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Sabres focus on community

The Buffalo Sabres won a hockey game Friday night. It was over the San Jose Sharks, the best team in the Western Conference and an early favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Sabres captain Craig Rivet had three assists against his former team and set up the tying goal with 3.9 seconds left in regulation.

Sorry, but there's nothing stronger, nothing profound, that was worth sharing about Game 56 of the regular season when stacked up against the plane crash from the previous evening. Friday was for following Sabres coach Lindy Ruff's lead, throwing hockey into the background and welcoming the victims of Flight 3407 and their families to the fore.

Winning helped, but it seemed so unimportant.

It's times like these in which sports take their proper place in our everyday lives. You could hear a pin drop during a moment of silence before Friday's game. For all the passion people in this town possess about the Sabres and Bills, it's nothing compared to compassion they show for one another when it's needed most. Funny how outsiders see Buffalo's cold while we embrace its warmth. It's why we hold the place so dear.

Ruff has been around long enough to understand that Buffalo has never been so much a snowy city, or even a tortured sports town. More than anything, he understands that it's a collective attitude. It explains why he could barely get his voice above a whisper Friday, why he was so close to tears.

"This is bigger than sports," he said. "It's a lot bigger. We're on the back burner right now."

Ruff knows Buffalo, but he also knows tragedy. His brother, Brent, was killed in a bus accident when Brent was 16 years old. He's lived the horrifying phone call, the lonesome feelings that come with deep sadness and dismay. Friday's crash happened near his home in Clarence. He's hurting like everyone else, for his neighbors, for his family, for you.

So when he sits down his players, as he did Friday morning, and tells them that Western New York is a close-knit community that's in deep mourning, they aren't words coming from his mouth for them to repeat for the microphones. They're coming from his heart so they understand, as he does, when they're walking down the street.

His message was clear Friday. Hockey is a game he coaches, a game they play, a game. Let's not convince ourselves into thinking it's anywhere near as important as the lives we lead, the children we raise, the community we share, the friends we make, the people who were lost Thursday on a chilly winter night in Western New York.

"Our business is really meaningless," defenseman Toni Lydman said, "on a day like this, after a tragedy like that."

By no means does this attempt to trivialize hockey's intrinsic value, however. I've said it a zillion times, and I'll say it again: Sports aren't life and death, but they are life. It's especially true in Buffalo and the 'burbs, where the six degrees of separation everywhere else become one half-degree here. Many of us will know a victim or a victim's relative. In the coming days, it will be confirmed by the long lines outside funeral homes.

Friday morning, with the sobering reality of the crash still fresh and people trying to figure out what to think and say, NHL honchos wondered if the game should have been postponed. Good heavens no. Game 56 was needed Friday night more than ever.

No matter how they're playing or how many fans want players traded or how loud the grumblings about their power play, the Sabres are a communal treasure. People might be cheering or they might be jeering throughout the season, but there's little disputing that they bring people together.

On Friday night, the Sabres were a diversion from the real world, an escape. There will be other days to dissect their wins and losses and the trade deadline. For one night, what happened in the game didn't matter as much as what happened in the stands, when fans were united for nearly three hours.

For the record, the Sabres won, 6-5, in a shootout.


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