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Scrimmage has festive Christmas-in-July feeling

It’s time for a little summer numbers game.

The Sabres sold 17,115 tickets Friday night. For a development camp scrimmage. In July. Lots of people around the NHL will think that’s a typo when they see the number.

There were 11 NHL teams that averaged fewer than 17,000 fans per game last season. In the regular season. Arizona, Carolina and Florida all averaged under 14,000, with the pathetic Panthers even under 12,000.

Who did they all come downtown to see? Mostly No. 41, who is about to become No. 15 for maybe, oh, the next 10 years or more around here.

Jack Eichel let his numerology out of the bag in the morning, announcing he would be wearing the number most known in franchise annals by Gerry Meehan and Dixon Ward. Of course, Eichel said he would only wear 15 if he makes the team. Heh. Jokester.

The talk of a huge crowd grew all week. First you heard 7,000, then 8,000. Then the number hit 10,000 and it just never stopped.

“This place was jammed around the rink,” said new coach Dan Bylsma, who was equally floored at how jammed his news conference was for early July too. “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.”

Remember, the man knows hockey in summer conditions from his days in Pittsburgh.

Edmonton had around 7,000 for its Connor McDavid scrimmage earlier in the week, admittedly not on a Friday night. The Sabres had about 8,700 last year for Sam Reinhart’s big unveiling. But this many folks in July? Believe it. There were absolutely far more bodies in seats in the 100 and 200 levels than virtually any night last season.

“Even for practices, the crowds have been great,” Reinhart said about this week’s camp. “If the practice crowds were here for the game, that would give us some energy and reason to put on a show. But to see that, that’s something else. I don’t even know how to describe it. That’s awesome.”

The reports of traffic bottlenecks on Washington and Perry Streets as well as the 190 were another indication of the big house. That’s also a sign there were tons of fans who don’t normally come to a game.

The Sabres deserve credit on a lot of counts here. They added an Internet stream in the hour before the scrimmage after howling popular demand on social media. They pushed the faceoff back to 7:15 to accommodate fans because they could, since they were not beholden to the restrictions of television.

Just realized this number: They pushed the start time back 15 minutes. Freaky.

You do wish the Sabres would have introduced the prospects over the PA prior to the opening faceoff. The teams were lined up at the blue lines for the national anthem and it would have been a nice touch. At the very least, the starting lineups would have been nice. It would have been a way to get a big roar for Reinhart and the first bring-the-house down cheer for Eichel.

That’s really just a quibble, however. I realize that can wait until the Ottawa Senators are here Oct. 8 too. That’s only 90 days from Friday, for those counting.

There was a noticeable buzz and anticipation every time Eichel touched the puck or passed it. Justin Bailey got plenty of cheers for his nifty first-period goal, a beauty from his knees to the left of the goal after Cal Petersen went down far too soon. And the crowd really showed its knowledge with a huge cheer as Bailey’s name was announced as the scorer. They knew he’s the Williamsville kid.

Another huge roar for Reinhart’s second-period goal, with the noise growing the instant the fans recognized it was last year’s No. 2 overall pick on the Jumbotron celebrating. Reinhart took down Eichel for interference and this year’s No. 2 overall couldn’t convert a penalty shot but the crowd was on its feet watching the attempt.

Reinhart capped his night with a super 2-on-1 tap-in for his second goal in a 5-2 victory. He drew the most ooooohs from the big house.

Eichel went pointless and looked pretty gassed by the third period, with Bylsma noting, “That’s not as explosive as he can be. I was hoping to see a blast of explosion.”

We all have to give the kid a break. He’s had a pretty busy docket the last three months.

Most impressive players other than Reinhart were easily defenseman Jake McCabe and RPI goalie Jason Kasdorf, acquired from Winnipeg in the Evander Kane trade. He’s 6-4, 200 pounds, stood his crease well, didn’t go down too early and controlled rebounds. The crowd gave him a huge hand as he left after 39 minutes. He’ll be an interesting player to watch in the college ranks this year.

Of course, when it comes to Sabres prospects the number to watch every day will be 15. But as we’ve learned this week, don’t sleep on 23 either. Reinhart wasn’t ready last year. He is this year.


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