Noticeable right away was the brand new Winter Classic mural in the pavilion. I'm not gonna lie, I could do without the pictures of the fans mixed in. I get that it was a huge community thing blah blah blah but I really liked the huge player photos, the fu manchu Tim Connolly excepted.
Luckily for me - and them - there was a huge Henrik Tallinder photo in almost exactly the same place there was one before.
We didn't lollygag too long before making our way to the ice. It was still fairly early but people were starting to stream in and I wanted to sit up close. For games I'm definitely a believer in sitting far enough back that you can see the whole ice but for stuff like this I think it's fun to sit as close as possible and see the ice and the players in a way we don't usually get to see them.
Ooh! Ooh! Hank is on the ice! Ladies and gentlemen, Henrik Tallinder is on the ice!
The stripes on those practice jerseys absolutely glow when photographed, making everyone look like they're in a science fiction movie.
Unfortunately, when Hank was playing defense, this is what I saw through the entire first period:
This girl, in her spunky little glasses and her hand-lettered jersey was cute for about five minutes. And then she was just really, really annoying. I can understand leaping up when something exciting happens or standing through a real game but come on, please sit down. Those pictures are not going to come out anyway. And you know, for a girl who had Stafford on her back she spent an awful lot of time cheering for Max. We also had a somewhat rowdy Roy-Z contingent("ROOOOOOOY-ZEEEEEEEE! ROY-Z YOU ARE AMAAAAAZING!") and a comedy troupe of college-age boys - you know the ones who act like they know everything while every word coming out of their mouth proves they know very little - behind us. But hey, it's not hockey unless there's one fan around you you kind of want to punch in the head!
And still... HOCKEY!
Usually Mark and I end up pulling for different teams in scrimmages but today his guy - Drew Stafford - and my guy - hello, are you new here? - were both wearing blue. And lo and behold, they won 7-4. The numbers on the roster handed out didn't match what the players were wearing, making them pretty much useless, but I do know Mark Mancari had two goals, one beautifully placed slap shot and one very nice tip-in, while Drew Stafford also had a pretty good-looking goal. Alas, Hank did not score any goals but he also did not get hurt so we'll call it a wash.
Speaking of not getting hurt, not only were the rumors of Tim Connolly's death greatly exaggerated, he made it through the first practice of the season in one piece! Let's give him a round of applause!
We were sitting right next to the Sabres TV set-up so we ended up seeing all kinds of cool people up close and personal.
Kevin Sylvester and Rick Jeanneret! (And Harry Neale.) They're pretty cute in their little matching jackets, aren't they?
Jaroslav Spacek! (Jaro, Toni Lydman and Teppo Numminen didn't participate in the scrimmage. There may have been others missing but they were the ones I noticed. Toni and Teppo did practice after the scrimmage. I didn't notice if Jaro did or not.)
And your General Manager, Darcy John Regier!
After I took this picture I stood there for a few seconds, trying to see if I could hear what they were talking about. As I walked back toward Mark I clapped and squealed "Darcy!" (Mark: "You're an odd one all right.") That led to this conversation with the guy at the end of the row we were standing next to:
"Oh, don't tell me you were just clapping for DARCY REGIER?!"
"I sure was," I said defiantly. "I love Darcy Regier!"
"I hate that guy! He lets all the good players go and keeps all the shitty guys. I can't wait till we get rid of him."
Many responses went through my head - Who brought those good players here in the first place? Exactly which player signed this off-season is the shitty one? How easy do you think his job is? Do you enjoy being a sheep-like idiot? among some more unprintable thoughts - but I just walked away. I had a feeling the two of us were not going to have a friendly, logical discussion about Darcy Regier's tenure in Buffalo. (And yes, I'm probably as biased in Darcy's favor as that guy was against him, I know.) It did make me wish I had some Top Shelf business cards though. I could've handed that guy a card, told him to look up the web address and instructed him to read all the posts labeled Darcy Regier.
