Those Road Tripping Sabres Fans
by Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
If there’s one thing you’re sure to find anywhere across the country, it’s expats from Buffalo, who have left Western New York to seek careers, personal growth, or just retirement, elsewhere. That is especially true down in Florida, where tens of thousands of Buffalo folks make their homes in places like Tampa Bay and the south Florida cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
And while enthusiasm is tempered just a bit this season in a Buffalo Sabres rebuilding year, nevertheless fans showed up in droves when the team made its first of two swings through the Sunshine State this past week.
“We had a great crowd on hand, at least 100 and probably many more,” said Sabres broadcast game night host Brian Duff, who emceed this season’s first Road Crew event at an Irish pub in nearby Brandon, just outside of Tampa.
It was hard to gauge the Buffalo presence at Tampa’s Amalie Center (née Ice Palace) amongst the crowd of almost 18,000. Buffalo did not score a goal, although the brawl filled third period kept fans entertained. Outside the arena at the popular Hattricks sports bar, server manager Tamara (she didn’t give her last name) said that although her establishment is a popular hangout for visiting fans, Sabres fans always stand out for their numbers and their support.
“I almost cry for your team and really wish you guys could win yourselves a Stanley Cup. Nobody deserves it more than Buffalo does,” said Tamara, an Edmonton transplant who was there in the 80s for her Oilers’ glory years. “I see such passion in your hearts, hope in your voices, and pain in your eyes. I hope (Coach Ted) Nolan turns things around for you he’s the best.”
Down in South Florida, the Buffalo enthusiasm lies more in the Bills and their rivalry with the Miami Dolphins. Bills Backers assemble at Packy’s Sports Bar just north of Fort Lauderdale, and new owner Jeff Jakonczuk, an admitted Dolphins fan, is amazed at the level of support he sees each game day Sunday. “The fans pack the place, it’s wall to wall in here. We serve up the beef on weck, we fly in Sahlens hot dogs, it’s a great mix of mostly locals but some tourists as well.”
Would Jakonczuk be surprised to hear that Buffalo fans also make their noise heard as visitors to Florida Panthers games? “Not at all,” replied Jakonczuk. “We get visiting hockey fans here from all over, lots of Canadians, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sabres supporters outnumber the locals at the game tonight in the stands.”
Back at the Road Crew event, Sabres coaches, the broadcast team, and former players Rob Ray and Danny Gare were mingling with and doing photo opps with the fans and enjoying food and drink. One fan in particular stood out for Brian Duff.
“She was wearing a RJ (Rick Jeanneret) commemorative cap which was put out to help raise funds for cancer research,” said Duff. “I remarked to the lady, whose name I unfortunately never got, how nice it was for her to support such a great cause. At which point she took off the cap, and I saw she had no hair. The lady informed me that she was battling stage 4 cancer, her doctors at one time told her she had two weeks to live and that was a year ago.”
Duff said that Jeanneret had served as an inspiration for her to continue her fight, and that she wore that hat most of the time. “All I could do is ask her if I could give her a big hug and she gladly obliged. These are the moments that make this job so inspirational and so worthwhile,” said Duff.
The Sabres make one more trip down that way this season, with games at Florida on February 28 and at Tampa on March 3. Couple that with the start of the baseball spring training schedule in the Grapefruit League, and you have the makings of a great sports vacation.
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