Always a proud region, Buffalo has gone through its highs and lows as a sports town, but win or lose it has remained just that - a sports town. We're lucky to have several professional sports teams in our town, headlined by the Buffalo Sabres and Bills. The Bills have a huge following here, no doubt about it. My wife, the biggest Bills fan I know, may get mad at me for this but to me there's no denying that this is a hockey town. As proof I point to the Game 5 ratings of the Stanley Cup Finals. In the game that would decide the Cup, Los Angeles had a 12.4 share of viewers, New York City was second with 10.4 and third was Buffalo coming in at 9.2 - this per Lisa Dillman of the LA Times. There was no reason for the city of Buffalo to really root for either team. You don't see people walking around town with Dustin Brown jerseys (Ithaca born) or wearing Rangers jerseys just because we share the same state. Buffalo was third in viewing because we love hockey. Despite the last place finish, in their 41 home games this year the Sabres were at 97.4% capacity - good for 17th in the league. I'll say it again, this is a hockey town.
The city itself is growing exponentially. On the block next to the First Niagara Center we have a beautifully reconstructed waterfront that faces our historic grain elevators and houses an impressive naval yard. Lights are strung from the ships giving off a comforting glow at night. Go down to the waterfront any day of the week and you'll see people of all walks of life exercising, eating or just taking in the view which opens to Lake Erie. There's a great little place to stop in for a drink right in front of the naval yard called Liberty Hound. It's a great spot to hang out after a day of kayaking or enjoying one of the several scenic boat tours now rounding the area. Across the street under our Route 5 Skyway you'll find one of the greatest architectural designs in recent memory as Sabres Owner Terry Pegula has financed a stunning new building that is part hotel, part arena. Visit HarborCenter.com to find out more about the layout, but I can tell you that the sixth floor will house two rinks - both with NHL dimensions - one of which seats over 1,800 people and the other for smaller crowds. It has come together incredibly fast and has been a source of pride and excitement for our resurgent city. All around the First Niagara Center there are other diamonds in the rough. Take a walk around the Cobblestone Area right by the rink and stop in Lagerhaus 95, Iron Works, Cobblestone or Helium Comedy Club for something to do before and after games. Just across the parking lot the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino has become a great destination for night life as well. We're close to Niagara Falls and if you head south you have our beloved Buffalo Bills, more fantastic restaurants with more fantastic Buffalo food, malls and four popular skiing and snowboarding resorts all within an hour. There's a lot to love about Buffalo. Another thing to love is the Sabres.
Yes, it's difficult to explain to people why jumping on the bandwagon of a struggling franchise is a good idea, but hear me out. It starts with our Owner. Terry Pegula has gone from savior to taking serious heat and back to endearing himself to the city once again. Fans need to remember that Pegula himself is a fan. He has learned and continues to learn how to separate his love of the team from what is truly necessary to create a winning attitude. It took a little time before he would move on from Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier. Regardless of time, it's been done. He's on his third coach in his short tenure as Owner, a sign that he's not willing to wait for pieces to fall into place. Pegula is going to find the right man for the job. In come Ted Nolan and Tim Murray. Nolan is a legendary figure with a short history here who was welcomed back with open arms by a starving fan base and provided immediate results. Tim Murray has proven that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on a deal that he believes will help the club. The roster has been infused with loads of raw talent and draft picks. Do any of them really mean anything yet? No, there's a lot of growing and learning to do. The difference is the team has finally turned over a new leaf. On Friday they will add a top two pick to their current stable of top young talent and will again bring in more early round picks in 2015 - the crown jewel of recent drafts. The franchise has young talent to lock up and additional funds to offer free agents looking to get their names back on the map. In other words, the Sabres have worked their way into a position to right their ship with exciting young talent and a current core that will be strong leaders in the future. Don't let a roster lacking superstar talent fool you - the players who lineup in the white, blue and gold will be constantly evaluated. They will have to play their very best to remain with the big club. The Sabres organization has found a lull in the action that provides them both a small window for understandable growing pains while also demanding the absolute best out of their current roster. The competition is going to be fierce for playing time between each and every player. They will be easily replaceable. They must produce.
I believe only three players on this roster are truly untouchable. They would be Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. The three first rounders have all shown the ability and will to force their way into important roles in the NHL. The flexibility of the organization combined with the commitment to compete provides them with ample opportunity to put their marks on this organization. Pegula, Murray, Nolan and company are going to push and pull everything out of this group and help mold their own vision for this team. Nolan headed the famously named "Hardest Working Team in Hockey" with his Sabres squad of the late 90's that pushed every team they played to the brink and back on their heels. Win or lose, you knew the Sabres were going to make you earn every inch of ice. Nolan is bringing that back step by step. As he said last year, "It's one thing to be outplayed, but we should never be outworked." Buffalo is going to go after everyone under Nolan's direction.
So here we are folks. Now is the time. Now is the time to root for a city. Now is the time to root for a hockey town. Now is the time to root for the Buffalo Sabres. Trust me.