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'Thank you, Sabres!' From start, Buffalo fans have given their hearts to hockey

The chant was first bellowed in the balcony and circulated throughout Memorial Auditorium in the final moments of Buffalo’s introduction to heartbreak in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Thank you, Sabres!” the crowd sang repeatedly on April 12, 1973, the final night of the franchise’s third season in the National Hockey League. Gilbert Perreault, now one of seven players to have their numbers hanging in the rafters at KeyBank Center, recalls not being surprised by the roar, despite he and his teammates facing elimination and a three-goal deficit with five minutes remaining in Game 6 of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens.

“It was unbelievable,” recalled Perreault, now 68 years old.

“They never shut up,” Paul Wieland, the Sabres’ director of public relations from 1970-96, said with a laugh. “Everyone was standing on their feet. I was thrilled. That’s when I knew Buffalo was a hockey town.”

For those who were unsure of professional hockey’s viability in Western New York, the moment was a sign the NHL was wise to finally award Seymour and Northrup Knox an expansion franchise for the 1970-71 season. However, Buffalo’s love for its Sabres – from the crest on the jersey to the Hall of Fame talents on the ice – began long before the 16,000 fans inside the Aud serenaded the group of players who captivated the hearts and minds of the city’s people.

The franchise began with a bold, calculated strategy by two brothers, rose to prominence in an era when the Canadiens were seemingly unstoppable, navigated the challenges of players defecting through free agency or to the now-defunct World Hockey Association, provided solace to a city suffering economically and survived bankruptcy to reach its hallmark 50th season in 2019-20.

"Considering what they've gone through over the 50 years, not having won a championship, coming close a few times, and the support they keep getting year in and year out, it is unbelievable," said Rene Robert, who played parts of eight seasons with the Sabres. "Every time I put the jersey on and played, it was a special moment."

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Building a fan base

One by one, family by family, fans walked slowly past the remnants of Buffalo’s professional hockey history inside KeyBank Center during Fan Fest in August.

There were pennants, game programs and tickets, black-and-white photos, game-used equipment, the SabreJak, newspaper clippings and even the No. 48 Sabres jersey given to Seymour Knox on his birthday in 1974. For some, the images and artifacts are a source of nostalgia, all of which have been gathered by John Boutet since he was a 6-year-old boy during the Sabres’ expansion season in 1970-71.

Children asked their parents about specific items. Older fans reminisced about the French Connection, Roger Crozier and the Sabres’ first coach, Punch Imlach. There were conversations about wearing church clothes to a Sunday game and memories of nights spent in Memorial Auditorium.

“It was our team,” said Boutet, who works as site and exhibit chairman for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “It was something to do and something to root for. They gave us, luckily in the time I grew up, some amazing thrills. At that point, when you’re a little boy in Buffalo and there’s no internet or real television to watch, you hooked on to whatever was new in town.”

Northrup Knox, Punch Imlach and Seymour Knox III celebrate the founding of a tradition in 1970. (News file photo)

Professional hockey wasn’t new to Buffalo when the Sabres’ first season began in October 1970. The Bisons won the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup the previous spring and the sport had a passionate, albeit niche, following in the community.

However, the Knox brothers faced a number of challenges after they were awarded an expansion franchise on Dec. 2, 1969, beginning with building a fan base to fill the Aud.

“There was always a little bit of angst until people started to flood through the doors,” said Wieland, who led the Sabres’ marketing efforts. “None of us knew for sure it was going to work. There was a smaller corner of hockey fans when we started. When we got in there, we tried to sell the idea that you were seeing the future of hockey. How we did it was getting players out in the community all the time. … We tried to reach everybody.”

Each player was required to make at least two public appearances a year. Ted Darling, the Hall of Fame broadcaster whom Rick Jeanneret refers to as “the Voice of the Sabres,” made 200 in one year, visiting community picnics and youth football banquets. A hockey initiative was created where the Sabres would practice at any new rink that opened in the area.

The first Sabres players, including Perreault, who was still learning English, embraced their role in growing the sport locally, Wieland recalled. They engaged with young fans and were viewed in the community as personable and approachable.

