I'll always have an affinity for Dave Hodge as he was a part of my hockey genesis growing up. As a kid in Buffalo during the 70's, he was as much a part of the game as the game itself. And though I have no recollection of Hodge doing play-by-play for Buffalo in their inaugural season, I certainly remember those who followed him in the Sabres broadcast booth--Rick Jeanneret and Ted Darling.
But with all due respect to our neighbors to the north, y'all need to get over this Connor McDavid thing.
The Buffalo Sabres are a bad team right now as they are in the midst of a scorched earth-rebuild. They will be at or near the bottom of the league this season. And in so much as Hodges believes the Sabres have an unhealthy "lust for McDavid," the media, especially up in Canada is even worse as they rehash the "tank-job" at every possible moment.
It's like the never ending Johnny Manziel circus. All summer long and into last Thursday's game with Cincinnati, Manziel is always in the news. If reporters needed a story (which they always do,) or if columnists and analysts needed to opine on a subject that stirs emotions, they could always trot out Manziel, even as he went from "Johnny Football" to "Johnny Bench" (thx, Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News.)
The media now has that with the Buffalo Sabres and their plunge to the bottom of the league. If one really needs to get the attention of their audience, especially up north, all that's needed are two words--Buffalo and McDavid.
"I'm well aware," wrote Hodges in his November 8 Thumbs up/Thumbs down column, "that all 30 NHL teams would not hesitate to smile at the thought of McDavid in their lineup, but most of them would be highly disappointed if that came to pass because they won the draft lottery after finishing in last place."
No they wouldn't. For the past 10 years (save for the Sidney Crosby draft) a team any team outside the top-five in the draft either had no chance or a slim chance of getting the first overall pick. The only way to get it was to finish at or near the bottom of the league, just ask the Edmonton Oilers. And I highly doubt any small market team like Edmonton or Winnipeg, or struggling franchises like Florida or even Arizona would be highly disappointed if the opportunity to rebuild happened to be at this moment.
During the aforementioned 10-year span, the Sabres were a mediocre team on a treadmill to nowhere--too good for a high pick, not good enough for the playoffs. Were they ever mentioned as a team deserved of a top pick in the draft based upon their noble run to 9th place? Nope. From 2003 when they picked Thomas Vanek 5th overall to 2013 when they used the 8th overall pick to grab Rasmus Ristolainen, they never picked higher than 12th including three 13th overalls and one 16th overall.
Did the hockey world care? Maybe to the point where they got sick of talking about he Sabres as a bubble playoff team year-in, year-out. Other than that? Nope.
"Until or unless the Sabres decide to change the conversation regarding themselves and McDavid by vowing to finish as high as they can," wrote Hodge, "they are to be judged by the comments they've made."
Just curious as to why should the Sabres be judged? Because owner Terry Pegula gave mediocrity every opportunity to succeed, including the "drunken sailor" free agent signings of 2011? There really shouldn't be any "judging" of any organization doing what's best for the franchise. Which includes tearing down then rebuilding through the draft.
The statement the team made by dismantling "the core" is that the previous course wasn't working and that they needed a different approach. Plain and simple.
As Buffalo ignores their "pleas for honor," it's as if writers and pundits are busting out the ol' "integrity of the game" thing as a method of last resort. You know, the same "integrity of the game" thing that baseball cloaks itself in despite the fact that there's incredible disparity between the few rich and the many poor and that the steroid era went on right under the noses of their commissioner.
All of a sudden a team that's been laughed at for years, even decades, has an opportunity to rise up and the powers that be are getting nervous at the prospect. Or at least there are many trying to make them feel guilty about a process that's well within the bounds of league rules.
Y'all think that the Montreal Canadiens felt guilty about cornering the market on the best talent in the Original Six era? Or that Sam Pollock felt guilty when he was hording talent for the Montreal Canadiens while dictating the terms of the expansion draft?
Did Peter Pocklington feel guilty about a "personal services contract" Wayne Gretzky and their side-stepping of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft?