I'm not super familiar with Maria Genero - I never, never watch the news - so I'm trying not to pass judgement on her before she really gets a chance to do her thing. I'm very excited about increased web content because I really, really love what the San Jose Sharks do with Shark Byte and it sounds kind of like that's what the Sabres are going for with the web features/magazine show. I love seeing the guys in more casual, fun situations. But holy moses, the bejeweled slug shirt she was wearing today was one of the ugliest things I've ever seen. I don't know how it translated on video but up close and in person it was terrible. I guess you can take it with a grain of salt though because that shirt is pretty much the opposite of anything I would ever, ever wear.
Looking at this photo, the sheer awfulness of that shirt doesn't really translate. Trust me, it was bad.
After scrimmage was the big jersey reveal. It should have been a little anti-climactic since Sabres Edge had a leaked photo of the jersey a few days ago but it was still pretty exciting. The lights were dimmed, a neat little video was shown, the dry ice was released and the players were individually introduced by RJ. The usuals got huge cheers along with Teppo Numminen who I think got the loudest ovation for good reason. Craig Rivet and Patrick Lalime also got warm welcomes. Mike Weber, Andrej Sekera, Clarke MacArthur and Patrick Kaleta were included in the introductions with the established starters.
Overall I'd say the jerseys looked really sharp in person and on the players. I liked the colors a lot more than I thought I would and the logo, of course, is awesome. The blue in the jersey still doesn't quite match the blue of the breezers though which is a tad annoying and I really, really hate that silver piping and unfortunately I hate it in person even more than in the photo. The stylized piping looks stupid with the classic striping and it's a touch too busy to have both. For now it would keep me from buying a third jersey but when the time comes to replace my current vintage, I'd have no problem picking one up. Anyway, the team did a lap around the ice so we could all get a good look before heading to center ice for a stick salute.
The whole morning had Mark feeling VERY excited!
After that it was on to the autograph sessions. Mark and I had a pretty laid-back attitude toward autographs. Neither of us is really a collector and neither of us was super eager to have a long conversation with our favorite player but we did think it would kinda cool to get our jerseys signed if we could.
There were tables spread out around the 100 and 200 sections, two to three players to a table. Each table had its own line and each line was capped at 500. When you got in line you were given a ticket by a security guy and once the tickets were gone that line was closed. Here's the tricky part: No one knew which players were going to be at what table until the players showed up so you had to decide if you wanted to stand in a line and see who was signing there or walk around until a certain player showed and then get in his line. Obviously the risk there is the line being full by the time you realize who is where.
The way it was supposed to work as explained by the guard who gave us the ticket for the line we finally decided to stand in was that when the player showed up if you decided to get out of line, you gave your ticket back to the guard so someone else could use it. For example, if a Ryan Miller fan discovers she's in line for Henrik Tallinder but really wants to find Ryan, she gives the ticket back to the guard so there's a ticket for the Henrik Tallinder fan who's discovered she's in line for Andrew Peters. It all makes a very convoluted kind of sense, I guess.
The way it actually worked was like this: People just kept the tickets they had, went in search of the player they really wanted and once they found him, went back to the previous line. The guard pretty clearly told us that once you had a ticket you had to stay in line. If you left that line, you wouldn't be let back in whether you had a ticket or not. But anyone carrying a ticket was let back in line, no questions asked which is understandable. If I'm an arena security guard I'm certainly not going to get into a pissing match about someone wanting to get in line when they have a ticket. So the problem was, lines were running out of tickets even when there weren't a lot of people in line. When we finally found Hank, his line was not super long and there was still a lot of time left until 2:00 but there were no tickets left so the line had been closed. I'd be curious to know how many people took a ticket and jumped in line but then took off with said ticket in their hand when they realized they were waiting for Hank and not Jason Pominville or Derek Roy. I think the tickets are a fine idea. I certainly understand the need to cut off lines at a certain point and that's an easy, clear cut way to decide who gets in a line and who doesn't. But I don't understand why they can't just tell us what player is going to be at what table. If it takes 15 seconds to hand out 500 tickets at Ryan Miller's table so what? Tell everyone after that the line's closed and move on. At least people know who they are and aren't getting. That was the biggest complaint I heard from other fans. The lady in front of me in Hank's line said she'd gladly spend the whole time in Maxim Afinogenov's line even if meant only getting him but she couldn't find him and she was afraid if she kept looking she'd end up missing everyone.
