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For connected Sabres fans, there's one team, one goal

During most Buffalo Sabres games, Kevin Hosey and his wife, Val Dunne, watch the contests on TV while posting Web log comments on a laptop they share at their Buffalo home.

In Florida, Tom Luongo watches the game through a National Hockey League cable package, exchanges instant messages with friends and types notes for his "Sabre Rattling" blog and online column.

And across the ocean, transplanted Sabres fan Ryan Knapp listens to a live feed of the radio broadcast carried over the Internet to his home in Spain.

"It felt like I was back at home," said Knapp, a North Tonawanda native who is teaching English in Villacanas, Spain. "Without the Internet, there'd be no way [to follow the team]."

New technological advances are fundamentally changing how rabid fans follow the Sabres and other sports teams.

Even a few short years ago, the Internet featured basic sports news and bare-bones official team sites but little more.

Today, the Sabres organization and followers of the team are taking advantage of streaming online audio, blogging, podcasting and -- most recently -- video file-sharing to enhance the fan experience.

"That's the trend in the Web right now. It's a constantly evolving medium," said Brian Wheeler, Web content coordinator for the Sabres.

As fans post homemade highlight videos on YouTube or create MySpace pages dedicated to the team, they build a sense of community and help former Buffalonians follow the team.

"You like finding other people who are that passionate about the Sabres," said Hosey.

>Changing media

With cell phones, e-mail and online video integrated in our daily lives, it's easy to forget just how far the technology has come in recent years.

In the dark ages before the Internet, fans of the Sabres and other sports teams had to rely on watching the games live, listening on the radio if they were within range or catching the local sports highlights.

Reading about the team meant getting the print version of the local paper or a national publication such as Hockey News.

Rob Aquino remembers when it started to change. The Amherst native recalled being in a friend's room at college in 1989 or so when he saw an early online service called Prodigy.

He immediately grasped its potential. "I said, 'Wow, you mean you can get hockey scores on this?' " said Aquino, who lives near Boston and writes a hockey blog called Road Apples.

The tech explosion coincides with the current revival in the Sabres' fortunes.

Blogs devoted to the Buffalo Sabres fill cyberspace, offering fans a chance to praise or bury the team and its rivals and pointing readers to the latest team news and scuttlebutt.

"You get to meet a lot of pretty interesting people that way," said Kevin Pritchard, who co-founded a widely read local sports blog, www.BfloBlog.com.

The site links to other sports blogs and news sites and provides game advances and summaries -- written with a dose of Pritchard's acerbic opinions.

One of BfloBlog's most popular features is the open thread.

Users can give instant commentary on the game action, the oft-repeated Labatts talking-fish ad and anything else they want.

Knapp in Spain and Hosey and Dunne in the Elmwood Village are among the 25 or so regulars who populate the thread.

"I think at this point we've become a community," Dunne said.

Many postings consist of just one word -- "Miller!" after a big save by the Sabres goalie, for example, or certain words that can't be repeated in a family newspaper following a Buffalo penalty or an opponent's goal.

Another blogger has never lived in Buffalo and said he wouldn't have become a Sabres fan if it weren't for the Web or cable.

Luongo grew up in the Hudson Valley, lives and works in Florida, got hooked on Sabres in the late 1990s while watching hockey on Center Ice and now follows them religiously.

>Forums for faithful

His blog is rich with analysis, and AOL recently hired him to write a hockey column.

"I always found myself saying, 'I could cover that,' " said Luongo, a research chemist, who writes the Sabre Rattling blog with a partner, Matt Doak, whom he's never met in person.

Forums such as HFBoards.com give fans who no longer live in Buffalo a chance to feel like they're part of the excitement over the Sabres' recent success.

Those out-of-town fans don't have access to the Madison Square Garden Network, which carries most Sabres games.

They have to order Center Ice or listen to the broadcast of the game on the Web site:

www.WGR550.com.

"It means so much to me to hear Rick [Jeanneret] and Jim [Lorentz] call the game," said Lindsey Wixson, a Town of Tonawanda native who lives near Chicago. "I would go crazy if I couldn't even hear the game."

Even something as simple as a cell phone can help.

BfloBlog's Pritchard was coaching a T-ball game at Shoshone Park on the day of the first Sabres-Carolina Hurricanes playoff contest last spring.

"I kept checking my Treo [wireless device] for updates, and every kid and coach kept bothering me for the score," he said.

And on trade-deadline day this year, Aquino, the blogger from Boston, was stuck in a meeting at work and had to surreptitiously text-message a buddy about the Sabres' moves.

"A guy next to me said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'We just made a big trade,' " Aquino recalled.

The software devoted to sharing audio and video recordings over the Web has improved a lot.

Fans can edit together Sabres highlights from the most recent game to contests from the distant past, set them to music and post them on YouTube, a blog or a MySpace page.

Some of the videos look slicker than Sabres forward Tim Connolly's stickhandling.

As of Saturday, 2,990 videos on YouTube.com are tagged with "buffalo" and "sabres."

Fight footage is particularly popular, with four of the five most-watched Sabres videos on the site showing highlights from the Buffalo-Ottawa brawl game Feb. 22.

>Popular videos

The top video has been viewed more than 396,000 times.

"I think some of them are fantastic," said Chris Weibel, a garage-door installer from Blasdell who posts Sabres-themed videos on YouTube under the name ScreaminWeasel.

The Sabres themselves are also doing more with video, audio and blogging on the team's official site, www.Sabres.com.

Fans who register as a Sabres Insider can watch video highlights of the games, listen to audio and video interviews with coach Lindy Ruff and Sabres players and read sniper Jason Pominville's playoffs blog.

A lot of what the Sabres do with the site is meant to give fans more one-on-one access to the players and coaching staff, said Rob Kopacz, the team's director of marketing. The Sabres Web site had about 3 million hits in the first three weeks of April.

A lot of unofficial Sabres pages have popped up on My-Space, where a search finds 7,080 pages on the site containing the words "Buffalo Sabres."

Gregory J. Zakowicz, a West Seneca native who lives in a Philadelphia suburb, has used his Sabres MySpace page to make new friends and to feel like he's part of the energy surrounding the team.

"I think it allows me to focus on them a little more," he said.

His page links to highlights of recent playoff games and other videos and boasts audio recordings of classic goals.

He has more than 18,000 MySpace "friends" and visitors have posted more than 10,000 comments, usually notes of congratulations after a Sabres victory.

"WOOO!! You guys are looking great! Lets go, BUFFALO!! Just want to let you know watching the game last night made me more homesick than ever! I [heart] Buffalo!!," a MySpace user named Wendy wrote on Zakowicz's page Saturday.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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