Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mad Max

We moved to Buffalo in the summer of 2000. At that point, I'd seen a few Sabres games in person and had watched the 1999 Cup run. I was somewhat familiar with the players. But my very first up-close glance came at the preseason carnival in the fall of 2000. It was very similar to last season's Puck Drop with all the players spread across the arena signing autographs although there were also a few games and little rinks set up for kids of all ages to enjoy.

Because I was relatively new to the Sabres scene, some of the players are blurred in my memory. Despite how much I came to love him in the years after that, I wouldn't remember meeting Jay McKee if I didn't have the autograph to prove it. I remember thinking Doug Gilmour was nice though I can't remember why I thought that. I didn't remember Mike Peca not being there until Mark reminded me of it.

I do remember, toward the very end of the day, sneaking into Miroslav Satan's line which had been really long throughout the afternoon. When we got toward the front and Satan was in sight, I realized there was someone else - someone I didn't recognize at all - sitting at the table with him. I remember asking Mark who it was and I remember him saying, "Oh, that's Maxim Afinogenov. He's Russian. He's supposed to be really good." For some reason, I was really fascinated by Max. He looked extremely uncomfortable and it was obvious that he spoke very, very little English, if any. I don't remember hearing him talk at all. He mostly nodded and looked scared. I decided then that I liked him.

It's kind of hard to define my feelings about Max though. I never fell in love with him the way I did Jay McKee. I don't get nervous or sad at the thought of him playing for another team like I do Henrik Tallinder. (We'll get into that more in another post.) But I always liked him and sympathized with him in a way that I don't sympathize with very many players. When Derek Roy is struggling I usually get cranky with him, assume he's spending too many late nights on Chippewa, and threaten to punch him in the teeth if he doesn't turn it around. I don't feel bad for him ever. But when I think back on Max's struggles during the last couple of seasons, I do feel bad for him.

I feel bad that a lot of fans and media never gave his injuries the same weight that they gave other players'. Yes, he was hurt a lot and yes, he missed a lot of time and that gets annoying after a while. But the injuries he had - a broken hand and numerous groin problems - are tough injuries for a guy whose entire game is stick-handling and skating. There was a lot of criticism floating around but very little of it even mentioned him recovering from injuries.

I feel bad that Lindy Ruff turned so sharply on Max. I definitely understand why he would be a frustrating player to coach but as much as I love Lindy, I think he did a horrible job handling Max over the last couple of seasons. If you take a guy with speed, vision, and some skill and you put him on a line with guys like Adam Mair and Paul Gaustad, you're probably not going to get much out of him. God bless Mair and Goose but they have no business playing on a line with Max. On a regular basis, Lindy put Max in a situation where he was sure to fail and again, it bothers me that the criticism of Max rarely questioned that. When Lindy gives up on a player, he gives up hard and I think he ends up making the situation with that player even worse than it already is. (See Kalinin, Dmitri and possibly Tallinder, Henrik.) While I understand why teams would shy away from taking a chance on him, a little part of me feels like Max could succeed again with another coach and another system.

Mostly I feel bad that his exit from Buffalo has been so dismissive. Yeah, Max has been a headache for the last two years. But that's two years out of ten in a Sabres uniform. It's not like the guy never did anything of worth here. A huge part of the success of the 2005-2006 team was the strength of the Afinogenov-Roy-Vanek line. Until he started running into injuries, he played just as well the following season. The further we get from those two seasons, the more special they seem and Max was right in the middle of both of them.

And beyond his play, despite what a lot of people might say now, he meant something to Buffalo. Kate recently wrote a really nice post about Max and the way he captivated a live crowd. When he suddenly broke out of the pack and came careening down the ice, we really did scoot to the edges of our seats and we really did hold our breath because even if he'd missed the previous twelve breakaways, we knew that there was enough skill in that body to make something really special happen if he could just pull it all together. Looking around at games, practices, and Sabres events over the last 10 years it's clear that a lot of Buffalo kids - and more than a few adults - are going to look back some day and say, "Yeah, Maxim Afinogenov. He was my first favorite Sabre." It's not a Stanley Cup but I think there's a lot of value in that. Every sport and every team needs fans to fall in love that first time.