Anyway, to make a long story even longer (another sign that hockey season is finally upon us: really long-ass posts from Heather B.), the lines in the 100 section were already absurd by the time Mark and I made our way up from the ice so we decided to head straight for the 200s. There's less room up there so we thought maybe they'd put some of the lower profile players up there. We found Drew Stafford pretty quickly and Mark jumped in line while I made my way around the rest of the level, trying to see if Hank was up there. I had to circle a few times because while some players had already started signing, some hadn't shown up yet so there were still empty tables. Mark had his jersey signed and was ready to move on and half the players still hadn't showed.
A little slow with the camera so I missed Mark with Staffy. Here he is pretending to care about Clarke MacArthur and Philip Gogulla.
Somewhere in the course of that half hour or so my nonchalance had morphed into borderline obsessive determination. I don't know if seeing other players up close made me realize it might be really neat to see Hank like that or if I got caught up in the crazed crowd or if I was jealous that Mark got his jersey signed but I was turning insane. I was running around the 200s, making sure Hank wasn't up there before I headed down to the 100s, looking everywhere but in front of me, thinking only, "HANK! HANK! HANK!" I suddenly ran into someone, half stepping on his foot and hitting him with my messenger bag. I glanced up, mumbled an apology and walked a few more steps before my brain registered, "Hey, that was Derek Roy." I don't know if there are many females in Buffalo who can say they ran over Derek to get to Hank but I'm one of the proud few. And if it comes out soon that Roy-Z is out with a broken toe, it's on me. Sorry.
Once it was clear Hank wasn't in the 200s, we rushed to the 100s. Okay, I rushed. Mark poked along behind me. And finally, finally! There he was!
I jumped in the line, excited that, as I said before, it wasn't really that long. The security guard wandered over to ask if I had a ticket which I didn't because they were all gone. He announced that anyone who didn't have a ticket had to leave the line. So I did. At first. And then I decided hey, eff that. I've been running around this place like crazy and unlike some of the people in the line I actually WANTED Hank's autograph. So I got back in line. The guard made his announcement a few more times, looking at me every time, but I guess he decided to leave me alone because he never really kicked me out of line. He did close the line right behind me though.
That blue is my jersey which I had taken off for autograph purposes (I had a t-shirt on so get your mind out of the gutter) and that's the end of the line right behind me.
I was hoping that they wouldn't get to me, the very last person in line, and declare that I couldn't have an autograph because I didn't have a ticket and if it did happen I was prepared to wave my Tallinder jersey around and appeal directly to Hank since he seems like a pretty nice guy. Just in case however, I managed to snag a ticket from someone who was bailing because they'd heard that Max had finally showed up at his line and there were still tickets left.
(As an aside, I think every third person was looking for Max. My mind, it was boggled. I knew he was popular but I guess I didn't realize he was still that popular. Every line I waited at for a few minutes contained a herd of people who were hoping and praying they were in Max's line. And not just kids although there was a lot of them too. Craziness.)
So now I could relax a little, plan what I was going to say when I finally came face-to-face with the guy whose picture is at the top of my blog, and stand back and observe a little. I was pretty delighted to see that Hank really is as pleasant and friendly as he always appears to be in interviews. I don't think being nice to people for a couple of hours is too much to ask of a person but we've all been to those autograph sessions where it's clear, especially toward the end, that players are going through the motions: take jersey/picture from fan, sign, say "no problem," reach for the next item. Not Henrik Tallinder. He looked up and made eye contact with everyone, he had a huge grin on his face the whole time, he made different comments to everyone, posed for as many pictures as people wanted, occasionally suggesting they check and make sure they got their picture and he went out of his way to fuss over any kids that came through the line. I think it was exactly the kind of experience that a small kid will remember years later as a really nice moment and I think that's lovely. I'm a grown-up so I've long come to accept that sometimes pro athletes aren't people I'd necessarily like and sometimes you just have to put personality aside and appreciate a guy's skill on the field of play... but I still want to like players, especially my favorites, so I was really happy to come away really liking Hank. But I'm jumping ahead of things. (I know, you were probably quite thrilled with that development at this point :P)
So it was finally my turn. Locked in on my target, I walked right by Drew Schiestel (sorry, Drew!) and spread my jersey out on the table in front of Hank. Being a less popular player he'd been signing a lot of other people's jerseys along with the little photos and slugs they were giving out. Our conversation went a little something like this:
Hank: (sees jersey, smile gets a little bigger) Ah, that's the number I like to see!
