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LACK OF HOCKEY LEAVES FEELING OF EMPTINESS

They would have flown out of town today, on one of those four-game, six-day road trips that can set the early tone for a season.

Chances are I would have stopped by practice Tuesday in HSBC Arena to talk with coach Lindy Ruff and the players about the previous night's game in Rochester against Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup champion.

Instead, there is nothing. No season. No standings. No Sabres. No "Hockey Hotline." No traffic jams at the foot of Washington Street. No rambling Marty Biron news conferences. No Rick Jeanneret; nothing doing on the top shelf, where Mama hides the cookies.

I know this isn't the prevailing sentiment. We're supposed to shrug our shoulders, curse the owners and players, and remember that we really don't care about the NHL before January, anyway. But I have to be honest.

I'm already starting to miss hockey.

Sure, it's easy to ignore in October, when the Bills are just entering the middle stretch of their season and there's a compelling baseball postseason to divert our attention. Most fans are plain fed up with the NHL and are resigned to the fact the fight over a new bargaining agreement is likely to wipe out the whole season.

It's understandable. Knowledgeable fans realize the NHL needs to get its financial house in order if Buffalo has any chance to be competitive. There has to be some pain before the league gets fixed. But don't kid yourselves. You're going to miss it soon enough.

Yes, the season is too long. But I've never bought the notion that people don't care about the Sabres until Bills season is done. I'm not sure how many die-hard fans there are in this community, but surely there is a solid core of hockey lovers who pay close attention to their team in the first two months of the season.

We're a hockey town, aren't we? Our kids play the sport in vast numbers. Ice time is so precious, there's talk of building even more rinks in the area. The Sabres are our winter companion.

A true Sabres fan relishes the early weeks of the season. That's when you watch a team, when you look for signs of its developing character. Late last season, there were signs the Sabres might be evolving into something special. You wanted to see if they would build on that momentum. You wanted to see if Daniel Briere would take the next step.

So in due time, Sabres fans will miss their team. It will be like having a child go away to college for the first time. You think you're prepared for it. But at some point, the absence hits you in the gut. You don't know how much you take for granted until it's taken away.

The NHL's absence will cut more deeply here, I suspect. Hockey is an integral part of our sporting culture. We're more like one of the Canadian cities than Dallas, Atlanta or Phoenix. No other U.S. city is so dependent on its NHL team for its wintertime sporting entertainment.

Most every other American NHL city has an NBA team to fill the void, or a college basketball team in a major conference. We have neither. Take away the Sabres and we're Toledo in the winter. In fact, the biggest winner in this lockout will be the UB basketball team, which is on the rise.

Ask the downtown restaurant owners if they'll miss hockey. Ask the Sabres employees who were told Monday that they'll be laid off Nov. 30. Ask the kids who fall asleep listening to the West Coast games.

The Bills will always be our connection to the sporting big-time. The Sabres are a distant second, and they play in a league with major problems. But we're a town that loves hockey, and it looks like we're in for a long, empty winter.

If you really don't think you'll miss it, well, there's always UB-Kent State.
Related picture on Picture Page C10.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com