In 20 years, I'm pretty sure one of the Sabres moments I'll recall the easiest is Max's belly flop across center ice after scoring the overtime goal against the Rangers in the 2007 playoffs. It was one of those moments you watch sports to witness and his reaction was pure joy. I remember being so happy for him. While it's past time for Max to move on from Buffalo, I'll definitely remember him with a lot of fondness. I wish him good luck and happiness wherever he ends up.

19 comments:

Katebits said...

Aw. Good one, Heather.

joe said...

do you ever think if the sabres kept drury and briere or were proactive and didnt thurst max into the first line, he'd still be the version of his 06-07 season?

HockeyVampiress said...

Max is the reason I watched the Sabres. My son has always had him as a fave and when chosing a jersey number picked 61. I will be sad to see him go but I understand that he has not only gotten a bum rap from his injuries but his representation on the team from the staff. Great blog.... !!!

S.A.M. said...

Well-written post, Heather.

I have mixed feelings about Max. he frustrates me to no end because he has all the pieces, he just can't quite put them together. (usually) And I think there has yet to be a game that I'm in attendance (when he's playing) where someone behind me doesn't compare Max to Pavel Bure. I kid you not, this happened numerous times this season- and of course my ears perk up because Pavel is my first hockey love.

And the main difference between Pavel and Max- Pavel could do the things we just wish Max could do. HE could actually skate, stickhandle- and then score a goal, through about 20 defenders, one hand on the stick, 2 hands on the stick, through his own legs, you name it. He made goalies look silly and defencemen look like they were standing still. If you didn't watch hockey in the mid 90s you missed a real treat. Go youtube Pavel Bure sometime and you will understand why I can't ever love Max.

Sorry 'bout the ramble, but it is an unavoidable comparison if you, like me, came to hockey in 1994 and fell in love with Pavel Bure. Max wishes he was Bure- he is *almost* as good, as fast, as coordinated. But he couldn't ever put it all together.

One thing he does have in common with Bure (go figure, they are both Russian) is his secretive air- the mystery surrounding him and his every move. And they were both villified by the media for it, though Max was less of a star so they were nicer on him.

I think we'll miss him a bit but we shouldn't worry too much about him going elsewhere- he will most likely end up back in Russia. And that's okay by me.

Heather B. said...

Kate and Hockey Vampiress, thanks! HV, I really believe there are a lot of kids in Buffalo like your son who had a real attachment to Max and I think that's awesome.

Joe, I think Roy, Vanek, and Afinogenov all did struggle with moving from the third line to the first line but I think it had to happen. After the seasons they had between 2005-2007, they weren't going to get paid like third line players even if that's where the Sabres had played them. There's no way the Sabres could have kept Drury and Briere and kept those guys on a lower line for very much longer than they did. Financially, it wouldn't work. The market would have paid them like top line players. In a perfect world though, yeah, I think he might have been better off with lighter expectations on him.

I think the NHL going back to calling less obstruction and coaches adjusting to run and gun teams like the 05-06 Sabres by playing more defensive hockey are both huge culprits in Max's struggles as well. Both things work against his skill set. He's just not a two-way player really and that probably would have caused friction between him and Lindy eventually.

Heather B. said...

Sam, I've seen some Pavel Bure highlights though I did miss most of his career. I think it was Meg who once commented that Max has all the hockey skills but doesn't have the hockey mind to go with them and I think there's a lot of truth to that. His brain could never keep up with his body.

While this wasn't really your point, as an addition, I will say that remembering how quiet and scared and nervous Max looked at that first Sabres carnival I saw him at, I have a ton of respect for how much non-English speaking players go through to play in the NHL especially Europeans. I can't even imagine.

I don't think the Sabres will really miss him on the ice. I just think he contributed more during some of his years here - on and off the ice - then people are giving him credit for now.

