Reflecting on the weird year that was 2021.
A lot of this is going to be story time, so I need you to bear with me. I just need to set the scene.
As a kid, my entire world revolved around Buffalo Sabres hockey in their mid-2000’s peak. After high school, I went to college out of state, and lost my connection to the team simply due to proximity. My freshman year in 2012, I would still check on them regularly with hopes high, excited to tell my haughty Red Wings-fan friends that the Sabres were still The Guys. But, as the Sabres’ own drought era began, they proved not to be. My high hopes — and interest in the game — waned. I had better things to do. Why find a stream of the game (a somewhat new concept at the time) when I could just go to the bar?
Yes, yes, you clicked on this because I promised you a year in review and not a biography, but this is all important to understand how I perceive the Sabres in 2021. After moving back to Buffalo after college to, arguably, some of the worst hockey I’ve ever seen, there was no regaining the fervor I once had for the team. I only gave them a shot again this year because a raging global pandemic was keeping me mostly stuck at home. Getting back into the Sabres was a way for me to cope, even if the hockey was bad.
A pandemic where you’re forced to remove yourself from other people does weird things to you. I spent several more hours than usual scrolling and engaging on social media. It felt like the only way to connect and experience community safely, despite places like Twitter (where I found my home base, of sorts) being cesspools for almost every topic. To get back into the swing of getting hockey insights and commentary every day, I started tweeting about the Sabres.
I couldn’t have chosen a worse time.
In early 2021, the Sabres were a completely different and more troubled team than they are now. Ralph Krueger, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen were still here. Taylor Hall was supposed to make the team a Stanley Cup contender. We were supposed to innately trust Ralph Krueger’s “system” for the team, that he preached like the gospel. Rasmus Dahlin’s development as an offensive defenseman was set detrimentally back. Jeff Skinner got benched and Krueger wanted you to believe it was 100% a Jeff problem. They lost eighteen straight games. Hall wanted out after half a season. Eichel got hurt. It felt like the team was in ruin, and fans had no conceivable answers.
Krueger’s firing helped, but as that drama faded, rumors of Eichel’s growing dissatisfaction with the Sabres swirled as Sam Reinhart left for the Panthers. It felt like gut punch after another to fans, who went from one of the most rabid fanbases in hockey to sometimes forgetting games were going on. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this was all absolutely miserable, but in a strange way, brought a lot of us closer together. We were already coping with the pandemic, and the one thing we could watch to feel some normalcy made us scream into the tweet-ether for connection and camaraderie.
Where we are now as a fanbase has dramatically changed from the beginning of the year. Donny Meatballs! Tage Thompson at center! Owen Power! Rick! There’s plenty to be excited about with the team, especially its new young core, after things felt hopeless for so long. Sure, we’re watching some lackluster goaltending, and a team developing in real time means that we see a lot of mistakes and growing pains play out on the ice. That doesn’t take away from feeling a glimmer of hope, together, as people who love the game. Not all is lost.
In the brief period over summer and fall when life felt almost “normal,” I had chances to meet some of the people I commiserated with online throughout the first part of the year. The folks that I knew by Twitter handles or clever screen names became real-life friends, where we talked like we’ve been friends forever. A collection of us even met up for a Sabres game (the loss against Calgary, which felt strangely right somehow). We had two things to converge over: adjusting to pandemic life and, strangely, the Buffalo Sabres.
The point of all of this is that yeah, I do owe the Sabres a tiny bit of gratitude in 2021, even if it isn’t specifically hockey-related. They helped me find a niche and good people to surround myself with, and ironically, they made a community out of so many people hate-watching them. Returning to the team at its worst brought me connections to people I’m indebted to for far longer than this rebuild will take.
In other words, maybe the real 2021 Buffalo Sabres were the friends we made along the way.