By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — It’s hard to know what to say about the Buffalo Sabres anymore.
Unfortunately for me, I get paid to figure that out, so here goes nothing.
They’re in last place, the worst team in professional hockey. They traded away their franchise goaltender Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott an hour before what everyone figured would be Miller’s swan song at First Niagara Center.
Instead we got a video montage in the third period that brought fans to their feet and not just a few tears to their eyes.
Friday was a surreal night to go to a game. The outcome, an unexpected 4-2 victory over the much more talented San Jose Sharks, was an afterthought.
Friday night felt a little like the final meeting with a divorce lawyer to sign the papers.
Friday night felt a little like attending a wake for someone who isn’t dead.
The truth is, trading Miller had to happen. At 34, more of his pro hockey career is behind him than in front. If he’s going to win a Stanley Cup it won’t happen here. He deserved to be traded to a contender. Fans can’t begrudge him a chance to make his mark on the sport. Most I’ve talked to don’t.
And after that stunning but hardly surprising news Friday, another lightning bolt: Recently hired president of hockey operations, Pat LaFontaine, has resigned.
It’s difficult to know what prompted his decision. The timing, just a few days short of the trade deadline with other moves almost certain to be made, leaves one to wonder whether Patty agreed with the organization’s decision to part ways with Miller rather than try to resign him after this season, when he would have his pick of teams any one of which would be a more attractive option than last-place Buffalo.
If LaFontaine and his hand-picked new general manager Tim Murray were at odds over the Miller situation I would be surprised. Miller’s status had to have been question No. 1 during the interview process and I can’t see LaFontaine signing off on a GM candidate whose approach to the most significant personnel situation was at odds with his own.
In the end, does it really matter why? Talking brass tacks hockey doesn’t feel right, right now.
Watching Miller’s in-game press conference, his eyes red-rimmed as he thanked the fans and expressed a genuine affection for life in Western New York, felt wrong. I stood next to the ketchup dispenser watching it with a woman, probably in her mid-60s, who also had tears in her eyes.
When Miller was finished she muttered her discontent and stomped away.
He wasn’t an ordinary player in any respect. He was uncommonly graceful, articulate and honest, sometimes to a fault. He exuded passion for the game and leadership qualities few men possess.
Miller leaving represents a low point, a bottoming out. We starved sports fans must acknowledge this is the worst the team has been, perhaps ever. They’re farther now from owner Terry Pegula’s goal of winning a Stanley Cup than they have ever been.
The games were tolerable — this team is watchable — for only one reason, the play of Ryan Miller.
Now that reason is gone. It feels as if there exists not a single reason outside pure habit to watch them right now. Even the most passionate of fans know these games don’t matter one iota.
The last tangible tie to the Golisano era — to Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff — is no longer a Buffalo Sabre.
It’s tough now to wax nostalgic for the Regier-Ruff days but there were some special times. The 2005-06 season was pure magic and made a new generation of fans fall in love with this game, this team.
Ryan Miller was a big part of that, maybe the biggest part.
Gone are the illusions we might someday return to that form.
Now all we can do is hope the next iteration of the Buffalo Sabres — Tim Murray’s Buffalo Sabres — will get us back there someday.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.