice things that I think the team has been sorely missing in his absence (besides good bone structure and nice eyes).

He should help the team dramatically on faceoffs, even if he won't be 100 percent yet. Also, he should help the power play from his position in front of the net. He may not score a ton of power play goals, but his ability to screen goalies should help some more shots to get through (hopefully).

There's something else, too, something that is hard to define about Goose's influence on the team. He's become a definite leader on the ice and in the locker room, and his play this season is really backing that up. He's having a career year, and it makes me so proud to see him having that kind of success. Before this season, Lindy used to say in interviews that Goose had to work on his own game before he could wear a letter. Now that he has his "A," I think it's only made him a better player. He plays with heart and grit every game, but now it's nice to see tangible things like faceoff percentages and goal totals to go along with what I always loved about his play.

This excitement over Goose coming back and the season he's been having was the lead Sabres story in The Buffalo News today. They also mentioned that he's still a possible candidate for the U.S. Olympic team. The idea of my favorite hockey player, my all-guts-no-glory grinder, getting chosen to represent American hockey on the biggest international stage is incredible. To imagine what that would be like for him, someone who never even saw himself in the NHL, makes me so happy. His toughness, faceoff ability, and leadership would really be an asset for Team USA. Plus, it would be great for me personally to just get to look at him on TV for a few extra weeks!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Quick Hits

Some random thoughts as I steel my nerves for the Sabres-Sens game tomorrow night:

*In my last post, I said that Paul Gaustad was challenging Pat Kaleta for his spot in my father's heart. Apparently, Patty took that personally and then went on to have two amazing games with two shorthanded goals. Both were impressive, but I especially liked the one on Lundqvist. It was a shot with a lot of confidence, and it was so unexpected. I always love seeing grinders get recognition, so I am very happy to see him in the spotlight. Plus, I like when other people get to see their underappreciated favorite get some love from people other than them, so I'm happy for my dad!

*Speaking of underappreciated favorites, I am really missing Goose out on the ice. I never noticed how important his face-off skills were until we were without them. At least he's improving, though, so hopefully he'll be back soon. I really wish he was playing tomorrow - he's the only one I trust to give Chris Neil a beating.

*In NFL news, J.P. Losman is reportedly heading to Oakland. I finally get to use my "I don't think you're a failure, J.P." tag again! That's pretty much the extent of how much I care about that news. It's nice to see him back in the NFL, but the Bills this season have drained a lot of my energy in terms of the effort I put into my football fandom. It's hard for me to care about a sport when my team is so irrelevant in it.

*I forgot to say this in my last post, but my thoughts and prayers go out to Mike Grier and his family after the passing of his mother. As someone who lost someone close to her around Christmas, I know that's not easy. Kudos to him for coming back as soon as he did, and I'm sure he's getting all the support he needs from his teammates and coaches. They really are a family, and I hope that comforts him.

*Tomorrow the Sabres play in Ottawa. Just saying that makes me start to shake involuntarily. I have come to dread Ottawa games like I dreaded Calculus class - the feeling of failure just hangs around it. I'm hoping that they prove my exceedingly low expectations ("just don't get embarrassed") wrong, but I'm not planning on a win. You may call that being negative, but I call that being a Sabres fan for the last four years. Again, let's just hope they prove my pessimism wrong.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What I've Learned

I can't believe it's been almost a month since I've posted. I've been a terrible blogger this semester, but it's finally over now. I think I learned some valuable lessons in the past month, too:

* I learned that I cannot balance a senior honors thesis, an internship, being a regular college kid, and having a blog. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I've been over-my-head in literary analysis for the past few months, but I'm so glad that it's done. It seemed like every time a game was on, I had to use that free time to work on things for school. I've missed so much - especially in the last month, so thank you to all the amazing bloggers that I read who keep me caught up on what's been going on in Sabre-land.

*I learned that my fantasy hockey scouting is unparalleled when it comes to goalies. Who knew Ryan Miller would have this kind of season? Oh yeah...I did. Thanks (almost single-handedly) to Millsie, "Kane's Taxi Co." is going strong. In actuality, I always pick Sabres over most any other player of equal (or sometimes greater) talent, so I can't claim any psychic powers. I really just learned that my admiration of Ryan Miller knows no bounds, and that there are no more words to describe how much he means to this team.

*I learned that I still love Goose as much as ever. My dad got a hat autographed by him for me yesterday, and now my father won't stop gushing over how genuine he was and how personable he seemed. I think Goose is now challenging Pat Kaleta for a spot in my father's heart!

*I learned that I hate missing games, even parts of them. I teach at the dance studio until 8 every Friday, and it kills me to come in after the game has already started. I miss the anticipation, the excitement, and the fact that I could actually go to Friday games when I had the money.

Hopefully I'll be able to find my stride again over this break. I plan on going to at least one morning skate and one game (not sure which yet) before classes start again. I am also making this known on here so you all can help me stick to it: I plan to blog at least five times a week - I have lots of catching up to do and thoughts to share!

Speaking of thoughts - Did anyone else have trouble wiping the smile off of their faces after seeing Lalime get the win in net tonight? He was so happy, the team was so happy, and I am still so happy.