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The feeling's mutual

Buffalo riding wave of love for the Sabres

Posted: Monday October 30, 2006 4:41PM; Updated: Monday October 30, 2006 4:59PM
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Hometown hero Ryan Miller and his adoring public in Buffalo's packed HSBC Arena.
Hometown hero Ryan Miller and his adoring public in Buffalo's packed HSBC Arena.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
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What is happening in Buffalo with the Sabres transcends the team's on-ice excellence. It's at once a comeback story and a love affair. There is an emotional connection between the fans and the players that gets to the core of community and the bond of civic pride. It reminds us all of the significant role that a pro sports franchise can hold in the best scenario.

When the fans stood and applauded their team following the Sabres' first loss this season, after tying the best start in NHL history (10-0), it was a heartfelt tribute. When the players gathered at center ice and acknowledged the fans, it was one of those special moments that gives you goosebumps. Not so much because the salute was unique -- after all it has been done before -- but because you could sense the conviction behind the nod.

The game itself lent itself to exhilaration as the visiting Atlanta Thrashers took the lead four separate times only to see the hometown heroes rally and tie the score. It went to a shootout and the Thrashers prevailed -- proof that this is no storybook saga. It is real, palpable and invigorating. And to think the Sabres were on the brink of extinction and in bankruptcy just four years ago.

Not now. The rink is packed and rocking, with only 30,000 single seats left for the remaining 35 home games. Sellouts are on the horizon for the entire season. Not too long ago, the place was half-empty and the team's fortunes and future were in doubt. Where once a beleaguered franchise mirrored that of a downtrodden area and its economy, there is now an energy emanating from the Sabres' fine play that echoes throughout the city on game days. From the vibrant street vendors to the exuberant tailgaters, the streets are alive.

And the players embrace the mood. Goaltender Ryan Miller talked about the change since the team's springtime run to the Eastern Conference Final. He says that he is recognized around town because he's the only "skinny guy with long hair" on the team and easy to spot. But self-effacing commentary aside, Miller was very thoughtful and insightful when commenting on the buzz in the community. He welcomes all of the trappings because he feels an increased sense of passing the game on to another generation when the building is at capacity and he sees all the kids in attendance.

Miller was all about hockey when he was growing up, so he identifies with and is heartened by seeing so many kids showing up and caring about their team and favorite players. He feels that every athlete dreams about having success in an environment that cares and responds. He knows that isn't always the case, that oftentimes it is an elusive combination.

It was once that way in Buffalo -- during the mid-1970s when the French Connection was thrilling the locals with their offensive exploits. Well, that feeling is back, and all involved -- from Miller in his crease to the guy with his face painted in the last row --  are loving every minute of it, right down to the last nuanced detail... with no record-breaking start required.