The first thing you’ll hear before the puck drops at a Buffalo Sabres home game is the Canadian national anthem. The Sabres are the only American professional sports team to play “O Canada” before every home game, regardless of whether their opponent is Canadian or not. What’s more, the Sabres name is spelled using Canadian English and was created by a Toronto filmmaker.
The KeyBank Center, home of the Sabres, is less than a ten-minute drive from the Canadian border—so close that you can see Canada from the arena. As a result, a significant number of Sabres season ticket holders reside in Southern Ontario. Thousands of Canadians make the short trip across the Niagara River each season to watch the team play, including fans from the Greater Toronto Area who are unwilling to pay the extreme prices to attend Toronto Maple Leafs games, the most expensive tickets in the NHL.
Here’s a look at how Canada has influenced the Buffalo Sabres and why the team continues to have such close ties to their neighbors three miles to the north.
Named in Honour of Canadians
The Sabres got their name in 1969 from Toronto filmmaker Harry Cole, who entered the suggestion in a name-the-team contest hosted by Seymour Knox III and Northrup Knox, the founding owners of the franchise.
“Our name denotes an aggressive, sharp and penetrating weapon on offense and a parrying weapon on defense,” Knox III said in a statement explaining the reason behind their choice. Considering the number of Sabres fans residing in Canada, especially in Southern Ontario, the Knox brothers decided to honor those supporters by using the Canadian English variant of “saber”. The -res ending stands out against the organization’s fellow New York teams, the Rangers and Islanders, whose names both end in -ers.
History of Canadian Excellence
Buffalo has been home to many Canadian hockey legends, including the historic French Connection line of centre Gilbert Perreault, left-winger Rick Martin, and right-winger René Robert, who are honoured in a statue outside of the KeyBank Center.
The trio of French-Canadian forwards combined for 1,116 goals and 2,573 points in 2,396 games together and led the team to the playoffs every full season they played with the Sabres. To this day, Perreault leads the team in franchise goals (512), assists (814), points (1326), and games played (1191), while Martin leads the franchise in hat tricks (21). Perreault was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990 and is described as “one of the most naturally gifted forwards in NHL history.”
The French Connection isn’t the only example of Canadian excellence in Buffalo. In fact, nine Canadians are featured among the top-ten all-time points leaders in franchise history, and seven Canadians highlight the top-ten in all-time franchise goaltender wins. Some of the most memorable names in Sabres’ history are from Canada, including Jim Schoenfeld, Pierre Turgeon, Danny Gare, and many more.
Eleven Sabres players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Of those 11, eight (73%) are Canadian—Dave Andreychuk, Dick Duff, Grant Fuhr, Clark Gillies, Doug Gilmour, Dale Hawerchuk, Tim Horton, and Gilbert Perreault. In addition, Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame as a hockey broadcaster. Jeanneret has announced every season for the Sabres except the first, and travels from his home in St. Catharines, Ontario for every call.
Tim Hortons Restaurant Chain
Tim Horton is a name everyone knows and loves in Canada and Buffalo. Born in Cochrane, Ontario, Horton recorded 115 goals and 518 points in 1,445 games in the NHL and is a co-founder of the Canadian-famous fast-food restaurant chain. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977.
In 1964, Horton opened his own restaurant called Tim Horton Donuts, which was later renamed Tim Hortons in Hamilton, Ontario. By 1968, it had become a chain and a multi-million dollar franchise. After Horton’s unfortunate death in a car accident near St. Catharines, Ontario in 1974, his business partner, Ron Joyce, bought out the Horton family’s shares in the company and began rapidly expanding the chain. As of today, Tim Hortons has nearly 5000 restaurants across 14 countries worldwide and is a Canadian and Buffalonian staple.
In 2014, a Sabres-themed Tim Hortons franchise opened outside the KeyBank Center at the LECOM Harborcenter complex to honour Horton’s Buffalo legacy.
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Canadian blood runs through the Sabres. There is no other American professional sports team with as deep a Canadian history. Next time you’re at the KeyBank Center for a game, make sure to keep an eye out for pieces of Canadian history throughout the arena. There’s a lot more than most people realize!
Tom Pepper is an NHL columnist at The Hockey Writers.