It's never going to happen for me. Ever.
The sooner I accept that, the better. High hopes equal disappointment. Period. I would rather wallow in mediocrity than get close to the top of the mountain and fall off. There's that old adage: better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Not true. It's easy to go through life with a cold, black heart, caring for nothing and nobody.
No. Loving and losing is the toughest thing. If you don't care, it doesn't hurt.
It is the toughest of times, and you can't possibly understand it.
Not unless you too are a Buffalo sports fan.
My Sabres, so wonderfully dominant throughout the regular season, ran into a brick wall. They won the President's Cup for best record in the league, and they had the best record in the NHL pretty much wire-to-wire.
They fought hard in two series against the Islanders and Rangers, which supposedly proved their mettle in high-pressure situations. They had high hopes going into a series with the #4 seed Ottawa Senators, which everyone expected to be a classic series. While games 2 and 3 have been exciting, they have not proved to add up to a classic series. So now, barring only the third 3-0 comeback in NHL history (and the first since the year before I was born), the Slugs will finally be laid to rest in a salty grave.
And here's the thing: it was completely unexpected.
I should have known better. More about our history in a moment, but first a brief requiem for this beautiful team. They were the most talented scorers in the league this year, and they were shut out in Game 3. For the first time. All season. I don't know if they are too tired, thinking too much, or what. But they are done. And it kills me to say that. This was the first time since I was in high school that I felt that one of "my teams" had a shot -- a real shot -- to win it all. They were so strong this year, and battled adversity all year. This year, they came into the playoffs healthy and with something to prove. And all they have to show for it is a big goose-egg.
I don't even really want them to win Game Four. Let it end already. No mas. If you have to break our hearts, do it in another country.
I said before that this was totally unexpected, but now that I think of it, it was totally expected. Since I was 11 years old I have been a Bills and Sabres fan, and they have all climbed toward the top of the mountain only to tumble down.
Buffalo sports fans are unique. I am from Rochester, not Buffalo, but we share the same Western New York/Rust Belt sensibility. Rochester is Buffalo's loyal little brother, which is why I can't for the life of me figure out why there are so many goddamn Giants, Dolphins and Rangers fans in the area. But that's neither here nor there.
We share a very unique set of circumstances that no other city or region can really even come close to duplicating, and while many people are "fans" of their teams, there is nothing quite like the connection -- and heartbreak -- of being a Buffalo fan. Is there a fan of any city's teams in the country that can match this set of criteria?
- Miserable Location. Now, I hate when people say "Oh you only care about that team so much because you have nothing else to do where you live." If that were the case, are Yankees and Red Sox and Broncos and Cowboys fans lesser fans? I would never make that claim. But the fact is that sports are one of our great sources of pride because we can enjoy them indoors, since they generally take place in the colder months. I live a (relatively) fulfilling life in Syracuse, which many people on the "coasts" would call a podunk town. I have many other interests outside of sports and things that keep me busy. But we don't have the ocean, we don't have skyscrapers, we don't have a lot of the things that big cities have. So we can't go windsurfing when our teams lose to get our minds off it, or to the Museum of Modern Art. We drink. A lot.
- Constant fear of relocation. This is actually the scariest part of being a Buffalo fan. The Detroit Tigers can have 10 straight losing seasons, but you know they aren't going anywhere. The Sabres have been one of the better hockey franchises of the last decade, and they went bankrupt and almost left town! (I am proud of WNYers for selling out every home game this year.) In 1998 the Bills' future was also in doubt, as they had to have a mass marketing campaign to sell enough tickets to keep the lease at the stadium. A couple bad seasons are okay for the New Jersey Devils; declining tickets sales in Buffalo could be the death-knell. No other city has such a guillotine hanging over it's head.
- Team-City Identification. There are few cities in the country where when you hear the city's name, you think of a sports team. Green Bay is one of them, Buffalo is another. And what people might not understand (outside of, say, Philadelphia) is that when the Bills are doing bad, the whole city's psyche suffers. Mondays after a Bills loss are depressing, and I don't even live there. For the last week, Sabres fans have been miserable (myself included). It's really brutal stuff. The team is not it's own sovereign entity; it's an extension of us. When the Bills lose, I lose. And it's not voluntary. I can't just stop caring about the team. If I could, I would have started rooting for the Patriots or Colts or something. They are in my blood, and that blood is poisoned!
- Ineptitude and Heartbreak. This is really the crux of it all. By my count there are three major cities in the United States without a major sports championship in the last 50 years: San Diego, Cleveland and Buffalo. San Diego gets no sympathy because they have 72 degree weather all the time and once housed Ron Burgundy. Cleveland is the only city that could come close to Buffalo in terms of sports heartbreak. Cleveland has Jordan-over-Ehlo, The Drive, the Fumble, the 1995 and 1997 World Series, the Browns leaving for Baltimore. But we still have Wide Right, Ronnie Harmon dropping a TD (against Cleveland!) in 1989, Brett Hull's No-Goal, The Music City Miracle, and of course, four consecutive Super Bowl losses. (Note: Philly doesn't qualify for this list because the Phillies won the World Series in 1980. Any city that has a championship in the Color TV Era can't be on this list.)
This Sabres team will always be special to me. There was so much to love about them (although NBC couldn't get their head out of the Rangers' and Sidney Crosby's asses long enough to figure it out for their national broadcasts). They were everything we wish we had in ourselves: style, fleetness of foot, swagger, dominance. They carried us on their shoulders for much of the year and made it okay to be from Buffalo or Western New York for a little while. Those of us who live in those areas know it's just fine to be from Upstate New York, we just can't use sports as a point of pride anymore. I know it is unhealthy to put your self-worth into something stupid like that, especially something you can't control, but boy it sure felt great for a while.
Thanks for a great season. You guys almost had me there for a minute...