FANS EXPERIENCE A YAWNER AT LAST WEEK’S CLASH
By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
Back in the 90s, as the Buffalo Sabres ended their run at the old Aud to make way for their new home at then named Marine Midland Arena, the annual meeting between the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs was the must see game of the year.
We say “game” because back then, the Leafs were actually in the NHL’s western conference for a while, and with the scheduling being what it was, that meant that the teams only faced each other twice each season, once at home and the other in Toronto’s old Maple Leaf Gardens.
Those games were memorable, only because the two fans bases had such a passionate hatred of each other, the teams often rose to the occasion, offering memorable plays, goals and fights on the ice. Goaltender John Blue, who played in net at the last ever Sabres/Leafs game in the old Aud, said it best when he exclaimed that he wished the teams could play each other every single week. Former Sabres forward Matthew Barnaby, then still finding his legs as a Sabre, admitted that the passion and noise in the stands provided rocket fuel for the teams to rise to the occasion and offer a better show.
The rivalry reached its zenith in 1999, as the two teams made it to that year’s Eastern Conference finals. The Sabres won that series 4-1 to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. It was a series for the ages… Rob Ray connecting on a rare goal in game 3 at home. The owners of the two teams meeting at the American and Canadian border atop the Peace Bridge to hoist their flags. Buffalo winning the deciding fifth game on Toronto ice to send Leafs nation and their faithful packing. It was a signature victory for the Sabres franchise, whose existence in 1970 initially happened despite the obstruction of then Leafs owner Stafford Smythe.
That 1999 series win paved the way for some incredible moments throughout the 2000s, framed mostly by the personal rivalry between the Sabres’ Rob Ray and the Leafs’ Tie Domi, whose animus towards each other went back to their junior days. Count on those two guys dropping the gloves at least twice during each game, if not more, and exhorting their teammates to do the same. Domi, who had more of a scoring touch than Ray, scoffed at the entire Buffalo organization, once harrumphing, “Do the Sabres even know what the playoffs are all about anymore?” Domi was quickly silenced after the 2004-05 lockout, when the Sabres put together their best squad in franchise history and back to back appearance in the Conference Finals, while he and his Leafs fell into the abyss which they are still trying to climb out of.
Very little of this was on display at last week’s contest at KeyBank Center, one by the Leafs 2-1, thanks to two goals by newest Leaf Mitch Marner.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma spoke about the rivalry following the morning pregame skate when he said “If the rivalry is going to get bigger and better, it’s not because of (Auston) Matthews and (Jack) Eichel, it will be because we are both competitive, winning teams. I love this rivalry, just stepping in here in Buffalo you get a sense of how big it is here and over the border. I want it to become bigger because we’re winning games.”
Nonetheless, last week’s game was played before huge swaths of empty seats, a rarity from the days when a Sabres/Leafs ticket was one of the hottest on the schedule. Before the team went to this year’s new “dynamic pricing” model, the Leafs games were the only ones priced at a super premium “platinum” tier. Visiting Leafs fans eagerly snapped up available tickets, with even after an unfavorable exchange rate between the two dollars, still offered prices far below the ridiculous cost to get into a game at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Those oceans of Leafs fans were nowhere to be found last week, with just scattered pockets of fans dressed in the blue and white.
What should be even more alarming to Sabres season ticket holders is the collapsing prices for Leafs games on the secondary market. Quite often Buffalo fans sold their Toronto tickets to Leafs fans at quite a profit, minimally at face value, which is far more than the season ticket holder price, or sometimes even fetching a premium.
No more. A review of leading online ticket reselling marketplace Stubhub last Thursday afternoon, just hours before the puck drop, listed almost a thousand tickets still on sale, with 300 level seats going as cheap as $17 each, less than half of the season ticket cost and almost 80% off of the window price.
The Sabres and Leafs play twice more at KeyBank Center late in the season. A healthy Jack EIchel, two teams in contention for a playoff berth, perhaps both Nylanders playing for their respective squads, would do wonders to resurrect this great rivalry, and pack the stands once again.
Failing that, perhaps Ray and Domi could each sign one day contracts and don their uniforms. Old passions never really die.