Matt Ellis remembered the feeling in the late 1980s and early 1990s, back in the prehistoric period that today's youth refers to as "the Olden Days," when his father would drive across the Peace Bridge with two Sabres tickets in hand and orange seats awaiting them.
The Canucks were his favorite team, but Ellis followed the Sabres when he was a kid growing up in Welland. Buffalo was the closest NHL city to his home, and going to Sabres games was a major privilege. He can still recall the anticipation that came with navigating the upper deck of the Aud.
"Thirty-five minutes, door-to-door," Ellis said Tuesday. "I can remember as a kid being terrified. Before the game, the thing I remember most were the knots in my stomach knowing the steep climb we had to go. I remember the boards would just sway. It was crazy. It was a different time but a great building."
It was a different time, indeed.
Look around the NHL these days, and you find palaces with escalators and elevators taking people to wider seats and luxury suites. The $8 tickets in the standing room are long gone, along with $3 beers and $2 parking. After all, somebody needs to pay for the lavish charters and five-star hotels that give players a sense of entitlement.
Ellis has played enough games to appreciate the NHL lifestyle, but he's lived through enough bus rides to never forget the road he took to get there. He played his 202nd NHL contest Tuesday night, making his season debut against the Lightning in place of winger Tyler Ennis. Ellis has played 417 games in the AHL.
"It's an honor to put on the Sabres' jersey," Ellis said. "I've thought about that each day that I've been here, being able to compete with the team and do my part. It's a pretty exciting feeling even at this stage, a couple of hundred games deep."
Yes, an honor.
It would be nice if more athletes felt the way he did. You couldn't find too many who cherish the game like he does. Nobody practices longer or harder than he does with the Sabres. He's rarely in a bad mood. The only person he complains about is himself.
That's why the Sabres love the guy. And that's why he's still here.
He's never scored more than seven goals or 13 points in an NHL season. The Sabres have a 76-40-16 record with him in the lineup, but they were 58-51-13 without him. Coincidence?
He needed about 2 1/2 minutes to make his point Tuesday, hustling past Pavel Kubina to a loose puck and setting up Brad Boyes for the Sabres' second goal in a 4-3 loss. Ellis isn't going to dazzle anyone with his talent. Coach Lindy Ruff kept him around for one reason: his heart. Ellis is a tireless worker and selfless teammate.
"He doesn't take a single second of practice for granted," Ruff said. "He's a consummate pro with how hard he works, how hard he trains and an unbelievable attitude. If you could take some of his attributes and drop one or two on different players, you would have a hell of a player."
What the Sabres have is a hell of an example, particularly for young players. Coaches talk about needing everyone on the roster to win, but most players haven't a clue what that really means. Ellis approaches the game as if he's the last player on the roster because, well, he has been for most of his 202 games.
His love for the game never wavered. He confirmed as much after learning he would play Tuesday night. He still believes a hockey game downtown is a privilege, just as he did as a kid.
"It's just a great feeling," Ellis said. "When you get the tap and they say you're going in, you get that extra little jump in your step. I'm thankful for every day that I spend here."