Did the Pittsburgh Penguins feel guilty about the most obvious tank-job in (possibly) sports history when they landed Mario Lemieux? Or did he feel guilty as Penguins owner, that they somehow ended up with (were awarded?) Sidney Crosby?
Look, we Sabres fans get it. But if anyone's looking for an apology, it ain't coming.
For years, nobody gave a damn about the city and their hockey team. Buffalo was the grubby little street-urchin in they eyes of our hockey neighbors to the north, as evidenced by this quote from Steve Simmons of the Toronto Star after Josh Gorges signed with the Sabres:
"[Gorges] made that decision of supposedly sound mind, or so we are informed. He selected living in Buffalo and playing for quite possibly the worst team in the NHL over living in Toronto and playing in the so-called centre of the hockey universe.
"He chose the armpit of America over one of the world’s great cities, current traffic and politics aside."That pretty much sums up what the hockey world thinks about Buffalo and the Sabres. They don't really care about what happens to the team. Never did.
Did anyone give a damn when Ryan Miller was bowled over by Milan Lucic? Nope.
Did anyone care about "no goal?" Nope.
Did anyone care that the team was bankrupt and at one point was being run by the NHL? Nope.
Only when they started to do things under Pegula did the hockey world start caring as the grubby little street urchin looking to better themselves. They applauded when the team took a nose-dive during the 2011-12 season. Unfortunately for the haters, that's when the team decided it was time to rebuild with three quality drafts right there in front of them.
Hodge wants the Buffalo Sabres to lose with dignity this year under a "Let's get Connor with honor" banner. He believes that they are "probably bad enough to get the most favourable draft odds by trying their best, and so they should say and do everything to suggest that 30th place is not acceptable….even if that is the goal."
By all accounts, Hodge is an honorable man and the "falling with style approach," it would seem, is much more preferable than the "Eddie Johnston/Lou Angotti outright tank" approach. And maybe he's right, in a way, even though management has been saying and doing the right things from the end of last season 'til now.
But, the Sabres are beyond the point of no return now in this process. A little luck may be on their side as the rebuild happens to coincide with a 2015 draft that has at least one and maybe as many as three franchise-type players. They strafed the old team, plowed the remains under and started from scratch three years ago. And this time they're going to do it the right way. Through the draft.
The Sabres now have a ton of prospects in the system and even though some might be better players than what they're icing, the organization is not going to rush them like they did last season. When they needed roster players and some contracts to get to the cap floor this off season, they did it by signing/trading for legitimate NHL players like Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Georges. The players they kept combined with the players they brought in really haven't gelled as a team and there's not enough individual talent to keep things interesting game-in/game-out. But it's not like they're benching a red-hot Roberto Romano for Vincent Trembley.
They are trying, but fact is they won't even be close to a top-20 finish this season much less be caught dead on a noble ride to 9th place. They don't have the horses to even think of something like that. And the rebuild will go on for one more year before they start putting the pieces together in earnest.
When all's said and done, and we look back on all of this, the most important thing this rebuild should be known for is good timing. Upon the decision to strip dismantle the team they were set to begin the process with a very solid 2012 draft class that may have landed them three prominent players for the future. The 2013 Draft was even better and deeper and the team took home five of the top 52 picks while adding two more via trades. Last year was Sam Reinhart, second overall. And then of course there's this year.
If the Sabres were in Edmonton's shoes four years ago, I highly doubt there would be this much "outrage" over a poor Buffalo team finishing in last place and getting a high draft pick. If Edmonton was in the Sabres shoes this year, nary a bad word would be slung at a struggling Canadian team trying to better itself through a high pick in the draft.
Sorry, boys, but the only thing I'm getting from all of this is a lot of jealousy and Homie don't play dat.
Throughout the years the sportsworld has empathized and sympathized with the Buffalo sports teams and the "Buffaluck" that has followed them for decades. And at times Buffalo fans were shown pity.
I think most Buffalo fans are kinda tired of being pooh-poohed. I won't speak for them, but for this writer, like my old friend Dean once said, "I'd rather be hated than pitied."