Thursday night is turning into one of those eagerly anticipated Buffalo sports events. A night for fans to remember.
But not in the usual sense.
In a city that never seems to win the big game, many hometown fans are desperately – if quietly – hoping for a loss.
“I’ll be rooting for the Coyotes, as that puts the Sabres a step closer to the intended goal,” said Sean Henry of Buffalo, who’s going to the game. “But I don’t plan on being boisterous about it.”
“The goal this season has been for the Sabres to put themselves in the best possible position to draft a player that can help put the franchise in a position to be in contention for the cup for years to come,” Henry said.
Thursday’s matchup features two teams seemingly competing for last place in the National Hockey League. Whoever finishes last stands the best chance of drafting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, two teenagers many consider exceptional NHL prospects.
As of Wednesday, Buffalo was in 30th place with 47 points; Arizona is in 29th, with 52.
“Tanking” has become this season’s most contentious team-building strategy.
Adam Toth of West Seneca also will be rooting for a Coyotes victory Thursday.
“I’m rooting that way because I know that in the long term, if we finish last it will drastically improve the Sabres and put us in a position to make a run at the Stanley Cup,” Toth said. “Finishing 30th will also alleviate the stress of everyone in Buffalo, knowing we are guaranteed either McDavid or Eichel.”
While there are plenty of tickets available for the game – StubHub is advertising dozens of 300-level seats for less than $25, Toth said he’d rather watch the game from home.
“I have already been to a few games this season and it just feels weird to be in the building when I want them to lose,” Toth said. “I don’t like leaving the arena mad that they won.”
Whether watching the game from home or the bowl at First Niagara Center, the question of whom to root for - and how to demonstrate it - is leaving fans conflicted.
Alex Foster will be at the game.
“I’m not going to openly say that I’m going to cheer against the Sabres,” said Foster.
When pressed, he revealed how he will react when a goal is scored.
“It’s going to be a ‘golf clap’ when the Sabres score,” the Buffalo resident said, referring to the deliberately quiet applause that’s appropriate at a golf tournament. “A silent fist bump when the Coyotes score,” he added.
“It’s going to be a really different atmosphere than usual,” Foster said.
With the April 11 end of the regular NHL season in sight, Foster said he’s been paying closer attention to game results and team standings. “I have literally been going every morning and checking the standings ... it’s become almost an obsession,” he said.
Thad Thompson of Leroy said rooting for the other team is counterintuitive for him. “It’s hard to break habits,” he said.
“As a Sabres fan, is it wrong to root for Arizona?” Thompson asked in a Twitter post.
But when the Dallas Stars scored the winning goal against the Sabres earlier this week, “I said a couple bad words, then said ‘That’s OK, I guess’,” Thompson recalled.
Thompson said he will be rooting for the Sabres in several of their remaining games. “Against Arizona ... it’s still a toss-up. I’m really conflicted,” he said.