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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Fans prove faith in Sabres is stronger than coldest wind

Francesca Morabito was among thousands of Buffalo Sabres fans pushing Tuesday into fierce and biting gusts that came straight off Lake Erie. The wind got a running start on Scott Street and was enough to stop a 5-year-old in her tracks. It seized little piles of snow and transformed them into crazy dancing twisters, and the only way to get beyond it was for the child to hold her brother's hand, and muscle forward.

The little girl wore a surgical mask above her winter coat to protect herself from catching a cold. Yet in the moments after the end of the game, her Tinker Bell cap pulled down over her forehead, she reacted to the wind in exactly the same way as everyone around her.

Francesca was laughing.

“Did you have to do this?” she asked, speaking of the noise she had just experienced from a sellout crowd of 19,070 in the KeyBank Center, and she reached up and covered her ears.

The Sabres defeated San Jose, 3-2, on a Jeff Skinner goal in overtime. That makes it 10 wins in a row. Francesca, of Sloan, is in treatment for leukemia. She went to the game with her 12-year-old brother, Gabriel. They received a couple of tickets from Camp Good Days and Special Times, a summer camp that provides services for families touched by cancer, and they were part of the “Hockey Fights Cancer Night” at the arena.

After the game, the joyous Sabres – still as excited as little kids themselves – signed autographs for the children. Jack Eichel put his name on Gabriel’s jersey, which pretty much made the sixth-grader's life. Eichel also autographed a card for Francesca, who clutched it like a treasure while her brother suggested there was wisdom in keeping it out of the snow.

His little sister, however, has long experience in practicing grace against the wind. Her family learned she had leukemia when she was 3. Much of her childhood has been spent going through such treatments as chemotherapy and blood transfusions, but you would not know it from the way the kindergartner approaches the world.

Francesca Morabito with her brother Gabriel, 12, and a family friend, Keith Hamann, who gave them a ride home. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

Her mom, Justine, works at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and her dad, Dominic, works a night shift. While they could not go to the game, they trust Gabriel. Dominic's mother, Doreen Morabito, steered her vehicle through bumper-to-bumper game-night traffic to drop Gabriel and Francesca at the arena door, and a longtime family friend, Keith Hamann Jr., promised to drive them home.

Hamann was there with a friend, Rod Zizzi, and with his own parents, Keith Sr. and Lori of West Seneca, longtime Sabres fans “who have only seen it like this two or three times before,” as Lori put it. Remembering the tension in the stands before Skinner scored his goal, Francesca looked up at Keith Jr. and asked, “Did you pray?”

Yes, he told her. Absolutely.

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As for Lori Hamann, doing her best to ignore that banshee wind on Washington Street, she used words that in their own way were a prayer by themselves.

"You know," she said, "I'd love to see one Stanley Cup."

The wind kept coming, fierce and cutting, but above it rose this sound, this spontaneous wail of happiness, from fans streaming to their cars or toward the Metro Rail.

Chris and Sarah Burger of Depew were so caught up in the win they barely noticed the sting of a wet and driving snow. "It feels like a party down here,” Chris said, offering that festive thought despite standing in the absolute bull's-eye for a rocket blast of lake effect air.

Here, too, was Tom Balthasar, an IT director from West Seneca, who attended his first game of the year with his 12-year-old daughter Amanda. To the seventh-grader, it felt like a belated Thanksgiving because her favorite player, Skinner, was the guy who scored the winning goal.

Tom, whose Sabres memories go back to the 1970s and the legendary "French Connection," captured a feeling  growing day by day in this town.

It has been a long time since either the Bills or the Sabres had that truly electric ability to score. It has been an even longer time since either squad projected that most intangible quality, the threshold when a team has so much talent, will and energy that even when things go wrong, you actually expect the players to find a way to win.

Tom Balthasar and his daughter Amanda: Who cares about the wind? (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

For years, the general belief was that a Sabres team that saw a 2-0 third-period lead become a 2-2 tie had invariably turned into what Bruce Springsteen might call a downbound train, a team doomed to lose.

These Sabres?

“It’s the offense,” Tom Balthasar said. “They just have so much chemistry, and they believe in each other.”

Because of that, speaking for himself and Amanda, he said: “We have faith.”

The victory carried lifetime meaning for Donald and Deana McArthur of Sloan, who brought along Leon George McArthur, their 9-month-old son. Donald works in concessions at the arena, while Deana bought a ticket and watched overtime play out with their baby on her lap. Her son also received a certificate from the Sabres for attending his first game, which will always be associated with triumph, even if Leon is too little to remember it.

Afterward, Donald and Deana put the little guy in his stroller and pushed him to the Metro Rail station, where they kept his face safely beneath the blankets while they waited for the train. Seeing such a landmark game with their infant son, they agreed, symbolically captured the general direction of their lives.

“Since he’s been born,” Donald said of Leon, “he’s turned my life around.” He grew emotional trying to define what the infant - named for both his grandfathers - has meant in the way of a renewed sense of purpose, while Deana explained how a doctor had told them some physical obstacles might prevent them from having a child.

At 9 months old, Leon George McArthur's first Sabres game was a big win. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

The doctor was wrong. The proof is Leon, whose arrival early in 2018 was the greatest news of their lives. His parents were both stunned by the way Tuesday's game turned out, but they said their confidence did not waver when San Jose tied it up. In an arena where it felt like the sound alone was shaking loose the roof, they joined many other fans in turning toward a similar explanation.

“This is Buffalo,” Donald McArthur said. “It’s how everything happens here. You’ve just got to have faith.”

The couple was delighted to make Leon available for a family photograph, which required extricating him from his pile of blankets. In the cold night, Donald and Deana got busy until their baby's face emerged. He wore big red mittens and a warm blue coat, and it was as if the little guy knew how everyone else in that cold wind was feeling.

Forget the snow. Ten in a row. Leon was smiling.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com and read more of his work in this archive.

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