Sabres Fans Still Haunted by ‘Tank Night’

The red light went on 56 seconds into overtime. The goalscorer pumped his hands to celebrate and he was soon surrounded with pats on the head and fist bumps by his teammates. Fans jumped out of their seats and banged on the glass with wild excitement. All typical stuff.

But this time, Mar. 26, 2015, was anything but typical.

The scene was inside First Niagara Center in Buffalo. The scorer was Sam Gagner of the visiting Arizona Coyotes. And the cheering fans were wearing Sabres jerseys. They were delighted that their team had just lost, 4-3, in a matchup of the league’s cellar dwellers. It inched them closer to their goal of securing the best odds for obtaining the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft.

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Sabres Hitting Rock Bottom

The upside-down atmosphere three years ago in First Niagara Center was one that won’t be forgotten soon.

“It was really rock bottom at that point as an organization and franchise,” said goaltender Chad Johnson, who had joined the Sabres a few weeks earlier via trade. He was the backup goalie that night.

After the game, Sabres defenseman Mike Weber was at a loss for words. “I’ve never been a part of that,” said a stymied Weber. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess. But this is a whole new low right now.”

“I’ve always spoken extremely high of our fans. I don’t even know if disappointed is the word. They scored the first one, our fans are cheering. Late penalty, they cheer. They cheer when they score to win the game. I don’t even know what to say. It’s extremely frustrating for us.” – Sabres defenseman Mike Weber

The loss dropped the Sabres six points behind the Coyotes and all but ensured them a last-place finish. Or, depending on how you look at it, it guaranteed them a chance to land either franchise center Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the McEichel sweepstakes. The 2015 NHL Lottery system guaranteed the last-place team a first or second overall pick in the draft.

Re-Opening a Wound

Last week, roughly three years since that infamous game, the two teams met up in the arena now called KeyBank Center. Oddly, they’re both in similar places in the standings. The Sabres are still in the basement, while the Coyotes were in 30th place, a mere point ahead. Why they were battling for the basement– the misuse of picks, poor drafting, ineptitude of scouting, bad coaching, lack of player effort – is for another discussion, another day.

The bickering in Buffalo continues over whether or not it was proper for Sabres fans to root for their team to lose.

A Black Eye for Buffalo

Jack Eichel
Jack Eichel (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Sabres fans openly cheering for the Coyotes was disgraceful. It was an embarrassing, shameful evening for the City of Buffalo and its fans. The story was picked up by ESPN and other media networks.

Love them or hate them, the players on the ice that night represented the city of Buffalo. They were the product of a management group that put them in a position where success was nearly impossible. Fans cheering for the Coyotes were a slap in the face to the players on the team that night, former players, coaches and staff, and diehard fans that have supported the franchise through its four and a half decades, dating back to the Memorial Auditorium. A two-handed spear through the soul of decency. It was shameful. And despicable.

Rooting against one’s team cuts through the very definition of what it means to be a fan. Arguably, the bitter taste that crept into the arena that night has never left the Sabres’ building. The team has the worst home record in the league since that date, by far. Morgues are more exciting than the atmosphere at the arena on most nights. And the temperature is higher.

Steadfast fans who have blue and gold (and black and red for a few years) in their blood know the Sabres and the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills will always be their teams. These sports entities are ingrained in their DNA. Western New Yorkers live and die with their successes and struggles. They wear the logos as badges of honor.

For many, it all went out the window that night.

The fact of how the draft works does not excuse the embarrassing joy some people took in the shameful act of losing on purpose. The group howls, whistles and cheering for the ‘Yotes was just plain wrong. The idea of tanking is repugnant.

The Ends Justify the Means

Fans pay good money to go to games. They have every right to voice their opinion. And they wanted something better. Losing that night and finishing in the league basement guaranteed them either McDavid or Eichel. It was something they could rally around and root for. Their reaction was completely understandable. They didn’t want a win; they wanted a loss in a meaningless regular season game that would get them a step closer to their objective of drafting a generational talent. In a sense, a loss meant a future winner.

Fans who cheered for a loss weren’t ashamed or embarrassed. They felt the team was going nowhere and felt the promise of winning and greatness.