Downtown Buffalo was inundated with hockey fans trying to attend a street hockey tournament among Sabres players in 1973. (Buffalo News archives)

Scott Henderson, a 56-year-old Grand Island resident and Sabres season ticket holder, recalled he and his friends receiving responses from players after sending fan mail to the Aud. Henderson would take the No. 5 bus down Niagara Street from his home in the Riverside section of Buffalo to try to watch the Sabres' open practice.

"We saw them as this new, genuine sport," Henderson said. "I think the players were enamored by a town like Buffalo. The superstars in hockey weren't at the level of other sports. I think for people in border towns we kind of felt like it was our own sport and our own team. It was our sport we shared with our Canadian neighbor."

In the days leading up to the first home opener, players wondered how the team would be received and if the arena would be full. Many of the Sabres' players could not understand why they were immediately the subject of fans’ admiration.

The Sabres had no problem filling the Aud most games during the expansion season, but arena seating was expanded from 10,449 to 15,360 before the 1971-72 season. Wieland was tasked with bringing fans, particularly families, into the building and he succeeded through engagement.

“It seemed to marry players to the community,” said Jeanneret, who is entering his 49th season as a broadcaster with the Sabres. “They couldn’t believe they were held in awe by people in the balcony of the Aud, putting on a great show night after night. They were wed together.”

The Aud went under construction to expand capacity by raising the roof in 1971.

The annual Sabres carnival brought fans of all ages to the Aud and gave children an opportunity to interact with players. Following the Aud’s expansion, open practices became standing-room only events with more than 16,000 fans.

According to Wieland, the Sabres’ season ticket holders accounted for all but 400 tickets for each home game in 1972. Single-game tickets could only be purchased by waiting in line in the Aud’s lobby. Many fans would arrive the night before tickets went on sale and would sleep in the lobby until the ticket office opened. The team had to hire security officers to protect them.

"I never realized how the fans were in Buffalo," Robert said. "I thought maybe it was just a trend for a while that once the franchise settled down people are going to say, 'It's time to do something else.' It never died."

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Families gathered around their black-and-white television sets or radios, though fans couldn’t view every game until the Sabres were on cable. The marketing efforts were buoyed thanks to the team’s play on the ice.

The Sabres had the most points of any non-playoff team during their expansion season, and although they had 12 fewer points in 1971-72, the foundation was in place for a winner, led by the French Connection: Perreault, Robert and Rick Martin.

“You could tell by the logo – they wanted the team to be fast, exciting and they had those types of players,” Seymour Knox IV said of his father and uncle. “They were thrilled where it was going. I think it was even more thrilling when they dropped the puck for the first game against Montreal, and it got more thrilling as it went on. It meant a lot to [my father]. It brought him tremendous joy.”

Seymour Knox IV holds up a jersey that was presented to his father on the ice for his 48th birthday as local sports historian John Boutet, right, displays an old Knox family portrait at Sabres Fan Fest. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The French Connection helped the Sabres reach their first Stanley Cup playoffs in 1973, and they won two first-round games against the Canadiens, who hoisted the Cup for a sixth time in nine seasons after losing only 10 regular-season games.

Despite unbridled enthusiasm and optimism within the organization, there was some uncertainty whether the franchise would succeed. That skepticism ended with the first “Thank you, Sabres” chant during Game 6 against the Canadiens, and the playoff run was the first tangible sign that professional hockey was here to stay.

Two years later, the Sabres were in their first Stanley Cup final, where they lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. In addition to establishing the Sabres as a winner and bringing pride to the city, the franchise’s success on and off the ice during its first five years of existence is credited with creating the passionate fan base it has today.

“For the team to get so good so quickly and have the support they did, it was indescribable, really,” Henderson, of Grand Island, said. “I remember hearing my parents yell when Robert scored the overtime goal [in Game 5 in 1973] against Montreal. I think the team, the approach and the age of the fans in the '70s, because they won so quickly, that might have had a 40-year carry-over.

