Anyone growing up in Western New York knows this area's strength has always been found in its people. You could meet a guy from Buffalo in Plano, Texas, and tell him you're from Buffalo and you immediately have at least one friend. Talk for 15 minutes and you'll find a dozen mutual friends from back home.
You know the conversation. Usually, all it takes is the mere mention of Buffalo to get the questions rolling like dominos. "Where you from? Really, what high school? No kidding, so you must know . . ."
It's no wonder the Bills and Sabres have so many out-of-town booster clubs. We might not have many jobs left here, but we take Buffalo with us wherever we land because we know Western New York isn't just a snowy place in February.
It's a state of mind.
Mike Connolly tried getting the point across to his kid, Tim, the other day after learning he and Taylor Pyatt were acquired by the Sabres for Michael Peca. Tim Connolly didn't fully understand the message after the first 10 minutes, so Mike will sit him down in the next few days and attempt to explain the inexplicable about our town.
"It's just a feeling," Mike Connolly said Wednesday, "you know?"
Yeah, Mike, I know.
Mike knows, too.
He's a Western New Yorker, grew up in Kenmore, right around the corner from Crosby Field. He's a true Buffalo guy, right down to the boyhood threats of being shipped to the Father Baker Home. Mention the Big Blue Water Tower or the Rockpile, and he won't miss a beat. He graduated from Canisius High School like his father and uncles. He was All-Catholic in baseball and football. Class of '70. He graduated from Holy Cross before taking a job and building his family in suburban Syracuse. He's now a chief executive officer for a radiology group. His parents still live in Kenmore in the same house in which he and his five siblings were raised. Four of his six sisters are still living here.
"Any time you hear, "Let's go, Buff-a-lo," people from Buffalo certainly get a little chill in them," Mike said. "It's great."
Mike hasn't lived here full-time for three decades, but it doesn't take long to realize his heart never left. The two years his son played for the New York Islanders, Mike was flipping the channels on his satellite dish so he could catch FanTV and keep track of the Bills and Sabres. He was bummed out, right with you, after Wide Right and No Goal. He understands Mike Robitaille perfectly, but he doesn't understand his inability to find a decent fish-fry joint east of Batavia.
So at least we know Tim Connolly has been in good hands all these years.
The trick for Mike will be passing his Buffalo instincts to his son. If everything works out with the Sabres, it won't be long before this town adopts Tim Connolly the way it does almost every athlete that gives an honest effort. And if everything works out, it won't be long before he adopts his father's hometown. It's one reason Mike was so excited after hearing his son was traded to the Sabres.
"Sure," he said. "It was the old Buffalo in me. When Tim started his career and moved up, I always thought how nice it would be if Tim ended up on the Sabres. Here we are, on the Sabres. He really couldn't be a better situation."
True, Tim Connolly couldn't find a better situation in the National Hockey League. His support group is obvious, so long as his relatives aren't pestering him for tickets every night. His parents are a two-hour drive away in Baldwinsville, so a healthy, home-cooked meal is certainly within reach. Heck, the kid could have soup and sandwiches every day at Grandma Connolly's house without any hassle.
Even without his family, Tim Connolly should benefit from what happens on the ice. He was called upon to help turn around the Islanders, but he was only 18 when he played his first NHL game. There was almost no way he would ever meet expectations set for him after the Isles made him the fifth pick overall in the 1999 draft. He was immediately tossed into a weak lineup and he often struggled over his first two years. The Sabres can afford to be more patient with him without ignoring his enormous talent. But keep in mind, this kid is only 20 years old. He has much to learn.
Connolly will develop naturally if he finds his place in the Sabres' fabric the way his new teammates have for the last five years. The Sabres will ask him to skate every third or fourth shift, play defense. Twenty goals and 60 points is obtainable, but 15 goals and 45 points next season is reasonable. He will be around a better group of leaders, guys who have played deep into the playoffs. It should help him, but it's not going to be easy. He was playing before 5,000 fans on some nights in Nassau Coliseum. Half weren't paying attention.
The fans here will be watching. Closely.
Mike Connolly will explain all this sometime soon, but he will leave Tim to find out the rest for himself. Mike is looking forward to the day he can have a conversation with his son about Elmwood or Shoshone Park or the First Ward without explaining what it all means. Maybe at this point next year, after Tim turns 21, of course, he can explain to his father how he was combing Chippewa.
"Chippewa," Mike said. "That would have meant trouble years ago."
Sorry, Mike. I guess you really haven't been around a while. Chippewa is all cleaned up. I hear they're working along Genesee now.
"Well," he said. "I'm sure he'll find his way into Coles at some point."
Obviously, you can take the boy out of Buffalo, but you can't take Buffalo out of the boy.