I've started three different posts the last few days. The first was about playoff predictions. (I've seen even less Western Conference hockey this season than usual so that seemed kind of pointless.) The second was about the number of talking heads picking Boston. (Sometimes there are just no upsets, talking heads. Also, I'm already tired of the words "Tuukka" and "Rask.") The third contained some helpful guidelines for the PHWA members for voting on the regular season awards. (Myers for Calder, Miller for Hart, make defense your primary guideline when voting for the Norris, don't give too much weight to +/- for the Norris or the Selke because it doesn't include PK stats which is when a defensive player should probably be doing his best work, don't automatically cast your Lady Byng vote for the forward with the most points and the fewest penalty minutes because a) it's lazy b) penalty minutes are not representative of a player's level of sportsmanship and c) a d-man will never win that way, and finally, no Caps.) But I lost steam halfway through all of them because I don't care. I really, really just want the playoffs to start.
I tried to tell myself the last couple of years that it wasn't SO terrible to watch the playoffs without the Sabres. It was less stressful! It was fun to cheer for teams that I ultimately didn't really care about that much! It was amusing to watch other fan bases go crazy with joy, agony, and conspiracy theories! But the truth is, the playoffs without the Sabres suck and they suck a lot. What's the fun of watching games I don't care about? It goes against everything that's great about sports!
Regular readers will know this about me, but I think after a two year break from the playoffs it bears repeating. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. There was no hockey. There were no professional sports teams. When my Pittsburgh Pirates played (and lost) in three straight NLCS, I watched from afar. I didn't go to the park, I didn't have fellow fans to debate, celebrate, or commiserate with, and I didn't have local TV or newspaper coverage or oodles of blogs and websites to pore over.
That started to change when I moved to Buffalo, almost ten years ago. I watched the Sabres here and there, I knew the primary names and numbers, I knew enough to have identified certain players as favorites. I clearly remember having a fairly in-depth conversation about the Sabres with a guy from Pittsburgh while waiting in the general admission line for the U2 concert in December of 2005 because it was around the time that people started saying, "Hey, this team might be pretty good." But during the 2006 playoffs, everything changed.
Kate, of the Willful Caboose, is currently writing a (highly recommended) series of posts called "The Bandwagoner's Guide to the Sabres." While the posts are mostly silly fun (although she totally nails Toni Lydman), at the very beginning of each one she mentions that lots of people's fandom is inspired by a playoff run. It's a gentle reminder that hey, we all start somewhere and it's usually when the team is actually good at hockey.
For me, that is absolutely true. As I said above, I watched the Sabres enough to have a somewhat intelligent conversation about them before 2005-2006, but that playoff run changed everything. That's when I really fell in love with hockey. I started to really become interested in positioning and strategy and match-ups. That's when I really fell in love with the Sabres. I knew all the players and where they came from and who they played with and what their strengths and weaknesses were. I started figuring out their personalities. I bought my first Sabres jersey.
Maybe most importantly however, it was during that playoff run that I really fell in love with Buffalo. The city that I was still struggling to settle into started to feel like home. Co-workers who were acquaintances at best became friends because of the Sabres. Endless conversations were had with friendly strangers. I ventured out to new places to eat and drink. The spring/early summer weather was perfect unlike Alabama where the pollen and heat are out full force by early May. There was a buzz, an excitement, a hope, a bounce in everyone's steps.
I've learned in the time since then that all those things about Buffalo are true even when the Sabres quit playing hockey at the end of the regular season. There's always a stranger willing to have a friendly chat. There's good food everywhere and lots of friends and family to enjoy it with. The first days of spring are practically perfect and the long winters only make those days seem even more beautiful. And despite being disappointed and knocked down over and over, sometimes of our own doing and sometimes by circumstances beyond our control, there's always optimism. Maybe not full-on belief that this time things will turn out right, but always a hope that maybe they will.
But despite learning all that, I feel it more when the Sabres are in the playoffs. I don't know if it's really more present then or if sentimentally, I'll always tie together the postseason with that first blush of love but whichever it is, I love it. Eventually I'll get into numbers and match-ups and opponents but for now, I really just want the playoffs to start so we can all fall in love all over again.