Sunday, July 20, 2008

Home, Sweet Home

So, Ryan Miller extended his contract by five years yesterday, and, as usual, I'm a couple of steps behind everyone else on this. Luckily, there are other, more dedicated bloggers than I out there who have done a pretty excellent job of analyzing the deal from all angles, but I still feel like adding my thoughts.

Obviously, this is a very positive move for the organization, but the sweetest part isn't that the Sabres finally signed a big name, or held on to someone they needed to keep, but rather that Buffalo finally has a player they can concretely believe wants to be here. Someone who had other, more financially lucrative options open to him, and chose instead to stay. Sure, we've always had those players to some extent. Last off-season I cheered when Adam Mair declared that he wanted to stay in Buffalo, that he intended to stay in Buffalo, and then actually stayed. Then, when Vanek signed the offer sheet that the Sabres ultimately matched, I chose to believe him when he said he'd wanted to stay in Buffalo all along. Sure, I may have just been falling for the shallow pandering of a player who'd just committed to playing 7 more years in this city and knew how important it was to get the fans on his side. But, I argued, if he hadn't wanted to stay, why had he bought a house here even before he had a contract? Still, there was the nagging fact that he had almost become an Oiler, and the lingering question of whether or not it would have really mattered to him. We'll never know for sure. And there are those players who have that "always one of us" air about them--players like Biron and McKee--who were sent or pulled out of town, despite not really wanting to go. (Note to Bucky Gleason: If you're looking for examples of players who were "forced to jump ship," these are the names you should be mentioning.) But in the wake of Briere and, especially, Drury moving on to bigger and better things, the choruses of "No one wants to play here," "We'll never sign a big name," and "We'll never be able to hold onto our young talent once they get successful" became stifling. For the past couple of months the consensus among fans on this Miller deal was that it wasn't going to get done, that he was as good as Detroit's at this point. Well, it's nice to have them proven wrong.

But this isn't just about shutting up the whiners (after all, this is Buffalo, people will just find something else to whine about eventually); more than anything, it's about having confirmation that this is a worthwhile team, that this is a worthwhile city, that we are worthwhile fans. As pathetic as it may sound, last summer when Chris Drury took a look at the money the Rangers offered him, took a look at the equal money the Sabres offered him, and chose to turn his back on the fans who had done nothing but worship him since the moment he set skate on our ice three years previous, it was hard not to take it personally. Some people lashed out at management, convinced that Drury couldn't have actually wanted to leave us, and some people labeled him a Slag-Faced Whore, convinced that he'd wanted to leave us all along, and that no amount of negotiation could have possibly changed his mind. But I'm willing to bet all of us, on one level or another, reacted to his departure with a certain amount of "Did we do something wrong? Why doesn't he love us the way we love him?" All the rest--the anger, the blame, no matter toward whom it was directed--was just a coping mechanism. It's a dangerous business, hinging an identity on sports heroes (having recently read Friday Night Lights, I was able to draw more parallels between Odessa, Texas and Buffalo, New York than should be considered comfortable), but it's pretty much what makes us Buffalonians such a wonderful and dedicated fanbase. More often than not we get burned (McGahee, Hasek, and O.J. Simpson are names that come to mind), but sometimes it pays off, and by signing this contract, by returning the faith of the Buffalo faithful, Ryan Miller is on his way to becoming the Sabres' Thurman Thomas.

He likes us. He really likes us.

One thing that especially hit home for me in his comments following the contract signing, which Schopp and the Bulldog brought up a number of times on the radio yesterday, was that Miller really appreciates the sports atmosphere here, the fact that hockey matters. He specifically mentioned that he enjoys that he can go out to Wegmans (product placement!) and be approached by fans who recognize him, respect his space, and just want to say, "Hey." He pointed out it's not something you get in most NHL cities, and he's right. Even with such dynamic superstars as Sidney Crosby, and such perfectly-run teams as the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, hockey can't shed the cloak of insignificance on the national stage. Since the national audience can't seem to be bothered to give a damn, you would think playing for a community that cares would hold a certain cache for players in the NHL, but it's normally not considered one of the main factors in guys deciding where they want to play. And for some players craving more anonymity (like Drury), the fanaticism can even be considered a disadvantage to playing and living here. So the fact that Miller brought up this example was heartening (not least because he better get used to it, at least for the next six years), but it also spoke to me on a personal level, since, having returned from six months in Europe two weeks ago, I was appreciating the same thing about my home.

Of course, there were many things that I missed from Western New York while I was abroad (chicken wings!), but one of the biggest surprises was how much I had in fact missed being in the middle of a hockey-crazy town. My unwilling separation from hockey for essentially the entire second half of the season was made easier by the fact that the Sabres were more or less sucking it hard, so I didn't really feel like I was missing out on all that much, but I really missed being in an environment where I don't have to depend on the internet for my hockey-talk fix (not that I don't do the majority of my hockey-talking on the internet, anyway). So I get a rather strange, but very real sense of comfort out of coming home to see my mom's editorializing of the poster that's hung in our kitchen for more than a year:

My mom? She's just another classless Buffalo fan like the rest of us.

Or out of sitting down to play hours of NHL 08 with my brother and discussing the authenticity of the game (more on that later). Or out of going to my dad's company picnic and discovering that if you're willing to talk Sabres, you share common ground with pretty much everyone, strangers or no. Or out of having my dad turn to me and ask, "What do you have to say to that?" after someone's made the claim that Hecht wasn't one of the players who stepped up this season, and being able to carefully and reasonably refute that argument. Caring so much about sports may drive us crazy sometimes, Buffalo, and it may make us a joke, but I for one hope we never take it for granted.