Friday, January 20, 2012

Anger squared

There are all sorts of levels of anger when it comes to professional sports. When teams don't win -- and remember, every team but one comes up as a loser at the end of a given season -- the emotion of the fans spill over. It's great for the teams when those fans pay more than $100 for three hours of entertainment, but not so great when the fan base isn't happy.

There are a couple of different stages of anger here in Buffalo right now. There are the Bills, who haven't made the playoffs in this century. There's a certain amount of resignation with a streak like that. Players and coaches have come and gone, but progress toward the postseason has been a rare sight. Then in the past season, just when it looked like the Bills were making progress, somebody pulled the carpet out from under their feet and sent them skidding off the road to success again. It was a little cruel to watch, but had the advantage of being at some level expected, particularly because of several key injuries.

Then there are the Sabres, who have taken the frustration level up a few notches in the past month.

In the past 30 years, Sabre ownership could best be described as having something of a commitment to mediocrity. The exception to that might be the guy who is in jail at the moment, although it's a little difficult even in hindsight to figure out his goals when owning the team at the time. Either way, the Sabres were often mediocre with a few rare excursions into the ranks of hockey's best.

Enter Terry Pegula a little less than a year ago, who needed only a news conference to enter the hearts of Buffalo sports fans. Here was someone with billions of dollars in his wallet, a longtime fan of the Sabres who wanted nothing more than to win a Stanley Cup. Or three. Western New York had never seen anything like it, except perhaps when the Bills kept a group together long enough to make it to four straight Super Bowls.

Then in July, when free agent season arrived, the Sabres were ready to go hunting. Two players, Chrstian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, were signed to big contracts, and a third, Robyn Regehr, was acquired by trade. I can't say I saw many outsiders pick the Sabres to win the Stanley Cup back in October, but they were expected to be a team that could figure in the discussion come spring. Closer to home, the optimism rate had hit a record high.

After a decent but hardly great start, it's been downhill. Injuries have been a problem, with several regulars missing at a given moment. But, that doesn't let some of the team's best players off the hook. Only Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have had good years when looking at the team's top players. It's an odd sounding cliche -- your team is in trouble when its best players aren't its best players.

Here we are, just past the halfway point, and the Sabres are 18 points behind Boston in the division race. They are in 11th place in the Conference, nine games under .500, and nine points behind eighth-place Florida. They are 2-6-2 in their last 10, and haven't won a road game in their last 11 starts -- which means Dec. 3 was the last win.

If all that weren't enough for the fan base to handle, many fans haven't been able to see games on television between MSG and Time Warner Cable. You can make some sarcastic jokes about not wanting to see them play -- go ahead, everyone else has -- but it's never a good idea to be cut off from your fans in such a visible way.

Judging the level of frustration is difficult, of course. You always get people who love to complain when things go badly for a sports team, and they are out in force. Still, the disappointment shown by many people seems to have a level of bitterness that has hit some new heights. If you listen to the comments around the office or from your friends, and read the posts on Facebook, it's difficult to find anyone who harbors much hope. "Yup, fooled again."

And the worst part is, options for a cure from anyone are few. There are still a number of injuries, so recalls from the minors already have been made. Management has few options there. Trading a fourth-liner for a fourth-liner would qualify only as a cosmetic move. No one is going to be in a rush to acquire some of the Sabres' biggest underachievers, especially at their relatively high salaries. Firing the coach is the usual course, but Pegula has said he's a big fan of Lindy Ruff. A new general manager now won't salvage this season, although you'd have to think Darcy Regier would have trouble surviving a campaign that ended in early April.

And so, the fan base waits. They wait for good health, they wait for some sort of chemistry-altering trade, they wait for a shakeup in the front office. Mostly they wait for something like a 9-0-1 stretch that would put the Sabres in the playoff race.

In the meantime, we can see the pool of good feelings for the Sabres slowly empty before our eyes.

1 comment:

Becky said...


(personally, I'm waiting the the Ruff/Regier tandem to exit)