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Kaleta, set to return, deserves better than this

Everybody and nobody.

Everybody growing up playing hockey in these parts wants to play for the Sabres. Pretty much nobody does.

Patrick Kaleta is the exception. He’s given up his body over and over since 2007 in the name of playing for his hometown team. In fact, after another knee surgery, he says he’s skating better than he has all year just as he’s heading into potentially his final nine games for the Sabres.

The kid from Angola turns 29 in June. He’s getting married in July. This has been his dream to wear this jersey. And this is what he could be facing when he returns from the injured list Thursday night in First Niagara Center: His own fans rooting for him to lose. And rooting hard.

The tap dance between the Sabres and Arizona Coyotes could reach new levels of absurdity when the teams meet Thursday in the first half of their TankFest home-and-home set.

“You can’t really hide from it. You just focus on what you have to do,” Kaleta said after practice Wednesday. “I’m a guy that takes pride in how he plays. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You just feed off the crowd regardless.

“I’ve had people boo me in other buildings so I feed off that. Hopefully that’s not the case. I think the people of Buffalo have pride in the Sabres and deep down they want to win. Who knows what to expect? For myself coming back, you focus on doing the best I can to help my team.”

This game figures to be one of the most bizarre, twisted sporting events ever held in Buffalo.

With obsession for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel out of control, it seems most of the fan base is determined to see the Sabres out and watch them fall seven points behind Arizona in the “race” for last place overall.

This season at least, losing is winning in too many eyes. An organizational mandate. That feeling is probably never going to be more prevalent than Thursday night.

“I don’t like it. I was never taught that. Ever,” Kaleta said. “You can’t change it now and I realize that but I’m a fan too. I would like us to win. You guys are in here doing your job interviewing me, but if you’re going to finish off the last nine games and maybe be replaced, how would you guys feel? It’s a possibility.

“And for me personally, I would love to play a few more years here. It’s the way I feel about the team and the city. I’m going out there to do my best, be professional and get some energy going for my team.”

Tonight will be Kaleta’s 340th game with the Sabres. Only 56 men in franchise history have played more. No other Buffalo-area kid has played more than 80. He freely talks about representing his city, about wearing the Blue & Gold.

“That means a lot,” Kaleta said. “Growing up, you hear little kids say, ‘I want to play for the Sabres.’ Well, I’ve been in their shoes. People would be like, ‘That’s funny. That’s not going to work.’ When you actually do it and to have been here as long as I have, you take tremendous pride in everything. Your teammates, your former teammates, working with you guys, the coaches and trainers and equipment guys you meet. The whole atmosphere. It’s a special feeling.”

Kaleta had major ACL surgery last year and had more surgery last month to remove bone chips on his knee. He had a major setback in training camp when he suffered what he somewhat proudly calls a “broken face” when struck by a puck during an exhibition game in Toronto. He can joke now but that was a tough thing to deal with and overcome at the time.

A lot of players would be packing in these nine games. On both of these teams, no one would argue. They’re both terrible, but neither group of players is tanking. Their organizations are tanking. That’s a big difference.

The Sabres recently had a stretch where they scored the first goal in 10 of 12 games. The Coyotes have lost 17 of their last 20 games, but 10 of the defeats are by one or two goals. Arizona goaltender Mike Smith has a .936 save percentage in March – .936! – and has a 2-7 record. The Sabres led Monday’s game in Dallas three different times. And still lost.

Both teams have been set up to fail with eyes on the draft and the cause has been helped because of injuries. The fans, however, will be in full tank mode. There’s chatter of folks wearing Coyotes jerseys and T-shirts. Maybe howling in the seats like they do in suburban Phoenix. Can’t even imagine how brutal this could get if the game goes to a shootout.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said here Wednesday this is a media story with no impact on the game. Yeah, right. Captain Shane Doan was skeptical about the pro-Coyotes potential, too.

“I’m sure it’s not going to be near as bad as anyone thinks it is,” Doan said. “And it’s going to be one of those things that as a player you’re not going to really notice,” he said.

Wrong. Sadly, this is going to get plainly obvious. You want to root for the Coyotes, that’s your choice. Stay home on your couch. Go to a bar. Show a little respect for these players and this coaching staff. Or, at the very least, maybe a little more than ownership or the front office has.

If the Sabres win tonight, I’ve got a thought for them: Forget skating to center ice and saluting the fans like you normally do. The people don’t want to win anymore this season. Especially not tonight. Just head to the dressing room.

If the Coyotes win tonight, maybe they’re the ones that should go raise their sticks to the Buffalo fans. The cheers would be louder than the ones they probably get most nights out in the desert anyway.

Sick and twisted all the way around. A hometown kid deserves better. Frankly, they all do.


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