Wednesday, May 16, 2007

But it is a real disaster!

Just some random thoughts after my team, who will not by named in my words, has come to a crashing, stuttering conclusion to the season. Others have made a case for which ways the hopes come falling down:

Copied from the Sabres board a couple of days ago:

There are four distinct kinds of sports induced torture.

1) Years of incompetence spelled by brief rays of mediocrity.
2) Consistently good teams that never win the big one.
3) Elite teams that are defeated because of injury or external factors.
4) The pinnacle of sports torture, the heartbreaking moment.

Type 1 Torture: Buffalo Bills 1970-1979. In 1971, the Bills became the first and, as of now, only team in NFL history to bat for the Triple Crown of sucking. They finished with the worst overall record, allowed the most points against, and scored the least amount of points for. Unprecedented. They also lost every game in the 1970’s to their biggest rival, the Miami Dolphins. They had seven seasons with 9 or more losses and they only played 14 game seasons until 1977. The face of the franchise was OJ Simpson.

Buffalo Bills 2000-2006. It’s almost impossible to miss the playoffs seven years in a row in the modern NFL, but the Bills managed to accomplish the feat. Just to rub a little salt in the wounds of all Buffalonians, the Bills won 6 straight games in 2004 to set up a chance to beat the Steelers with the playoffs on the line. The Steelers were 14-1 and were resting all their starters. Brian St. Pierre plays the second half. Seriously. The Bills lost.

Buffalo Sabres 2001-2004. The Sabres have been fairly mediocre throughout their history, but this was a special era. The owner, John Rigas, got arrested for looting his company, the team went bankrupt, and they finished last in the division three straight years. Good times.

Type 2 Torture: Buffalo Bills 1990-1993. There obviously has never been a better example of Type 2 Torture than the Bills. Losing four straight Super Bowls is inconceivable. I’m still trying to convince myself it didn’t happen.

Type 3 Torture: 1970 Final Four. Buffalo Native Bob Lanier leads the tiny upstate NY college St. Bonaventure to the Final Four where they are the heavy favorites to meet UCLA in the championship game. Lanier’s ACL gets snapped by his future Detroit Piston teammate Chris Ford in a freak accident and St. Bonaventure gets upset by Jacksonville.

2000 NHL Playoffs. John LeClair scores a pivotal goal through a hole in the side of the net and somehow is allowed to stand. Would the Sabres have gone back to the Cup Finals? Probably not, but it still felt like we were getting cheated. Again.

2006 NHL Playoffs. After rolling over Ottawa, the most talented team in the East, in five games it was looking like Buffalo might finally win a championship. Somewhat predictably, fate intervened and four of the Sabres top five defensemen went down with injuries which was just enough for Carolina, the eventual Cup winners, to come from behind in the third period of game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Type 4 Torture: Type 4 Torture is where Buffalo really runs away with it.

Super Bowl XXV. Wide Right. The Bills lose the Super Bowl that they’re heavily favored to win after Scott Norwood misses the game winning field goal. We all know the story; I don’t really want to talk about it.

1998-1999 Stanley Cup Finals. No Goal. Brett Hull scores in triple overtime with his skate in the crease. Dozens of identical goals had been waived off all year yet the NHL backed the ruling despite the fact that it was never even reviewed. I guess it wasn’t important.

1999-2000 NFL Playoffs. The Music City Miracle. It probably wasn’t even a forward lateral, but to lose a playoff game on a gimmick special teams play with 16 seconds left is simply gut wrenching. Rob Johnson, yes that Rob Johnson, lead the Bills on the go ahead scoring drive. Shouldn’t that be enough?

But, the underlying problem is that the city rests too much of its non-sports energy on sports. We don't just use sports to amuse ourselves, it is widespread vicarious fandom. We are the team, the team is us. The world doesn't really get it, but there are analogies in other sports - the world cup is a game of national pride. Football teams like the packers are owned by the fans even, and canada feels like the game of hockey owes them. Well, Buffalo has its teams, and the void of a championship, with many, many, close calls, has cemented the region as that of underachievers. Why is this?

Well, the two teams that we have are easy to identify with, as close to 100% of the population keeps tabs on them daily. For such a large metro area, this is unusual, and even though there are larger cities and markets, the region of WNY can sell out games for years at a time. We were always blessed with great leadership for the teams, and the flirtation with greatness is pretty consistent. Of course, that is the primary way to sell tickets. Be good but not great, and do it consistently.

I could quote statistics, but I won't. From the post above, though, you can see how we have been so close, and the heartbreak has been so intense. Many sports fans are bitter, hardened, and jaded. Actually, this is a good quality. Can you imagine anything worse than finishing second for 40 years?

And it translates to other areas of our lives. The city's economy, social scene, tourism, identity, education, and even newspapers are all good, but nothing is great. Could it be that we are so used to finishing second in life, that we accept it, and expect it?

I don't know what the answer is. I would be able to tell you if just one win, ONE time for us to say that we are the best at something, could change our collective outlook on life, but it's not going to be put to the test this year. It is disappointing, because a place like Ottawa needs no boost, no special treatment to be energized again. The fans are true fans, for sure, but a win is not going to be the difference in anyone's career, or life choices. That is what the media, and anyone who says that it is just sports is missing.

And that is the frustrating part. Losing a hockey game means, quite literally, more in the life of every hometown fan for us than it would for any other team. It is real pain, the world needs to know.

When it all came apart:

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