Sabres fans fear optimism

June 13, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Last week, The Dallas Morning News sent a reporter to Buffalo, N.Y., as part of its effort to introduce its sunbaked readers to the mysteries of that strange foreign phenomenon, the Stanley Cup Finals.

What the reporter found, in contrast to the habitual cockiness of Dallas fans, was Buffalonian after Buffalonian picking the Stars to win the series, muttering muted thanks that the Sabres had at least got this far, and expressing the cautious hope that maybe, just maybe, if all the planets queue up properly in the firmament, the locals will scratch out victory and finally bring some positive national attention to their small corner of the Niagara Frontier.

The reporter concluded that Buffalo sports fans are unenthusiastic about the Stanley Cup Finals, which were tied at a game apiece going into last night's Game 3 in Buffalo. But that's not the case at all. Fans in western New York aren't unenthusiastic, they're just guarded; they've been burned too often to yet again embrace false hope quite so readily.

Can you blame us? Buffalo's sports heritage is replete with stumbles on the threshold of glory. Oh, sure, we've won championships, but only when no one else was watching, like when the baseball and hockey Bisons won minor-league titles or the Bandits dominated box lacrosse.

And don't even get us started on how the National Football

League snubbed Buffalo when it absorbed teams from the All-America Football Conference in 1949, or how in 1969 a lone vote from that carpetbagger Walter O'Malley denied Buffalo a National League baseball franchise.

It took the Bills 25 years to climb back close to the top after losing to Kanas City, 31-7, with a berth in the first Super Bowl on the line. But of course they came a cropper in four straight Super Bowls, leaving us memories of Scotty Norwood's wide right (typical Buffalo reaction: a huge rally the following day to let Norwood know we still loved him), Thurman Thomas' losing his helmet, Jim Kelly's utter lack of peripheral vision, and, our best memory, Don Beebe's racing 90 yards to knock the ball out of Leon Lett's hands and prevent a touchdown that would've made it 59-17, Cowboys.

And then there are the Sabres. The National Hockey League admitted the Sabres in 1970, but their glory era was essentially the team's first five years of existence, the days of the French Connection. That collective's high-water mark was a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975, when they fell to the despised Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a great playoff run and a great final, but all anyone outside Buffalo seems to remember was the fog at Memorial Auditorium and the bat that Jim Lorentz killed with his stick in the neutral zone.

What followed was an endless string of playoff debacles through the '70s and the complete destruction of the team through the '80s at the hands of the general manager and sometime coach Scotty Bowman -- his only sustained failure in 32 years in the NHL, wouldn't you know it?

So, given our gun-shyness born of our perennial sports disappointments, how would we react if we ever did win it all? Say we were lucky? Apologize to the other team's fans? What would it be like if we came from a city like Dallas or New York, where frequent championships breed confidence and expectation of victory?

Would Buffalonians be wealthier, more successful, happier people? Or would we continue to be our old selves, like our local tennis phenom Jimmy Arias, who, after he got into the U.S. Open semifinals in 1983, bashfully told a television interviewer, "I really don't expect to win this."

Whatever. One thing we know, though, is hockey. How, Buffalo wonders, can the Stanley Cup go to a city where 36 hours before the first puck was dropped for the Finals' opening game, hundreds of tickets remained unsold -- while back in Buffalo, the 6,000 total seats available for the Sabres' three potential home games sold out in less than eight minutes?

Sabres banners wave all along Main Street, while street crews stencil the demonic goat's-head logo on the pavement all along Delaware Avenue, Buffalo's dilapidated answer to Park Avenue.

The fans are talking hockey, even if the tone is often one of disbelief that the Sabres have got this far, even if they're half bracing themselves for another huge disappointment.

But if hope hasn't translated into the kind of confidence we had in the Bills, if we're not quite wearing our hearts on our sleeves this time, who can blame us? Just don't think the hope and the heart aren't there.

Stanley Cup Finals

Buffalo vs. Dallas (Series tied 1-1)

Game 1: Buff. 3, Dal. 2, OT

Game 2: Dallas 4, Buffalo 2

Yesterday: at Buffalo

Tuesday: at Buffalo, 8 (ESPN)

Thursday: at Dallas, 8 (45, 5)

Saturday: at Buff., 8 (ESPN)*

June 22: at Dallas, 8 (45, 5)*

*-If necessary

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