Jaime said...

One of my favorite memories of Max. I happened to run into him at the mall. He was coming out, I going in. Although I never do it, I asked him for his autograph (my nephew loves him). A huge smile spread across his face. It was drizzling and he was trying to sign the piece of paper I handed him and protect me from the rain at the same time. He seemed so concerned for me, saying in his gutteral tone, "You. Wet. Rain." It was cute and hilarious at the same time.

I always have a sweet spot for the guys that are happy and polite to their fans (Max, Zhitnik, Smehlik- all guys hated by much of the population, but were nice guys to me). Some guys are way to full of themselves so I could care less when they go even if they were good players (Michael Peca).

Sorry this was so long but I thought we needed another nice Max memory!

Anne M said...

Good post, Heather. I have liked (um, loved) Max since he started playing with the Amerks. Due to a happy convergence of friend working for the team and different friend with season tickets, I saw a ton of Amerks games during those years when Max, Kalinin, Miller, et al were just starting out. I got pretty attached to some of those guys, but none as much as Max.

I won't be a total Max apologist because at the end of the day, he is responsible for himself on the ice. But I do think it sucks that once he got into Ruff's doghouse, he had no way out. You could see games where Max was working his tail off, and he would still get knocked to the grinder line and then reamed in the post-game presser for one mistake. Then he'd be benched for a bunch of games and have to start from square one. I think calling players out in the press is futile anyway (why would they care? They cash their checks regardless of what the coach says to the media.), but if that's going to be one your coaching methods, I think you have to be more even with it. If I were Max, I would get resentful that other players making just as many (or more) mistakes were not getting that same treatment from the coach. That resentment spills over into his play, which feeds more anger from the coach, which leads to more time on the bench, etc.

I was always kind of annoyed by the Bure comparisons. That kind of thing can only go so far and it bugged me that the main reason seemed to be that they're both fair-haired Russians. Bure was obviously the better player--Calder trophy, multiple All-Star appearances, two-time Richard trophy winner. But somehow, Max was supposed to be that guy.

I will always be a little bitter with Ruff for benching Max in the last game of this past season. It was a meaningless game for both teams, and very obviously Max's last as a Sabre. His decline notwithstanding, he was a fan favorite. You play that guy in his last game so his fans can see him one last time.

Heather B. said...

Jaime, I love hearing stories like that so thanks for sharing!

Anne, I totally get what you're saying about Max and Lindy entering a cycle of negativity. I am perhaps a little more sensitive to it since I love Hank but I had similar complaints about Lindy's endless threats last season to bench anyone who didn't play hard. It quickly became clear that there was a group of players he would bench in a heartbeat and a group of players he wouldn't bench under any circumstance even if they'd earned it.

I don't know if you read the post by Kate that I linked to but in it she says she's not sure why she never fully turned on Max the way some people did and for me a huge part of that was his effort. I think he was almost always trying really, really hard. He wasn't capable of playing the style of hockey Lindy wanted him to play or with the linemates Lindy wanted him to play with but he tried. I find that much more palatable than someone like Derek Roy who is perfectly capable but doesn't seem to really care as much.

I admit, I didn't really think about Max being scratched for his last game as a Sabre but if it helps, I'm retroactively annoyed.

Erin said...

Love this. Video gives me chills.

brian s. said...

That is definitely a great Sabres moment. I agree that Max was exciting, but I wanted him traded during the 06-07 season when he was playing so well. We used to call him "Fancy Pants" because he'd do all these moves and then lose the puck. But, I digress. During his time here he never seemed to live up to his expectations and couldn't get into his head that he was more of a play maker than goal scorer or that there were other people on the ice with him to whom he could pass. I also agree that Lindy completely gave up on him and he would have helped the team more on a 2nd line role than 4th line.

SueInVA said...

That is my favorite Max moment! I only started really watching the Sabres (well not counting the 70's team when I was growing up!) during the playoff run the year before. Outside of Robert's fog game OT goal, I think this could be an all time favorite.

