It was 90 minutes before Wednesday night’s game and Sabers coach Don Granato had caught up on the pregame lineup routine when the conversation turned to the main point of the night: fashion.
The game against the St. Louis Blues has been on fan calendars — and in the Sabres’ locker room — since the summer. It was the return of the heads of cattle.
The Black and Red have returned for 12 games this season. No offense, blue and gold. Just a reference to history. And people raised it.
The Men in Black gave them plenty to get excited about as well as the Sabers won their second straight two nights and snapped the St. Louis ‘Blues’ eight-win streak with a 6-2 win. Jeff Skinner scored 18 seconds into the first period and joined Jack Quinn in scoring the two-goal games as goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen earned his first NHL win of the season.
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“It’s probably going to be a jersey for some, maybe everyone outside of Buffalo,” Granato said. “But I think for the people in Buffalo, it’s so much more than just a shirt. It’s an era. It’s a beautiful, wonderful era.”
It certainly was. It’s funny to look back now and think about how hated the black and red look was when it debuted with the then-inaugural Marine Midland Arena in 1996. Frankly, those unis were considered downright sacrilegious, an insult to all of the Knox brothers. in reviving this franchise and running it in such a dignified manner as they have for over two decades.
As such, nearly three weeks of misery were replaced by consecutive full-mark wins to bring the Sabers’ record to 9-11 through 20 games played.
It was easy to think of that gorgeous arena in the sky Wednesday night and wonder what hockey Hall of Fame columnist Jim Kelly might think. Remember, it was Kelly, who is credited with saying in this newspaper that the jersey logo looked like a goat’s head and that the name stuck.
Suffice it to say, Sabers management in the late ’90s wasn’t enthusiastic about the moniker.
But a funny thing happened when the fashion police spent those nights a quarter century ago debating the merits of sweaters: The Sabers turned out to be winners.
What are your memories of goat heads? Sure, you start with Dominik Hasek (I renew my point that his retired number banner should be black and red). ’99’s Race to the Stanley Cup Final. Derek Plante’s 1997 overtime goal against Ottawa in what remains the only Game 7 win in franchise history. Guard Steve Shields-Garth Snow brawl. Michael Peca in the second game against the Canadians. Rob Ray – Rob Ray! — with a wild swerve in the 99 East Final against the Maple Leafs.
and more. Jason Woolley’s shot has been heard around the hockey world. Miroslav the Devil. Stuuuuuuu Barnes. Campbell, Umberger, Danny Brier, Chris Drury, JP Dumont, Jason Pominville, and the lifetime anniversary of 2006’s Scary Good Spring. Wednesday’s opening video on Jumbotron even featured an appearance of 40-year-old Ryan Miller donning a black and red jacket and the crowd roaring.
On the way to Ottawa last week, I found myself on the phone talking to former Sabers instigator Matthew Barnaby. He wrote a book about his hockey career and we are beginning to remember “The Hardest Worked Team in Hockey”.
The Swords were awesome in 1995-1996, the last year of Memorial Auditorium. But Barnaby, Ray, Brad May, Bob Bogner, and others took no prisoners and fans loved them.
The following year, at the debut of the new arena, the team improved. Fans showed up in hard hats. A marketing slogan is born. Ted Nolan owned the town. Red and Black was a surprise hit.
“It was a great marketing tool, especially when you see the fans wearing hard hats and all,” said Barnaby. “It really was. We are now in 2022. Over 25 years later and I can unequivocally endorse the statements that this mantra makes. This was the toughest staff I have ever played for.
“I played for the New York Rangers, we had (Eric) Lindros, (Mark) Messier, (Peter) Nevid, (Brian) Leitch and all those guys who didn’t make the playoffs. About Vaclav Varada, Curtis Brown, Brian Holzinger and Matthew Barnaby who didn’t win a trophy. Stanley, but they did some really good things. And because we worked really hard, we bought into each other. I can say without any doubt that any year I ever played it was the only team everyone accepted in that role.”
On Washington Street two hours before the game, I saw some old but good stuff: Miller, Varada, Gaustad, Satan, Holzinger. I’ve also seen Thompson and Dalynn.
As you might expect, the stands were packed with jerseys as people clearly brought them out of retirement for the occasion. Spy in front of the press box during the national anthem Afinogenov and Jitnik, Byron and Hasek, La Fontaine and even Toch. Bills legend Thurman Thomas tweeted a snap from home that showed him donning his head.
The atmosphere in the sold-out building was festive. Sabretooth descends from the rafters before the opening video. On the MSG announcer, goaltender Martin Perron wore his black number 43. During the first period, Ray echoed from his spot between the benches, “You see certain numbers there and different names popping into your head.” Personal goal songs are suspended for the night. She’s back to the ’90s sirens and “Woo-Hoo” post-Goals. Organist Curtis Cooke donned a shirt and broke into the “Friends” theme at some point in the second interval.
It was fun. Everything seems to work.
Before the game, Granato was reflecting on his team feeling the same way he did during two April celebrations for retired broadcaster Rick Jennert. It was more of a game those nights and I felt the same way.
“Our players have had to feel and be aware of what it’s like to be a part of Saber history from a young age,” Granato said. “For everyone outside of Buffalo, it’s a jersey. Not here.”