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.