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Inside the Sabres: The need to bond with Buffalo

Buffalo is a sports town. It's a Sabres town. It's a Bills town.

At its core, however, Buffalo is a people town. The sports teams just strengthen the bond between residents, unite them in fun, laughter and heartbreak.

As much as the Sabres need a high-scoring winger, puck-moving defenseman and steady goaltender, they need to regain their elite standing in the community. They need to again become a beacon that shows Buffalo the happy and caring side of life.

"We all wish there could be a championship and a team that wins there for Buffalo because we all feel the fans deserve that," former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said by phone. "I even hear Jason Botterill talk when they got the first pick, he talks right about the fans. It just kind of shows you what everybody thinks of them."

Losing and bickering have strained the patience of the Sabres and the fans. There are still plenty of diehards, of course, but it used to be a community goal to head to the convenience store to buy Sabres coins or sleep in chairs outside the arena to get playoff tickets.

"The fans in Buffalo are incredibly passionate about their sports," former defenseman Jay McKee said. "Whether it's going out to dinner or for entertainment and different things, everyone in the town is so friendly and so engaging with the athletes. Whether it's fundraisers or galas, charity events, you see a lot of the same people, and it really is a tight-knit community. I think it's really high end, and I'm saying that after being there for 10 years."

The city means so much to McKee that he took a break from his vacation in Mexico to talk about Buffalo. He listed charity events by Jim Kelly, Rob Ray and Patrick Kaleta as must-do moments on the calendar.

"You can get great players to come through Buffalo and play for their sports teams, but that doesn't make them a true Buffalonian," Kaleta said. "Those are the guys that go out in the community and do stuff and understand what Buffalo is all about."

Kaleta, of course, is from Western New York and, through his HITS Foundation, helps people he's known his whole life. But the Sabres who became legends – Pat LaFontaine, Mike Foligno, Danny Gare, Michael Peca and Lindy Ruff, to name just a few – watched their stature grow by becoming part of Buffalo.

"It's something I enjoy doing and am blessed to be able to do," Kaleta said. "I understand I wasn't the greatest player on the team. I've gotten in trouble plenty of times for maybe putting too much passion into my team. But there's a reason why people like me in this town. They understand me. I grew up with a lot of the people, so they understand it's not about me being the greatest player or having the most skill or any of that stuff. It's about what I bring to the table with community, and that's what Buffalo is all about.

"Yeah, maybe someone is struggling over here, but we have 10 other people lined up to pick that person up and build that person up just because that's the sort of community we are."

For much of the last few years, there's been a mercenary feel to the Sabres, a revolving door of free agents and part-timers. Few people set down roots or even cared to settle. It's hard to get behind a losing team, but it's easier if they are lovable losers.

"Winning helps," said Campbell, who played for the beloved back-to-back conference finalists in the mid-2000s, "but I think it was also wanting to be a part of it and wanting to share a lot of things with fans because they were so good to us as a team. We wanted to embrace the fans because they embraced us so much.

"Just like the '99 team that went to the Stanley Cup final, if you work hard and put everything out there then they fall in love with you pretty quick."

That's why it's so important for Buffalo to get the right people in addition to the right players. The Sabres' foundation does more good than anyone can imagine. Players make charitable contributions and hospital visits under the radar. Zach Bogosian started the Bogo Bunch.

But when the Sabres as a group embrace Buffalo, the city will embrace them.

"When I think of Buffalo people, there's no pretending," Campbell said. "What you see is what you get. I've still got good friends there, people I talk to still to this day. I can't say that as much about other stops along the way."

Building a bond with the community worked the other day, albeit sadly and tragically. Sebastian Bradley, a 10-year-old Sabres fan who was visited by Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart at Christmastime, died after a long fight with brain cancer. The news was relayed to Eichel's agent. Within minutes, Eichel was on the phone talking about what the boy meant to him and what the Sabres meant to Sebastian.

"It's an amazing thing to be able to brighten someone's day or to make someone feel better about whatever they're going through," Eichel said. "Just to be able to see somebody like that – whether it's him or if you're at Roswell and you're spending time with some of the kids there, even after the games when you see kids in the locker room – it's so little for us but there's such a lasting impression that I think it makes on the kid that it's very rewarding."

Eichel is under contract for eight more years. He has the chance to make a lasting impression on and off the ice. Hopefully, a host of Sabres will join him. Buffalo is better when the sports teams and their fans are connecting at a personal level.

"I know what the people are like and how special the people of Western New York are," Kaleta said. "This stuff means more to me than anything else in the world."

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