Heather: (after much thought about what to say, I say the first thing that pops into my head) YOU'RE MY FAVORITE! (I'd like to think I said that in a very calm, composed way but I fear there might have been a hint of a squeal in my voice. No idea what happened.)
Hank: And that's what I like to hear! Thank you.
I asked him if I could get a photo and he said, "Sure, you just have to come back here," so I shoved the security guy to the side. Hank was very, very tall - more on that in a second - and I was a little worried that Mark wasn't going to get us both in the picture. He's not super comfortable with a camera and he had already expressed concern about messing it up. Fortunately, Mark said aloud, "Wow, I can barely get both of you in. You're a tall guy!" at which point Hank leaned down a little closer to me. And the picture you saw yesterday was the happy result. Oh, heck. Here it is again in case you missed it.
Okay. Would any gentlemen reading this please skip to the next paragraph? I need to talk to the ladies. Personal stuff. You wouldn't want to hear it. Might be embarrassing for you. Really. Move along, move along... Are they gone? Okay, let me tell you this, ladies. Henrik Tallinder? Is beautiful even with that awful buzz cut. You know how in cartoons, sometimes the good-looking guy smiles and you get the little "ping!" sound effect with the twinkly glint and the sparkle in the eye? Well, Hank is the real-life equivalent of that. He's just so very sparkly. Noticeably blue eyes, big dimples, extremely charming. And when he stood up for the picture, holy cow, I thought he was going to go on forever. He's very lean which probably accentuates his height but man. Man! And you know what else? His hand was THIS CLOSE to being on my butt. Seriously. I'm pretty sure only the presence of my husband held him back. So, so, so pretty. Once again, Top Shelf business cards would've come in handy. I totally could've slipped one into the pocket of his hoodie.
Anyway, gentlemen, as I was telling the ladies, I really laid out my expectations for this season to Hank. I insisted on fewer turnovers and stronger play on the puck. "You're 6'3"," I said. "Now, I know you're a slim guy but really, there's no reason for you to get pushed around like that out there." He nodded in total agreement and thanked me for the help. It was a good talk. I'm confident he'll have a great 2008-2009.
One more note about Hank. I love him (in case I've been too subtle in the rest of this post) but he has the WORST signature in the world.
I know it's probably terrible signing your name over and over and over and I should talk because even in the best of circumstances my signature is H--th-- B followed by a squiggle way too short to actually be my last name. But Hank, come on now. He wrote HT 10 and then that little squiggle at the end. I don't know if that's supposed to be the rest of Tallinder or what. Mark interpreted as a little hockey stick which it does sort of resemble. Upon closer inspection I'm pretty sure it's Swedish for "Top Shelf is the best blog on the internet and I love Heather B."
And that was pretty much all she wrote for Puck Drop '08. We walked back to ice level to watch the end of practice but we were pretty wiped by that point, not to mention starving so we headed out after a few minutes.
The day had two more hockey surprise for us. One came with the announcement that Darcy had been renewed for two more years. I know of one guy in Buffalo who wasn't very happy when he heard that (ha ha!) but I love it. The second came when we fetched the mail.
We were beginning to quietly freak about not getting our tickets yet since it seemed everyone else in the blogosphere had received theirs. Turns out they were just sent to our old address - even though we changed our address with the Sabres - and caught up in mail forwarding.
Oh, hockey, sweet hockey. It's so good to see you again.