Mar 7, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils goalie Johan Hedberg (1) makes save on breakaway attempt by Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek (26) in closing moments of OT at the Prudential Center. New Jersey Devils defeat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in shootout. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Being a Buffalo Sabres Fan in the 21st Century


Mar. 16, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) leads the team to the ice before a game against the Ottawa Senators at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

True story:

I’m on the road this week with a team that my wife coaches.  During one of our rest stops, I was speaking to a young assistant coach who was a member of this team not so long ago herself.  “I’m breaking up with the Buffalo Sabres,” she told me in all seriousness.  “I’ve been a fan forever, but I was really angry when they traded Jason Pominville, and now that they have picked up a young goalie, they’re not going to have Ryan Miller next year.  I wasn’t happy when they lost Pominville, but I just cannot be a fan of the Sabres if they get rid of Ryan Miller.  So I’m breaking up with them.  It’s you, not me, Sabres.  I guess I’ll just be a fan of whichever team Miller goes to.”

I gave her a little bit of a hard time – joking that she wasn’t a true fan, stuff like that – but I totally understood what she was saying, because I felt the exact same way when the Indianapolis Colts traded Peyton Manning.  Granted, I am still a Colts’ fan, but to be honest, I spent far more time following Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos last year than I did Andrew Luck and the Colts.

Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as loyalty in sports any more.  Gone are the days when athletes spend their entire career playing for one organization.  Not that trades didn’t happen in this golden age of team loyalty (that may or may not have existed in quite the manner that I am describing it), but when I go back in time I can find far, far, far more examples of athletes spending their entire careers playing for, and becoming the heart and soul of, one team than I can find today.  Professional sports have always been a business, I know, but for a time while I was growing up, it seemed possible to run a franchise that combined dollars and cents with respect and loyalty.  Loyalty still exists . . . but only so long as the price tag of the player does not exceed his emotional value.

As fans, we all claim to understand the business side of sports . . . yet, because we are fans, we tend to default to the loyalty side of the spectrum, since we cheer for our teams based not on dollars and cents, but on our hearts.  Players come and go, and sometimes their departure stings more than normal, and we find ourselves saying that we are fed up with this team, blah blah blah.  Then we get over it and come right back the following season.

But what if a team gets rids of too many “faces of the franchise” at once – is there a breaking point where fan loyalty is concerned?

We’re about to find out, Buffalo Sabres’ fans.

Let me throw this out there: I am in no way saying that you should all go find a new NHL team to be a fan of next year.  I have followed enough sports, and have seen enough of my favorite players don multiple uniforms over the course of their careers, that it would take an extreme case of a franchise discarding fan favorites for no good reason for me to abandon a team.  When I look at the Buffalo Sabres, I don’t personally view the trading of Jason Pominville, and the potential trades of Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, as extreme cases.

But I am just one fan, dear readers.

There are plenty of Sabres fans out there who DO feel as if getting rid of one, two, or God-forbid all three of those high-profile players WOULD be an extreme case of a franchise jettisoning players who are still capable of playing at a high level.  They ask, Ryan Miller has played great this year, and has single-handedly kept the Sabres in many games in which they could have easily been blown out, so why can’t the team retain him after next season?  Thomas Vanek has been in-and-out of the lineup with injuries, and he is still the Sabres’ leading scorer, so why can’t he be signed to a new contract?   The fans who ask these sort of questions are already on edge due to the Pominville trade; will losing Miller and Vanek, too, be too much for them to handle?

Before you label these fans as “fake” or “fair-weather” fans who the Sabres would be better off without, keep in mind that the players we are discussing are (was, in Pominville’s case) the three best players on the team, were all drafted by the Sabres, and played at least 8 years in Buffalo.  Losing all three over a span of four to five years would be tough enough; losing them in less than a year?   Can anyone recall ever seeing something like this happen before?  It’s the equivalent of the Boston Celtics shipping out Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish all at once, or the New York Yankees saying “See-ya!” to Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada in a New York minute, or if the Edmonton Oilers had gotten rid of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Grant Fuhr bing-bang-boom.  (Hell – remember how angry Edmonton fans were when just Wayne Gretzky was traded?  They would have burned the city down if the Oilers had attempted to move more players that year!)  It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially for those fans who believe these players can still contribute to the Sabres on a meaningful basis.

