Certainly they buy
just as they buy-in. The Flyers are third in the league in attendance but claim
to be first in what NHL people call "per caps"—merchandise revenue
divided by tickets sold. (When Philadelphia signed prized free agent center
Daniel Brière, his number 48 jersey shot to the top of NHL merchandise sales in
August.) The seats near the glass in Philly have always been crammed with fans
in orange and now black jerseys, leaving the impression that opponents aren't
playing against 20 Flyers but 200. Says goalie Martin Biron, traded from the
Buffalo Sabres to Philadelphia last spring, "This always has been the most
intimidating building in the league."
If the postlockout
rule changes have eroded any of the sport's soul in a city that loves its
hockey chaotic—"The game's become so sanitized it's hard to get that primal
scream for it anymore," says Al Morganti, who does a Flyers postgame show
on TV—raw numbers don't reflect it. During a seven-day period in mid-November
the Flyers and their minor league affiliate, the Phantoms, who play across the
parking lot in the Spectrum (and are sixth in AHL attendance despite the NHL
team's presence), each had three home games. Combined attendance: 78,046.
"People don't come here to see the Ducks because they won the Stanley
Cup," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren says. "They come because the
Ducks are playing the Flyers. It's always been like that." Indeed. Despite
missing the playoffs five straight seasons in the early 1990s, the feckless
Flyers sold out 94 of 202 home games in that stretch. And although the Flyers
were the worst team in the NHL last season, they still played to 98.7% of
capacity at the Wachovia Center.
Bob Clarke, the
Flyers' senior vice president, stands up for his team's honor now almost as
aggressively as he did as the star of the Broad Street Bullies. "When
Detroit was bad [in the 1980s], the Red Wings couldn't put 3,000 in their
building and they were giving away cars," he says. "Buffalo had to file
for bankruptcy. St. Paul looks like a huge success [now], but Minneapolis was
awful when the North Stars were there. [Clarke was the North Stars G.M. when
the team reached the Cup final in 1991.] This is pro Hockeytown."
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.
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
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.
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."