Every sports fan has thrown the accusation around at one time or another: They’re the truest of the true blue, and someone else is just a bandwagoner. Of course, the common perception is that all the serious sports fans hate bandwagoners, fans who only pay attention to the team when it’s doing well. It’s a pretty easy thing to say when you’re younger and have plenty of time to follow every sport under the sun, but as I grow older, I’m starting to give bandwagoning more of a second glance than I used to. I’m an adult, and I have interests, hobbies, and duties out of the sporting realm. And as my mileage keeps racking up, I’ve been prioritizing my life more.
Sports are still a big part of my life. They always have been, and they always will be. But my view of sports has changed, and a couple of things about them dawned on me: One is that they are a form of entertainment, no different than movies or graphic novels. The other is that, like those, and every other form of entertainment for that matter, sports require a willing investment of time. And time is a resource that no one has in abundance, and no one can get it back when it’s gone. When someone chooses to follow a sports team, they’re saying that they believe that team is a worthy investment of their free time. Maybe the team is close to them in some way; maybe they just like the playing style; maybe they’ve been inspired by an incredible show of last-minute resilience; or maybe the team has just been entertaining as hell. Yes, fans frequently choose to throw money at the team as well, but that’s optional. Teams mean time. Sports mean time.
The sad truth is that there are a lot of good reasons out there to give up on a team, if not switch a loyalty outright. There’s no reason to try to be stringent European-style fans of a team if that team is perfectly allowed to pick up and whisk itself off to another city willing to take it. And all of those reasons come down to one thing: The team has been wasting your time, and you don’t think your team is a worthy investment of your precious spare time anymore. For me, that’s lately been baseball. Although I was once an all-in baseball fan, America’s Pastime has lost the pull on me that it once had. There’s a variety of reasons for that: The increasingly sluggish pace of the games (they’re averaging over three hours now, and I can’t watch reruns of Mariners games on ROOT without them cutting forward multiple times); the fact that MLB knows the pace is an issue and keeps taking half-assed measures to speed it up; the self-righteous legions of fans bitching about respect while demanding Pete Rose be reinstated; the old men yelling at clouds that the game is perfect the way it is; and the sabermetrics people lording equations over the sport’s legends.
The thing with baseball, though, is that I still recognize its aesthetic beauty as a sport. For everything wrong with it, I’m still capable of being awestruck by the quick-strike precision of a perfectly executed play, and moved to cathartic joy by a great story or a masterful performance. (See: Cubs, 2016 Chicago.) If I get offered a chance to spend a pleasant afternoon in The Safe watching the Mariners – or better yet, the Rainiers – you had better believe I would jump right on it. The point is that, despite all its flaws, I haven’t totally given up on baseball. If pressed, I’ll still gleefully admit to caring about the teams I’ve adopted and cheered for over the years. Although I’m only a nominal baseball fan these days, baseball hasn’t darkened my soul or wiped out my ability to experience the emotions that go with loving sports. Baseball still brings out a lot of my best, even though I don’t watch very many games anymore.
I can’t say the same for every team I’ve ever cheered for. The Chicago Bears pissed me off so much that I had no problem just dumping them after moving away. They just weren’t worth the effort to try keeping up with them. And why would anyone want to waste their time with something that leaves them feeling like they’re rotting from the inside out? Childhood attachment can only take a person so far. If the magic, wonder, and even heartbreak and frustration starts to get replaced by too much soul-sucking indifference, lethargy, laziness, and abuse of fans’ goodwill, it’s time for even a lifelong diehard to pack it in. Do you still get excited – or at least look forward – to seeing your favorite team? Or do you flip on the station, curse the sports gods, and endure the games? When new information comes along, do you cautiously hope for the best or just read to see what trash talking is going on about them? Yes, I’ve heard all of the reasoning and excuses, particularly that annoying metaphor about the family: We know all about how our families may be flawed, but we love them anyway, yada yada yada. But that metaphor invites a corollary: If the family becomes abusive, you are well within your right to leave them and never have anything to do with them again.
The Buffalo Sabres have become abusive.
It brings me no joy to say this. The Buffalo Sabres – my team growing up, a team which I recently said was my favorite team ever in my other blog – have finally decimated their relationship with me to such a point that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully return to them. That’s saying something, because the Sabres started playing in 1970, just 11 years before I was born. The Sabres and I kind of grew up together, and despite missing the years of The French Connection, I was there for an awful lot of the moments that have defined the Sabres: Malarchuk’s carotid, Mogilny’s defection from the Soviet Union, May Day, Hasek’s Hart, No Goal, The Bounce, The Fight, The Buffaslug, the President’s Trophy year, and the Ice Bowl. I was frustrated in 1998, pissed off in 1999, heartbroken in 2006, and resigned in 2007. I saw rotten finishes in a lot of years, first round playoff exists in just as many, and still persevered. The Sabres, no matter how they did, still offered excitement, escape, and pride. Being a Sabre meant having a huge chip on your shoulder and a need to prove that you belonged in the NHL, among the greatest hockey players in the world. They never did manage to get over the hump, but their identity had a roughneck appeal which fans wore with pride. There’s a reason their nickname was once The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey.
Fast forward to the Pegula era and the team is toxic and bleeding from every orifice. The last few years have been the worst of the team’s entire history. I understand that some of the very early teams posted worse numbers, but at least they played with a sense of purpose. This year was supposed to be the coming out after the tank. Jack Eichel was healthy again, Kyle Okposo was back, Evander Kane seemed to be keeping his issues to a dull roar, and Zemgus Girgensons seemed to be a star on the rise. After Dan Bylsma was exposed as more of a wingman than an actual coach, he was fired and replaced by Phil Housley. Although it was Housley’s first head coaching gig and his past as a Sabre and one of the greatest defensemen ever reeked of typical old fan enticement, House did come with credentials: He had been an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators, and helped them create a tempo-deciding offense which got them to the Final. The long nights of the tank were over and the Sabres were expected to post some real points.