Anonymous said...

I really don't get how anyone can be a Max apologist and give Roy crap all the time. Roy is consistently the best player on the team and, quite frankly, Max sucks. He is so consistent, in that he does the same exact move every time streaking up the ice and then promptly turning it over. You're wrong, there is no excuse for him, good riddance.

Heather B. said...

Anonymous, don't get me wrong. I absolutely agree that Derek Roy is the most talented player on the team. I also think that he could be much, much better but he's prone to being lazy and listless. And with acknowledgement that I'm not in his head, I never get the feeling that he really cares if he's playing to his potential or if the team is playing to its potential. As a fan, I find that really annoying and frustrating. He's absolutely more talented than Max. I would never argue that Max should be kept instead of him and did, in fact, say that it's long past time for Max to move on. I also said that Max was often frustrating and annoying and probably a pain in the ass to coach. But if you think that Max didn't mean a lot to a lot of people in Buffalo - which was my main point - well, I think you're wrong.

When he first came up I loved Derek Roy and was not shy about it. You can check the archives on that one. I was a huge Roy apologist back when most people were stuck on the whining and diving. When he's playing the way he can play - scrappy, annoying, wheeling away - he can be awesome. But I don't think he played that way last season and I think that's sometimes a bad influence on his teammates. Just my interpretation.

Tom L said...

H.B.,

While I can understand your frustration with the way Max was handled in the past couple of seasons, it is disingenuous to say that Ruff stuck him on a ilne with Mair and Kaleta and that's why he failed.

What I remember most from the past two seasons (esp. last season) is that when Max played with Mair he was at his best. Mair's north-south game was a good compliment to Max's lack of predictability. If we would have back-checked once or twice he might have been given a regular shift.

When he played with the Top 6 he was horrible. Obviously, he was pressing. Obviously, he was a person who wanted to succeed but forgot how. It almost seemed to me that he'd put in a good shift with Mair then look at Lindy and say, "Hey! gimme MY ice time back." Nothing in this life is that easy. When he didn't, the next shift was a nightmare.

At 29, it's time to put that childish stuff behind you and Max never did. You either do what your coach asks of you and/or what your teammates need you to do or you sit. That's hockey. That's being an adult. Max is/was a unique set of skills who never quite had the stones to take anything other than the path of least resistance. I will miss that uniqueness, but not if the team is winning.

Ruff has been more than patient with him and in a league w/o guaranteed contracts Max would have been waived years ago. If he hadn't been so vocal about going back to Russia, he might have gotten another job in the league, but he made himself un-tradable. But, as it stands, IMO, Max dug this hole for himself and no. one. else.

Tallinder, OTOH, is a different set of problems. ;)

Ta,

Heather B. said...

Tom, I don't disagree entirely with what you're saying. Certainly Max helped create the problem. He's played a lot of stupid hockey the last couple of years. But I don't think Lindy is faultless either. I think he's shown a pattern of burying guys he's unhappy with deep and not giving them a real chance to dig their way out. I don't think he gave Max a real chance to succeed and more importantly, I don't think at that point he particularly cared to see Max succeed. Obviously, YMMV.

And yeah, Hank... Jeez. More on him coming at some point. (Shocking, yes? :P)

Elaine said...

Thank you for that Heather! I do feel like you were reading my mind. My son and I have always been HUGE Max fans and we are so sad to see him gone. My son vowed that he would follow Max to what ever team he may go...he even went as far as purchasing a "Learn Russian" book. Best of luck to Max!! His #61 jersey will be retired in our house.

Kevin said...

Heather, that was a beautifully written piece. Sadly, I have to say "What Luongo wrote."

Your history of Max is clouded by your fandom, which is fine because I often write in the same manner.

But as the Sabres style changed and max was asked to at least contribute on defense and look for his team on offense he couldn't do it. Max couldn't/wouldn't, and that's not on Lindy, that's on Max

Heather B. said...

Your history of Max is clouded by your fandom...

Heh. Wait till you read my post about Hank :P