In case you haven't heard, there is a hockey team in town that has been stirring things up lately. They've got everyone in town wearing their jerseys and chanting their names. They're hoarding points like Scrooges on skates and they've accumulated 49 wins in 69 games, the fastest in team history.
The team? The never-say-die Buffalo Sabres, who have quickly become hometown heroes to everyone with a Western New York ZIP code. The sun that rises over Buffalo every morning has practically morphed into a blue and gold circle with a white buffalo and two crossed swords.
And don't look now, but this team is winning more than just hockey games. They're quickly winning the support and adoration of young people across Western New York.
Young fans, especially teenagers, have come out in force to cheer on their team.
"The support [the Sabres] receive on teen Web sites is simply amazing," says Ed Kilgore, sports director at WGRZ-TV. "Young people share their concern over the latest injury, or share their outrage at what they think is an injustice or their happiness over a great win or performance." Kilgore, whose teenage daughter listens to Sabres games regularly from her dorm at University of Missouri, adds that young fans have definitely affected the atmosphere this season. "Young people have certainly added some excitement at the games themselves, and the players also notice the support of young people around town and in public."
Sabres madness is especially strong on local college campuses, where students show explosive pride for their hometown team. Desiree Giles, a freshman at Buffalo State College, agrees that there is an atmosphere of excitement bordering on obsession at her school. "You see posters with LET'S GO BUFFALO everywhere," says Giles. "And you hear people talking about them all the time."
"I even had a professor tell our class that if we want to get on his good side, we should talk to him about the Sabres," says Kacie Brinkman, a University at Buffalo freshman. Both Giles and Brinkman agree that watching Sabres games regularly has provided them with a sense of home and helped ease the homesickness that most college freshmen feel. "They give me a distraction from daily life," says Brinkman, while Giles adds, "Watching reminds me that I should be enjoying [the team's] sponsoring city."
So why the extraordinary enthusiasm among Western New York's young people? Win or lose -- mostly win, if you look at the score sheet -- the Sabres are exciting.
Ben Kibler, 17, of Varysburg in Wyoming County, has been watching Sabres games since he was 6 years old. For him, games have always been a great time, but now there is almost something spiritual in the experience. "There are always those gut-twisting moments when you lurch off the couch, when [Ryan] Miller makes that great save and you have to sit back down and anticipate the next amazing play," he says. "You hold your breath until they score the next goal."
Kibler, a hockey goalie for nine years, has an extra-special reason to be excited this spring: his best friend is the cousin of Patrick Kaleta, who was moved up from Rochester at the end of February. "I'm a goalie, so my favorite player was always Miller, but now I think I have to split between Miller and Kaleta," laughs Kibler.
Brinkman also points out that young people, whether teens or twenty-somethings or younger kids, like to support a team they can boast about, and this Sabres team certainly fits the bill.
"They are doing so well, and it gives us a sense of pride to know that our team is one of the best in the NHL," says Brinkman. "And it can be kind of fun to brag about them too!"
>ME-FIRST? NO WAY
It's an unwritten rule of sports that a winning team is a popular team. But this team isn't beloved just because its players are good, scary good.
"I would have to say that the attitude that the team presents attracts a lot of people," says Giles, whose favorite player is injured forward Paul Gaustad. "They aren't a team that plays dirty, they take their losses in stride, and they don't get cocky when they win. They're a very admirable group of young men."
"I believe that part of it is they are, for the most part, clean-cut young guys who serve as excellent role models. There are simply no 'me-first' guys on that team. Not one."
Kibler believes that this team's appeal is part of the overall appeal of hockey.
"There is common ground. Everyone can relate to hockey, whether you like skill or aggression or fights or whatever," he says. "If you like aggression, you can look to players like [Adam] Mair and [Andrew] Peters. If you like goal scorers, you have [Daniel] Briere, [Jason] Pominville, [Chris] Drury. And if you're a goalie like me, you have Ryan Miller, one of the best in the National Hockey League. They're all different types of role models."
With playoffs just around the corner, there is no sign that Sabre fever will diminish anytime soon -- in fact, all signs seem to point to even more surprises from a young, resilient team, and more opportunities to do the Sabre Dance in the streets. There may even be a shiny silver cup to put on the top shelf at the end of the season.
"It will be one crazy party all around Buffalo, that's for sure," says Giles, referring to a playoff run that could possibly bring Buffalo its first championship.
Caitlin Moran is a senior at Attica.