There’s no question: being a fan in the 21st century isn’t easy.  Those of you who enjoyed watching the trio of Pominville-Vanek-Miller play in the blue and gold are on the verge of experiencing this first-hand.  I won’t blame you if, like my friend, you find yourself lamenting the lack of loyalty in professional sports.  These players have had their moments in Buffalo, for certain, but this franchise, and the city of Buffalo, deserves a championship-caliber team.   If moving them improves the Sabres’ chances of winning, it’s time to put your loyalty to the players aside, and trust that your loyalty to the franchise will be rewarded.


Tags: Buffalo Sabres Ryan Miller Thomas Vanek

  • Kevin

    Excellent article Rich. I am kind of a hybrid. I follow the Sabres as always, but I still follow the ex Sabres when I can. The longer the player is gone the less you begin to care about him and the more you begin to care about the players on your present team.

    • Richard Spalding

      I have always felt the same. If I like a player enough, I will continue to follow him. Watching a lot of college basketball probably helps with that :)

  • Matt Bush

    Your comparison to trading these guys to the Celtics, Yanks, or Oilers trading their stars is not even close. They won chamionships with their teams. What did Vanek, Pomminville and Miller do in the past 8 years?

    • Richard Spalding

      I didn’t discuss championships; I was referring to taking your three faces of the franchise and jettisoning them all at once. I’m not saying the Sabres shouldn’t take this course of action; I’m simply saying that losing your three best players in one year is virtually unprecedented.

    • Kevin

      You missed the point. Semantics my friend.

      • Matt Bush

        I get the point. I just dont see the parallel with these guys and the examples mentioned. They did not produce and should not be put on pedestals. When/if they are gone, there should not be any anger or a backlash. Sabres fans want a Cup, not a belief that maybe, just maybe these guys “can still contribute to the Sabres on a meaningful basis” next year.

        • Richard Spalding

          Plenty of athletes who never won championships still become fan favorites. Only missing the players who won championships would not make me much of a fan!

  • Matthew Cohen

    I don’t think it’ll be any worse than the day Briere and Drury walked. I was sure fans were gonna burn down the arena that day. While Vanek, Pommer, Miller all have been the face of the franchise, I don’t think they have inspired the fans like Danny and Chris did…

  • [email protected]

    I can’t understand someone who says they would stop being a fan if Miller or Vanek were to be traded. I get they have been with the team for awhile, but the team existed before them, they will go on without them. Being a Sabres fan means, to me at least, getting behind any player who puts on the blue and gold with pride. Besides, do Vanek or Miller even want to be here? I see a guy like Ott who has kind of stepped up and also has said he wants to be here. I think talent is meaningless without a passion for the place a player plays for.

    • Richard Spalding

      I agree . . . but I also see the players’ perspectives. Would you want to be here, when the team keeps telling you they are building a contender, only to tell you that you’ll have to wait for another rebuild because they screwed up. Fans have favorites, and if you happened to enjoy Pominville, Miller, and Vanek, saying goodbye to them in the span of a few months could be hard. I’m more like you, but I know of many fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

      • [email protected]

        I get what you are saying about a player wanting to be on a team that is a contender, but look at the Islanders. Did anyone think they would be potentially in the playoffs? Or that the Kings would win the Cup last year? I would think a player, at least a younger one, would want to come to a team they could bring something to, or where the fans are passionate about hockey. Or who ever will pay them better as well lol

        • Richard Spalding

          I HOPE that is the mentality of some younger players! I think the Sabres run a respectable and classy organization. They just don’t currently know how to put a team together, so anyone who wants to win a Cup is going to really have to be convinced that the Sabres can build a championship team.