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.