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WINTER WAS DREARY WITH HOCKEY ON ICE

I was in HSBC Arena for an event recently and it nearly broke my heart.

It was a cold March evening in Buffalo, and I was at a place that has always felt like home to me. It wasn't an especially memorable day, this frosty, drab Thursday. Fortunately for Western New Yorkers, the Buffalo Sabres and the National Hockey League have been making our winter days tolerable for more than three decades. Until this year.

And that's a shame. As I strolled through the empty concourses of the lifeless arena, my mind filled with more than 20 years of glorious memories. I reflected back, and I smiled.

I remember driving my car and listening to Rick Jeanneret right after the Sabres had advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 24 years. To this day, I can hear his exalted cry: "The Buffalo Sabres are going to the Stanley Cup!" Then and now, his words gave me chills.

I thought back to the final game of the 2002-03 season, as the Sabres brought back their classic blue-and-gold uniforms, surprising and delighting lifelong fans who grew up following the French Connection.

I recall Brad May's improbable "Mayday" goal, and how the young Sabres forward erased a decade of frustration. He skated into Sabres history, merely by slipping the puck through Ray Bourque's legs, faking Andy Moog to the ice, shooting over his sprawled body and setting off pandemonium in the Aud.

My mind raced back to the inaugural game in HSBC Arena, when the late Seymour Knox III was honored. I remember trying to keep my brother from noticing the tears in my eyes during the tribute.

Most of all, I remember the magic that coursed through the city during the Sabres glorious run to the Stanley Cup in 1999. It's ironic that a winter game reaches its fever pitch during the warm and wonderful days of summer.

That year, the lunch-bucket Sabres made hockey fans of the entire city. As a longtime fan, I was pleased to see so many bandwagon fans catch Stanley fever.

I'll never forget walking downtown after the Sabres victory over Dallas in game four. I saw flags waving, fans young and old shouting in jubilation and Sabres jerseys everywhere. It was beautiful. This wasn't just about a hockey team, it was about an entire city coming together. Who says sports has no impact on day-to-day life?

Now hockey fans are left without their fix. When the sport returns this fall, hopefully, a small part of life in Western New York will again be set right. Right now, that's little solace.

Hockey is a game that has brought me so much enjoyment over the years. It boggles my mind that the NHL Players Association cannot grasp the basic economic principles that have led to this lockout. Most teams are paying out more than they take in, which is a sure-fire way to go out of business.

The players seem to care little for small markets like Buffalo, Edmonton and Pittsburgh, which is a shame. Don't they realize that if teams go under, the union will lose hundreds of high-paying jobs?

With the game on ice, the eternal 10-year-old in me has to content himself with my memories, and anticipation for when HSBC Arena once again teems with life, and a city's passion for the game gets us through the long, cold winter.

JEFF BUCKI lives in Eden.