New approach needed to stem fan exodus
HK Buffalo… As in Hockey Klub Buffalo. Does something like that resonate?
Picture a Sabres game night at Key Bank Center. The entire end zone at the west end of the building has had all the seats removed. From row 1 along the glass all the way to the top row of the building, which is now one continuous section and climbs along a steep pitch. The new “supporters section” is the home to the most rabid of fans, and they are perched right on top of the action. Amidst the supporters is a marching band. And a drum corps. And they are displaying and waving flags in all shapes and sizes. The chants and the waves continue unabated throughout the night.
Fight songs. All the canned music bumps have been scripted out of game night. There is still the organist, providing musical interludes during the warmups and intermissions. But the chants and the taunts and the rhymes and the songs have been turned over to the fans.
During the pregame, the marching band is in the pavilion, serenading arriving fans, then leading a parade into the supporters section in time for the pregame intros.
The introductory presentations are a mix of patriotic fervor and love of the team, as the marching band does the two anthems (sorry Doug Allen, but it’s been a swell ride), and the fans shout out the last names of each player as they are introduced.
Visiting fans? The visitor’s section is relegated to a penned in area in the far reaches of the 300 level opposite the home team supporters section. If you wish to wear the colors of the visiting team you are required to sit in those seats only. Visitors scarves or any other non-Sabres hockey apparel is strictly forbidden in any other part of the arena.
The Buffalo Sabres are giving serious attention to the entire arena experience and looking for ways to stop the bleeding for what will surely be a significant loss of season ticket support this offseason.
Earlier this month, The Buffalo News, under the pen of hockey writer Mike Harrington, did an excellent review of the issues surrounding what is now an aging Key Bank Center, showing wear and tear in a bad way as the building has been in use for over two decades. Everything from frigid seating bowl and lack of hot water, to ridiculously expensive concession prices, worn and shabby seats and tired looking public spaces was spotlighted. Sabres president Russ Brandon revealed that the team has been traveling and reviewing other peer venues and examining every aspect of the game day experiences as presented by other teams.
The Sabres brain trust needs to experience Europe.
Back in 2011, the Buffalo Sabres opened their season with games in Helsinki, Finland and in Berlin, Germany. Then newly minted Sabres owners Kim and Terry Pegula, and then team president Ted Black, got an eyeful as they got to watch first-hand how the Euros do their hockey. And the tutorial actually started, of all places, in Mannheim Germany.
The Sabres played an exhibition game, err… “friendly”, at the SAP Arena, home of the German Elite League’s Adler Mannheim team. The Sabres had a special connection with the Adler thanks to that of former Sabres forward Jochen Hecht, who was born and raised in Mannheim and served as a goodwill ambassador between the two clubs.
The ice was tilted towards the Sabres on that game night, throttling Mannheim by an 8-3 score. The hometown fans didn’t seem to care. Throughout the entire match there were songs and drums and chants. When it was all over many of the fans, as is the tradition at these Euro hockey or soccer venues, didn’t just leave. They stayed in their seats and started a “Let’s Go Buffalo” chant, and refused to stop until the visiting Sabres, many already in semi-states of undress, returned to the ice for a lengthy curtain call.
Former Sabre Thomas Vanek, an Austrian native and very familiar with the norms of Euro hockey, led the charge. “C’mon guys, time to go back out there,” he exhorted to his surprised teammates. Later he explained, “That’s how we do it here in Europe. Win or lose, the players return to the ice, some bringing their young children on their shoulders, to skate around, wave at the fans and even lead cheers and participate in folk songs and fight songs. Sometimes we bring a beer or a schnapps with us to enjoy as we skate out. It cements the bond and love between players and their supporters.” Vanek added that at times the home and visiting players mingle on the ice, and lead a cheering contest between the throngs of their respective supporters.
The players on the Sabres team with a North American pedigree were lapping it all up. Several nights later as the team faced the Los Angeles Kings at O2 World Arena in Berlin, the players offered up a surprise.
Former Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller admits he helped cook the whole thing up with his Euro based teammates. “After the game they did the three stars and everything, and the local fans didn’t really understand what that was all about,” explained Miller. “Then we took over.”
What the entire team did was lineup at center ice. Then on queue, the players locked hands, raced in unison to one end zone, lifting their arms up and down three times and shouted “Ole!” to the fans in the stands. Then they all raced to the other end of the ice and repeated the action. It was so fitting for the setting and the venue. “We’d like to bring this home and try it out on our fans the guys really enjoyed doing this,” said Miller afterwards. Sadly, the spectacle was never recreated on Buffalo ice.
What the NHL game ops folks did at those two Euro games in Helsinki and Berlin was present our version of entertainment and diversion. Much of it landed with a thud, with fans grousing as to the abundance of music bumps interfering with their ability to cheer and chant. The “Kiss Cam”, presented in Helsinki’s Hartwall Areena at the Sabres vs Ducks game was a disaster, with horrified fans cringing and hiding their faces when displayed on the video board and urged to present a public kiss.
Can the Euro hockey experience happen here in Buffalo? For one thing, it would take a remodel and reconfiguration of Key Bank Center that would be unlike anything else in the NHL. And mind you, at the end of the day, the team is looking for top return on their investment and ways to separate fans from their dollars. That means more team stores, steakhouses, premium seating and lounge configurations and other points of sale. That also means the Jumbotrons will get more Jumbo, and technological enhancements will be upgraded to engage the fans in the event.
Second, it would require the invitation to those fans who want to be a part of this new movement to come in and learn the drill, so to speak. Think about the old “Mad Hatters” of the late 90s and pump up that contingent twenty fold. The offer of free or deeply discounted tickets, training and tutorials, the creation and writing of signature songs and chants. All this would be a part of the conversion of a fan base into a Eurocentric model.
Ryan O’Reilly’s honest and sobering words earlier this week were seen by some as refreshingly candid, and by others as an outrageous admission by a spoiled and entitled multi-millionaire player who came into town with the promises to lead the team out of the abyss.
But one thing is clear – fans can do a lot to participate in making their team play better by delivering their own passion and energy into the building. Players feed off that energy, and when the arena is more like the Key Bank Library it doesn’t help. And despite the call for new seats, hot water, nicer bathrooms and updated video boards, what fans really crave is a winning culture and a fun game experience.
Euro hockey, HK Buffalo, the songs, the chants, the drums, the taunts, the new traditions, the promotion and relegation.
Oops. Let’s not go there now. What we do NOT want to see is the Sabres open the 2018-19 season against the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League!