When the Buffalo Sabres play the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is more than a hockey game.
It is an international incident.
Not being a Sabres regular -- I've gone to maybe a half dozen games in my life -- I listened wide-eyed as friends explained the situation. Things could get wild, particularly in the 300-level seats, in the corners. If the Sabres win, watch out -- the Leafs fans can get rowdy. Check out the parking lots, I was told. You might find folks slugging it out.
I recklessly mentioned the Sabres and Leafs to an old friend, Daryle Pompeo. He has lived in Florida for decades, and still, he boiled over.
"The Leafs have gone through a complete slash-and-burn, getting rid of all their old players, and are improving through youth, which I don't like, because I hate their coach, Mike Babcock," he ranted, in part.
"You might remember from a couple of years ago, he spent a lot of time interviewing with the Sabres, hanging around Buffalo, and the day after a long dinner with the owners and management, when everyone thought he was a done deal as their new coach, he went to Toronto, like a jerk, basically using Buffalo as leverage for more money."
An hour before the Nov. 3 game, the atmosphere was electric.
Hell-bent fans, looking neither right nor left, they strode down Washington Street on the way to battle. That rush of humanity, along with the cries of "Tick-ETS!," are as much part of the downtown landscape as the scent of roasting coffee and Cheerios.
Outside the arena, Leafs fans were surprisingly friendly as they discussed the melee to come.
"They're awesome games. Good rivalry, great energy," said Cosmo Romano, who had come from Toronto with his wife and kids.
Shawn Wilson, from Toronto, was more practical.
"It's cheaper to go here than it is in Toronto," he said. "There are more Leafs fans than Sabres fans here, 'cause our money is (worthless)." Smiling, he crossed the street. "Thanks, bud," he said to the crossing guard.
Another surprise: We met a bunch of Canadians who were Sabres fans. One family from St. Catharines was mixed -- two Sabres fans, two Leafs fans. They posed together for a picture.
God knows how they got along once the game began.
Our 100 Things list likes our rivalries. Recently, at a football game, we celebrated the rivalry between Canisius High School and St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute. But they separated the fans. You could tell them apart.
Not so at a Sabres/Leafs game. The Sabres and Leafs have similar colors, and everyone sits together. On the notorious 300 level, there were dueling cheers. Shouts of "Let's go, Buffalo!" were answered by bellows of "Go, Leafs, go!" It fell into a rhythm.
Far below us, the game lurched forward. Hockey is more thrilling in person than on TV. The air has that bracing chill. The sounds add to the fun. The scrape and scramble of the skates. The whack of the stick against the puck. The thwack of the players into the Plexiglas. The blast of the organ, like a freight train.
Where was the "Sabre Dance"? I didn't hear it. I've always liked that flashy, in-your-face theme by a composer I love, Aram Khachaturian. It has that wild energy. Plus, not everybody likes it. That means it can serve two purposes -- to pump up the Sabres, and irritate our foes.
We should have cracked out that weapon in this particular game. Because the Leafs scored, and scored again. The Sabres had been beating the Leafs in recent games, and so at the second intermission, Sabres fans were still optimistic.
"We can beat them," one guy declared, quaffing his Blue.
With seconds left, there was still hope. But it was not to be. Then it was over, 2-1.
Outside again, Buffalo looked chic. The moon was out. A busker was playing guitar, and he was good. The crowd stretched from curb to curb. Swept along with the tide, I felt a surge of optimism.
Just wait till next time, I thought.
We can beat them.