No matter the reputation in the other hockey outposts, we know what we have in our little hockey town whether it's the good, the bad or the downright ugly. The fun part is stepping back for a few months and allowing the newcomers to get settled, drive around the region, get a feel for the place.
Western New York is a state of mind, not a place on the map. It's always been about feel. The dark, dreary buildings with broken windows along the Interstate 190 suggest a poor town with little to offer other than a shot and a beer. The drive down Route 33 from the airport isn't exactly the Pacific Coast Highway.
Downtown, where do we begin?
Outsiders say what they say, but we live in larger homes at lower prices, raise our kids with small-town values, hang out with neighbors who would still give you their left arm if somebody had stolen their right. Confirmation for us comes when outsiders move here, figure it out on their own and spread the word.
Craig Rivet, not known for skating from the truth, cringed when he was traded to the Sabres over the summer. The fact he had just completed a new home was one thing. But Buffalo? Not Buffalo. He had been here many times, never heard of Clarence, didn't realize the place was so homey until, well, he bought a home in Clarence.
"The perception, obviously, is that Buffalo is not the most desired place to play, with what it has to offer," Rivet said. "I talked to a number of players, and they loved it here. When you come here, you're told that there are a number of players where this is where they reside at the end of their season and the end of their careers."
Yeah, carry on.
"They come back here to live, and you kind of scratch your head, 'Why?' You have to be here to understand. You have to give it a chance. When you do that, you see the positives about Buffalo. It's a beautiful place with what it has to offer, especially when you're a person that has a family."
It hit home with Rivet at home. He left the house for his Sabres debut and was greeted by a driveway of neighborhood kids who were playing with his children. His kids already have made their friends, his wife is quickly making her friends, and he has 18,000 friends waiting for him 41 times a year in the downtown he once despised.
"The amazing thing is, a lot of NHL players in a lot of cities, don't live downtown, anyway, even if there is a nice downtown," he said. "They live 20-25 minutes away in a suburb that has what Buffalo has. I would go out on the limb and say that if you have a young family, Buffalo is one of the best places to play in the NHL."
Remember, he had a multimillion-dollar, 5,000-square-foot home in San Jose. A house like that in these parts can be had comparatively with change from the ashtray.
"Housing-wise, it's doesn't get any better," he said. "Buffalo gets a bad rap because downtown isn't developed the way most people would like. It's not the most desirable place. But you know what? There's a lot to offer in the outskirts. I can say that I was doubtful about Buffalo. You can only eat at E.B. Green's so many times before you start to go crazy. It's an eye-opener for people who don't know. It was an eye-opener for me."
Craig, you had me at hello.
"There's certainly a lot of passion in this city," he said. "I was told by some of the guys from Day One, that they believe Buffalo is one of the best places to play fan-wise. They have their Bills and their Sabres. It's a big deal. It's been true to all the things that the guys have said. It's been incredible."
All this is after two months. He'll understand even more in the next two weeks while recovering at home from knee surgery. And my guess is the feeling is mutual.
All the rumors swirling around Wild winger Marian Gaborik have raised questions about whether the Sabres would get involved in the sweepstakes. In fact, there are two chances of that happening: slim and none.
Gaborik's annual price tag will be more than $8 million. He doesn't fit in the Sabres' salary structure, especially with the organization intent on keeping its core intact. Plus, the Sabres would need to send good players in return, so packaging Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly for Gaborik is pure fantasy.
Why would the Wild want them?
Montreal would be among the teams interested but doesn't want to part with former Mr. Minnesota Ryan McDonagh, taken 12th overall in 2007. Los Angeles could get involved because it's desperate for veteran talent who can work with young players. Plus, he would be a good draw for an indifferent fan base.
Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's terrible start this season already has made some wonder whether the organization made a big mistake in signing him prior to this season to a six-year contract extension worth $35 million.
Kiprusoff had a 3-3-1 record with a 3.70 goals-against average (ranked 33rd in the NHL) and a .880 save percentage (30th) going into the weekend. The talk in Calgary is that Kiprusoff, who celebrates his 32nd birthday today, is showing signs of age.
"I'm kind of used to it," he said of the criticism. "That's how it is to be a player, a goalie in the NHL. First, you're young and not experienced. Then, you're old. It's always something."
Age isn't the issue so much as justifying a contract extension that pays him $8.5 million this season. Another problem is Calgary's defense, which has been brutal.
Commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to downplay a story out of Toronto last week that suggested the league was discussing the possibility of putting a second team in the Center of the Hockey Universe via relocation or expansion.
"The story in its premises that this is a matter of league discussion is absolutely incorrect," Bettman told reporters in Toronto. "We're not looking to relocate and we're not looking to expand."
OK, so the league hasn't had formal talks, but you better believe a few owners and others in the NHL hierarchy have tossed around the idea. Wayne Gretzky, during a speech last month in Toronto, said he expected another team in Ontario at some point.
Time will tell whether it has any legs, but it does make sense. Toronto is capable of supporting two teams. New York-Long Island has a larger population, but there are more hockey fans in the Toronto area if you include Hamilton and Mississauga.
Blue Jackets rookie tough guy Derek Dorsett on his mother and grandmother's reaction to watching his brawls: "They're throwing punches like they're going through the fight with me. It doesn't bother them at all."
Around the boards
*Heavy hearts last week after Nancy Smith passed away at age 59 after a long illness. She was George Gould's chief assistant when he was overseeing operations at the Aud. Or was it the other way around? She ran the old joint for a quarter century. Fittingly, her ashes will be spread across the Aud's grounds.
*Sen. Charles Schumer's office wasted no time trying to make sure his name was attached to the World Junior Championships coming to Buffalo. Unfortunately, he looked foolish when he released a statement prematurely and called it "the 2011 International Youth Hockey Championships." USA Hockey must have been impressed.
*Free agent Mats Sundin is still trying to figure out his next move. He had a physical examination in Toronto last week and plans to spend a couple of weeks working out in the Southern California sun. Just a hunch, and only a hunch, but something tells me he's going to land in Montreal with the idea he can win the Cup.
*Colorado has a potential migraine brewing if management doesn't get moving on contract talks with center Paul Stastny, one of the better young players in the league. Stastny is making $710,000 this season and is comparable to Kings center Anze Kopitar, who signed a seven-year deal worth $47.6 million during the offseason.
*Leafs coach Ron Wilson confirmed he's not messing around after scratching veteran winger Jason Blake, who signed a five-year deal for $20 million in 2007. "He's not scoring, he's not backchecking . . . [so] we're going to keep him in the lineup until he catches a lucky break?" Wilson said. "That's not how I coach."
*Lightning goalies Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig are wearing masks with a theme that promotes the "Saw" movie series that was produced by owners Oren Koules and Mark Burg. "Saw V" was released Friday. The plan calls for them to wear them this season and eventually sell them at an auction, with proceeds going to charity.