(Ed. Note: The Buffalo Sabres hosted the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night in one of the most surreal games in NHL history, as the home fans cheered for the opposition so that the Sabres’ maintained last place and their draft lottery odds. Ryan Nagelhout is a freelance writer and Buffalo blogger at The Roost. He was there for Tank Night, and filed this for Puck Daddy. Enjoy!)
By Ryan Nagelhout
BUFFALO, NY – Mike Weber had heard enough.
The Buffalo Sabres defenseman heard the cheers for Arizona Coyotes goals against his team. Everyone did. Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett made 38 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes at First Niagara Center on Thursday, but said "I don't want to talk about it" when asked about the home crowd cheering for the visiting team.
Sabres captain Brian Gionta said it was "real tough" but didn't elaborate. Sabres forward Cody Hodgson simply insisted the team wanted to "win as bad as anybody." Even Sabres coach Ted Nolan claimed he wasn't paying attention to the crowd on Thursday night.
That's OK. Weber said enough for all of them.
"I've always spoken extremely highly of our fans," Weber said after Sabres fans cheered the loss. "I don't even know if disappointed is the word."
Few people at First Niagara Center were dressed in brick red and desert sand, but the cheers that came with Coyotes goals were unmistakable. It became more pronounced with each Arizona goal. Some fans even taped Coyotes logos to the front of their Sabres jerseys, and the roar that accompanied Sam Gagner's overtime winner left no doubt.
Welcome to Tanktown, a city trapped in the abyss of bad hockey and hoping Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can save them.
Some in Buffalo had the tilt against Arizona marked on the calendar for months. The two teams jettisoning talent at the trade deadline made the race for the bottom clear. Buffalo wore its awful third jerseys (50 percent off at the team store!) for the occasion. The local media even took sides: WGR550 AM radio hosts are pro-tank, while Thursday's Buffalo News ran a story about the ethics of tanking as its 1A centerpiece.
But how would the fans react? Last Friday's crowd cheered for a disallowed Sabres goal in a 3-0 Devils win. Would Arizona really find applause on the shores of Lake Erie?
Most of the game was highlighted by polite, almost awkward silence. The din of the crowd during play made it feel more like a sparsely-attended gallery opening than an allegedly sold out hockey game. Fittingly enough, Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabkowski brilliantly live-tweeted the game as if he were reviewing an absurdist art installation. It was by far the most entertaining part of the evening.
Then came the goals. Sabres leading scorer Tyler Ennis got a bigger cheer for tying the game at 1-1 than Arizona's Jordan Szwarz got for opening the scoring. But the mood swung as the game progressed, and by the time Arizona took a 3-2 lead into the third period it was clear Tank Nation controlled the volume knob inside the building. Brian Gionta tied the score at 3-3 off an atrocious Shane Doan giveaway with 3:37 left in regulation.
The goal announcement drew boos, as did the horn signaling the end of regulation.
Sabres fans once hung signs inside First Niagara Center counting the population of Pominville or imploring the team to "Awinagenov."
Now they ask fans to "#PRAYFORMCDAVID."
"I've loved the Sabres forever," Adam Berman said as he hung his banner with a friend above Section 312 before Thursday's game. "But this late in the season, with our record what it is and with a superstar like McDavid on the line, it's better to lose to get a better chance at first overall."
Berman said he's hung the banner about a dozen times this year. At first he was "a little nervous" about the public display but said he's only encountered a few "dirty looks" from other Sabres fans. Honestly, he's more worried about what Sabres players might think.
"I didn't want them to think I hate the team or I'm disrespecting them," he said. "But it is what it is."
Berman said he would be among the Sabres faithful cheering Coyotes goals on Thursday. For Weber, that's where fans have crossed the line.
"The minute they score that first one our fans are cheering. Late penalty, they cheer. They cheer when they score to win the game," Weber said. "I don't even know what to say. This is extremely frustrating for us."
The choice for some Sabres fans is clear: lose now for the chance to be better later. It's a twisted logic that seems reasonable to those tired of mediocre hockey and valiant races to 9th place. Many feel Buffalo has played by the rules and come away empty-handed in the past. Why not try something different?
After all, no one will care how they got their superstars when they start winning again.
Try explaining that to human beings tasked with winning on a hockey team built to lose.
"We don't want to be here," Weber said of the basement-dwelling Sabres. "We understand what this team is doing, what the organization is doing. The place we've put ourselves in. But I've never been a part of something like that where the away team comes into a home building and they're cheering for them."
The long grind has clearly worn on the players and even some fans. Many in Buffalo are sick of tank talk, and have tuned out altogether. Some have even discussed hoping the team plays well enough to finish 28th and potentially miss out on McDavid and Eichel unless they win the draft lottery.
That now seems unlikely for Buffalo after Thursday's overtime loss, but the journey to consecutive last place finishes has clearly taken its toll in the Queen City.
"This is two years in a row now," Weber said. "Physically... mentally... [Laughs] This sucks.
"Obviously what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he added. "But this is a whole new low right now."
A new low, maybe, but the gap between the Sabres and Coyotes is just six points. With eight games to go and four left on the home schedule, there's no telling how deep the abyss can go in downtown Buffalo.
Lead photo via Harry Scull Jr., Buffalo News; here's a full gallery of images from Tank Night.
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