"A 12-year-old kid like me that now has a career and can afford tickets, there’s that lightning in the bottle. We’re all trying to relive some of those moments. Hope springs eternal with this team, like it does with all sports, but especially for us. It was the perfect storm of the right type of youth, the type of players, the team approach and the success.”

'Down on their luck'

Mike Foligno marveled at the sight of downtown Buffalo's skyline when he crossed the Peace Bridge on a rainy August morning.

The 60-year-old called the city home for almost 20 years, including parts of 10 NHL seasons with the Sabres. His son, Marcus, was drafted by the Sabres and played parts of six seasons for the team.

"I feel like I'm home," Foligno beamed inside KeyBank Center. "It's a great feeling."

That wasn't Foligno's reaction when he arrived in Buffalo in December 1981. He was a talented 22-year-old forward who scored 28 goals the previous season. Foligno was acquired as part of a six-player trade that sent fan favorites Danny Gare and Jim Schoenfeld to Detroit, a move made by then-general manager Scotty Bowman to add speed to the Sabres' lineup.

Mike Foligno.

Foligno was thrilled to join a team that reached the playoffs in eight of its first 11 seasons, and although the French Connection was dismantled, the Sabres had Perreault, John Van Boxmeer, Yvon Lambert, Craig Ramsay and Lindy Ruff.

However, Foligno was caught off guard by what he saw during his first drive through downtown Buffalo. The surface portion of the city's new 6.2-mile metro rail, stretching from downtown to University at Buffalo's South Campus, was being installed on Main Street, creating a massive construction zone that made the area look desolate and depressed.

Foligno wondered about the future of his new home. Less than three months after his arrival, Republic Steel announced it would suspend operations at its Buffalo plant, which raised the total number of workers laid off to 1,650. The city's economic heartache worsened in October 1983, when the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant shut down, putting 7,300 out of work.

The region's unemployment rate reached 13% in December 1982.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, what's happening here?' " Foligno recalled. "I came to a city that's having a lot of economic difficulties."

As the city's population grappled with a troubling reality of deindustrialization, professional sports became a temporary distraction. While the Bills made the playoffs only three times in 18 seasons after the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, the Sabres were a consistent contender when Foligno arrived. Fans experienced playoff hockey in Buffalo for 25 of the franchise's first 31 seasons.

Despite the economic hardships, players made Buffalo their home year-round. They saw the community as an ideal place to raise a family, appreciated the loyalty of the people and felt a moral obligation to provide relief during a dark time in the city's history.

"When we won, they'd walk away from here feeling really good about themselves and being part of this community," Foligno recalled. "I think it does that to the fans. This community was fighting for respect, and I think we tried to earn that for the community when we played on the ice."

The Bills had a similar impact when they lost in the Super Bowl four consecutive years from 1990-94. The devastation of coming so close to winning a championship was outweighed by the thrills provided by the city's professional athletes and the pride achieved in hearing Buffalo mentioned on national television as more than a cautionary tale of a Rust Belt town.

Anthony Masiello was a Buffalo Council member when the Aud's roof was raised in 1971, served as Buffalo's state senator from 1980-93 and had a 12-year tenure as the city's mayor from 1994 until 2005. He helped secure state and local funding for a number of projects that helped rejuvenate Buffalo's economy, including the Sabres' arena that is now called KeyBank Center, the Theatre District expansion and the Queen City Hub Plan.

Masiello was among the thousands who attended the Sabres' rally in Niagara Square to celebrate the team's run to the Stanley Cup Final in June 1999, when Ruff famously told the crowd, "No goal." Another Cup loss did not create a somber mood. To Masiello, the reception was another powerful example of how important professional sports, the Sabres in particular, are to Buffalo.

"Through good times and bad, the teams and the fans feed off one another," Masiello said. "The teams uplifted the psyche of our city. The Sabres, through thick and thin, winning and losing, were part of the fabric of our everyday community here. ... There was one constant that everyone looked forward to every day during those difficult times: the progress and results of our Sabres. It really kept the spirit of Buffalonians alive and well through some very difficult times and created a significant excitement in our community when people were down on their luck."

