In Search of... Hockeytown U.S.A. (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM; Updated: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM
So the gauntlet is thrown down, just like Cote's overhand left.
Three doors lead into HSBC Arena, each topped with a frieze. The ones above the left and right doors depict goalies making sprawling glove saves; stampeding buffalo adorn the center. Almost all of the 18,690 people who will see the Sabres thump Montreal 4-1 on this night stream through those doors and mill about the lobby, creating a charged pregame atmosphere. In an era in which almost any game is available on TV or the Internet, the best reason to buy a ticket is the sense of community it offers, a chance to spend three hours with people who have shared values and shared expectations. With the teeming lobby, the Sabres offer a game and a hockey town-hall meeting.
"Last year some of our people thought we should call ourselves America's Team on Ice," says Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn two hours before the opening face-off against the Canadiens on Nov. 16. "I mean, if we're not Hockeytown, who is? But we said, let's win one or two Cups first before we start with that. I can't imagine throwing something on the ice to call attention to ourselves. It just doesn't seem like Buffalo. It seems more like Dallas."
Still, the Sabres indulged in some self-congratulation in October, when they publicized a Scarborough Research survey that said Buffalo had the NHL's most loyal fans: 28.9% of males and 21.6% of females responded that they were very or somewhat interested in the team. (In Philadelphia 12.7% of men and 7.5% of women fit that category.)
Four years after owner Tom Golisano rescued the Sabres from bankruptcy -- part of the fallout from the fraud conviction of former owner John Rigas, founder of Adelphia Communications -- the revival has been stunning. "I had friends with season tickets who couldn't give them away," says Brière, an ex-Sabre. But now, helped in part by a cut in prices, the season ticket base is at 14,800, up from 6,200 at its nadir. Even though fewer than 1,000 seats in HSBC Arena are purchased by corporations, Buffalo sold every available ticket last season and will likely do the same in 2007-08.
This is mom-and-pop hockey, supported by people who, in Quinn's estimation, spend more of their disposable income on hockey than fans in any other city. Says Sabres equipment manager Rip Simonick, who was with the team when it entered the league 37 years ago, "This is a small city, shrinking before our eyes" -- according to the 2006 census, there were about 180,000 more people in Buffalo in 1970 than today's 276,059 -- "but people here appreciate that hockey is a hard, physical game. You work for every dollar here. If you give an effort, the fans will always be there for you."
It is no accident that the NHL chose Buffalo to be the site of the league's first outdoor game in the U.S. The Sabres will host the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 10 miles from downtown, on New Year's Day. The 41,000 tickets made available to the public sold out in a half hour.
"There's a trauma here, with so many people's kids having moved out of town," Quinn says. "Sports for a Buffalo person is an outlet to fight back against that trauma. It's almost like a cause. For a lot of people Sabres tickets are what they do instead of taking vacations. I ask people, 'How can you afford it?' They say, 'Well, we go to 40 games instead of going to Florida, and we don't take a summer vacation.' "
"In some ways," G.M. Darcy Regier says, "this is like small-town Canada."