Ah, the tank. Remember that? That absurd multi-year race to the bottom for Connor McDavid which backfired when the Sabres lost the right to draft him? Yes, they still got Jack Eichel out of it, and Eichel is a beast. He’s by far the best player the Sabres have, but his output isn’t quite a point-per-game rate. Yes, his output is impressive; the 177 total points he’s put up in 209 career games so far is nothing to sneeze at. But that’s not a superstar number, and he’s getting dwarfed not only by McDavid, but by even younger contemporaries like Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews. He’s also proving to be injury prone – he missed close to 20 games the last couple of years. And while the Sabres have the making of a core, what the tank cost them was far more than anything than can be measured in manpower. It created a losing mentality, and now the Sabres have nothing to offer other than lethargic, uninspired, and defeated play. And while grabbing Eichel was a step in the right direction, it’s clearer every day that the front office assumed all the team’s problems would disappear once they got him. They’ve whiffed on almost every other Draft pick, and on too many free agents. The team’s goalies are trash.
In December of 2016, I happened to catch an ad on Facebook from a page called NHL Fans 365. They were looking for admins. Ordinarily I might not have given it a second thought, but my mother died the month before, and I returned from her funeral only to learn that I had been unceremoniously dismissed from my job for attending it. Grieving and newly unemployed, I was looking for a way to keep myself distracted, and something like that looked like it would fit the bill. When I checked out the page, I saw that it already had very active admins for both the Sabres and the Chicago Blackhawks, so I looked to cover another team. I also knew that the league had created a new team for Las Vegas, the Golden Knights, just a couple of weeks before. I was immediately attracted to them on the name alone because my first little league hockey team had also been called the Golden Knights. So I applied as an admin for the Knights, thinking they would at least be good for a few yuks. Which they were in the early goings, between their screwed-up announcement presentation and their naming fiasco. But I also watched in amazement as they got their act together and started making a lot of brilliant structural moves. They signed the Chicago Wolves as their AHL affiliate and jumped on Gerard Gallant when he became available to coach. Then I watched them whiff again in the Expansion Draft, taking a bunch of bottom rung players meant to be nothing but trade fodder for Draft picks in future seasons. When I was asked to create a video outlining my predictions for the Knights, I said, tongue firmly in cheek, that the upcoming season would be the greatest season in the team’s history to that point. Which it would be, of course – it was their first season, so it would be their best no matter what!
As it turned out, I was more right about that than I could have possibly imagined. The puck dropped for the first time in Las Vegas just a few days after a horrific mass shooting as a Las Vegas music festival. From there, the Vegas Golden Knights became the best story in sports. Charging out of nowhere, the Knights lifted the shaken spirits of their city while setting a number of potentially untouchable records for expansion team success. Swarming with a group of misfit flying speed demons, the Golden Knights attacked with a hard forecheck and an offense that terrorized opponents with short but intense bursts. When the regular season ended, the Golden Knights had accumulated 51 wins and 109 points; only the Jets, Predators, Bruins, and Lightning had posted more. They won their division by an eight-point margin and, as I write this, are one victory away from going to the Stanley Cup Final. When the announcement of the team name went wrong back in November of 2016, owner Bill Foley laughed it off and promised that the team would do better on the ice. Who would have thought he’d still be laughing at this time?
It’s a stunning contrast to what was happening in Buffalo. The Golden Knights have gotten a ton of things right. From their over-the-top, perfectly Vegas opening ceremony to their track meet style of skating to their gorgeous jersey color scheme, the Knights have more than met the ultimate directive of a sports franchise. They’ve entertained, inspired, and given Las Vegas a real source of civic pride. (I’ve even managed to get my father to pay attention to them.) The Sabres attempted to give the fans some light recently by retiring Dominik Hasek’s number (a richly deserved honor) but half-assed the presentation.
I have a history with the Sabres, and I can never forget that. They’re one of the few interests I shared with the rest of Buffalo. My mother held on to the Alexander Mogilny jersey I had when I was a child, and I own Pat LaFontaine and Jason Pominville jerseys as well. My little league teams got to entertain Sabres fans by playing between periods at Sabres games. I used to fall asleep listening to Rick Jeanneret call games. My favorite piece of sports memorabilia is a brick from the old Memorial Auditorium. But the more time goes by, the longer I live in Seattle, the more the fighty, chin-up team I fell in love with as a kid feels like a distant memory. I adopted the Blackhawks when I moved to Chicago, while they were at the bottom of the league standings, and even though they just came through a slog year themselves, they’ve given me the joy of three Stanley Cup victories. The Sabres have become one of the most pathetic operations in sports during that time, and even with the first overall Draft pick, there’s no reason to believe they’re going to get turned around soon. And with almost all my emotional links to Buffalo now severed and there being little reason to so much as visit, I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason to keep cheering for the Sabres. Especially not with Seattle being a near-certainty for expansion in the next year. Following the Sabres from way out west is a hassle and watching them has turned into a chore.
If you twisted my deformed wrist, I would admit to still caring, but only because the Sabres are so intertwined with my identity. I’ll always love my childhood team, but I’m afraid that team is in the same place as my childhood: The past. As for the future, it’s with the deepest sorrow and regret that I say: I can’t take it anymore. The Buffalo Sabres aren’t worth my time or emotional investment. For sanity’s sake… I’m finished.