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Loyalty

Mary Wall had a nine-week hiatus from her work on the NBC sitcom, "The Office," during the spring of 2006 when she decided to spend time with her family near Buffalo.

Coincidentally, her visit coincided with the Sabres' unprecedented run to the Eastern Conference final, which ended with a Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Wall was struck by the passion in which fans spoke about the Sabres during the playoff push. No matter where she went, people were either wearing team merchandise or talking about the previous game.

Following the Game 7 loss, Wall saw a news report of crowds waiting at the airport holding "Thank you, Sabres" signs while they awaited the team's return from Raleigh, N.C.

"I remember thinking, 'They lost, right?' " Wall said. "It struck me as a special sort of character people that will do that to acknowledge the ride and be grateful for that and the effort."

Five years later, Wall made another trip to Buffalo to visit family for Easter in 2011, which, by happenstance, coincided with the Sabres going 16-4-4 in their final 24 games to reach the playoffs. Though the team lost in Game 7 of a first-round series against Philadelphia, Buffalonians showed Wall the same intensity and passion.

She decided to quit her job and produce a documentary about Sabres fans, now titled, "The Fan Connection," which will premiere locally at the Buffalo International Film Festival on Oct. 12.

"I've heard some people call the team an escape," Wall said. "So, one of my favorite lines told to me by someone in the movie was, 'Other people live in cities, but we identify with Buffalo.' I think that's very true for a lot of people. If anyone says anything bad about Buffalo, it's taken as a personal insult. What people have done is use these sports teams as a way of representing the city itself and therefore representing them. ... A win for the team is really a win for each person."

So close! Sabres fan Jameson Brunn, 13, reacts to a play in 2016. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The Sabres have not reached the playoffs since their late-season run in 2011, which occurred only a few months after Terry Pegula purchased the team. Their eight-year postseason drought leads the NHL, a fact that doesn't sit well with a fan base that had not gone more than three consecutive years without watching playoff hockey in Buffalo.

There have been accusations of tanking to acquire talent through the draft and Ralph Krueger is the Sabres' sixth coach in the past eight years. However, the team is now burgeoning with young talent, led by Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin.

Terry and Kim Pegula helped rejuvenate the Buffalo waterfront with the construction of LECOM Harborcenter, a state-of-the-art facility in which the Sabres practice. The team's 10-game win streak last November conjured memories of remarkable runs of the past, led by the French Connection, Dominik Hasek, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, among others.

The fear of relocation – which occurred in the months after former owner John Rigas was indicted for bank, wire and securities fraud in September 2002 – and the initial concerns whether a NHL team would be a success in Buffalo are a distant memory.

"From the moment I walked through the doors of that blessed Auditorium, I knew that to be the truth, and there was never any doubt in my mind whatsoever," Jeanneret said when asked if he initially thought the NHL would succeed in Buffalo. "You look back at the playoff series with the 'Thank you, Sabres' chant, nobody does that anymore. Nobody does that anywhere except Buffalo, New York. ... That's the one thing about Buffalo Sabres fans: They wear their feelings on their sleeve."

Last season, Buffalo ranked second among all NHL markets for household ratings on games televised by NBC or NBC Sports Network, ranking first on the latter. Loyalty is often mentioned by former players when asked about Sabres fans.

J.P. Dumont, who spent parts of five seasons with the team from 2000-06, recalled seeing crowds of fans tailgating in the parking lot of PNC Arena in Raleigh and hearing chants from the home crowd in Buffalo during the '06 East final against Carolina.

"Really loyal," Dupont said during Fan Fest. "When I was here in the 2000s, we definitely had some hard times with ownership. The fan base was always there and always supporting the team and the players. That was something special. Every time we were getting dressed, we knew they would be there to support us. They had it rough, let's be honest."

That loyalty took root during the franchise's formative years, grew through the efforts of Hall of Fame talents on and off the ice, and continues through a burning desire to see the Stanley Cup hoisted by the Sabres in Buffalo.

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