Buffalo Sabres fans
Sabres fans were put in a terrible position by management. (THW file photo)

The Sabres management put the fans in the unenviable position of having to root against their own team for one critical game. They were stuck in the middle by ownership, who were unabashedly tanking and wanted to lose. Pointing a finger at fans for rooting for the team to lose is missing the mark.

It is the management who tanked on purpose – the fans do not make personnel decisions nor are they on the ice. It is the management who traded and allowed what seemed like half a dozen different goalies to start in the last six weeks of the season. The idea of tanking IS repugnant. But the fans have no control of that. The fans only know that they want to cheer for a winner. If they have to endure losing one more game — in a season that featured a historic level of losses — to get back on the winning path, then hell, let them cheer for the beginning of the end; for the terrible chemo necessary to cure the cancer.

As for the players who didn’t want to hear the home crowd cheer for the ‘Yotes, they could’ve upped their game long before that night and the situation never would’ve existed. The players complaining about the fans is reality inside-out. That’s like after having paid a contractor to refurbish a house, the walls crumble, the roof leaks and the plumbing malfunctions. Then the workers grouse and mope when the homeowner complains about the shoddy work.

Playing to lose is a disgraceful action of administration and management. Not giving every ounce of strength for the best outcome is an inexcusable action of a team member. Fans have no responsibility to anyone. Especially when they are the ones paying, not getting paid.

The ‘Tank’ Worked, Kinda

By finishing in last place, the Sabres were guaranteed the first or second pick. The result was getting a franchise player instead of a potentially really good player. For that, it was a no-brainer.

As it turned out, in the draft lottery, the Edmonton Oilers jumped up to the first slot, pushing Buffalo to the No. 2 position and the Yotes to No. 3. Arizona selected Dylan Strome, a promising prospect, but far from the talent and skill level of McDavid and Eichel.

Jack Eichel
McDavid and Eichel. They’re both pretty good at hockey. Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

To those who say the Sabres are no better off without Eichel than with him is ludicrous. Eichel is only the scapegoat for a myriad of team failures. There’s a reason why the show-no-emotion, terse executive who announced at the podium, “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel” is no longer is part of the organization. The glaring difference between McDavid and Eichel has been that McDavid has Leon Draisaitl. Their goal scoring numbers are almost the same except the Oilers have another phenom playing with him who can finish his passes. Also, even with that impressive duo, the Oilers have only made the playoffs in one of McDavid’s three years. While the Sabres are still historically bad by the numbers, at least now they have a true star with which to build.

Lottery Changes

The NHL has tinkered with the draft rules. Now, the last-place team can draft as low as fourth. The league has also lowered the odds of winning the lottery, with official numbers coming after the regular season. Last year, the last-place team had an 18 percent chance of winning. The 29th-place club had a 12.1 percent chance. Neither of the bottom two teams drafted in the top three. The New Jersey Devils jumped from fifth to first. The Philadelphia Flyers vaulted from 13th to second, and the Dallas Stars leaped from eighth to third.

NHL Deputy Commissioner
NHL Deputy Commissioner and his ping pong balls decide the draft order.

The League’s objective was to not reward a tanking team. Their attempt at correcting it was less than ideal. There are other ways of ensuring their objective without punishing a team that is just poor and will otherwise spend a decade or more climbing from the basement of the standings.

Winning Changes Everything

Regardless of which side you’re on, the Sabres-‘Yotes game was a sad time for Sabres fans. To this day, it continues to drive discord about fans and media alike. The bickering seems endless.

Being ‘for a tank’ or ‘against a tank‘ is an oversimplified statement. Dig deeper and there are two distinct questions to answer. The first – is it ok for an organization to tank? And the second – if an organization is tanking, is it ok for the fans to buy in and cheer that their team tanks successfully?

Players should always give 100%, but a general manager is paid to make the team better. If that means that it’s the end of the year and a loss would help the future, he has every right to start a roster that will help achieve that goal. That said, fans spending their hard-earned dollars have every right to cheer any damn way that they choose.

Hopefully, once the Sabres put a good product on the ice and success is had, all of this can finally be buried.