Call it Eichelmania. Call it Reinhartapalooza. Call it whatever you want. No matter how you label the Buffalo Sabres’ development camp scrimmage, you are probably severely understating it.
On a Friday night in July — yes, July — Sabres fans from all over Western New York bought over 17,000, 17,115 to be exact, tickets to watch a scrimmage between the team’s up-and-coming prospects. It had more of an atmosphere of something much bigger than a meaningless scrimmage in the middle of the summer.
“This place was jammed around the rink,” Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said afterward. “And even coming to the game with the weather, it had the feel and excitement of a playoff game almost with the people that were here. Seventeen thousand for July 10. Pretty awesome.”
The hype surrounding the scrimmage built up all week long while the Sabres were hosting their prospect development camp. At the start, the team was expecting a crowd of only 9,000-10,000 fans due to charging $10 a ticket, which went to the Buffalo Sabres Foundation. However, by the middle of the week, the expectations grew to the point where the team had to issue a press release warning fans to get their tickets ahead of time online due to the demand.
The First Niagara Center was as loud as it’s ever been over the past two years of “suffering” and “tanking”. From the moment Jack Eichel took the ice for the very first time to when Sam Reinhart scored his first goal of the night, the crowd let out cheers that made you believe the Sabres had just clinched a berth to the Stanley Cup Final.
“For practices, the crowds have been great,” Sam Reinhart said. “To see that, that was something else. I don’t even know how to describe it, that was awesome though.”
Justin Bailey, who knows exactly how supportive Sabres fans are due to being from the city, said he wasn’t too surprised to see the crowd numbers soar for hockey in July.
“I don’t think it was disbelief because I know how passionate the city is,” he said. “I knew with Jack coming in, people are going to want to see him, and people are going to want to see the future of the Sabres. I heard 10, 15 and, eventually, 17, and it wasn’t too big of a surprise to me.”
Bailey even added a goal of his own when he fell to his knees and beat Cal Petersen up high.
Of course, the man of the hour was 2015 second-overall pick Jack Eichel, who was playing in his first “game” as a member of the Sabres organization. Media, players and fans knew it was a big moment for him, but even he admitted how great it was to see how many people actually cared about a game like this.
“It was definitely an unbelievable crowd,” said Eichel, who was cheered every time he touched the puck. “It’s crazy to think there were 17,000 people here for a scrimmage in July, but, like I said earlier, it says a lot about Buffalo and how passionate they are about the Sabres.”
For those wondering, Team Blue (Reinhart) topped Team Gold (Eichel) 5-2 in the scrimmage. Reinhart had two goals and an assist on the night while Eichel was held scoreless thanks to the defense of veteran Jake McCabe. The Sabres wrap up development camp on Sunday with a 3-on-3 tournament.