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Hockey

A little respect

Buffalo close again to tasting a major sports title

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Posted: Saturday June 12, 1999 03:09 PM

  A Sabres' fan prepares signs for the Stars to see when they arrive in Buffalo. AP

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- Not since the Buffalo Bills earned their fourth consecutive Super Bowl trip in 1994 have fans in these parts been so pumped, looking again for that ever elusive major championship.

The frenzy of anticipation started the second the Sabres clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup finals, as the Memorial Day weekend was winding down.

When roars of celebration pierced the night air, few had to wonder what the fuss was about. The Sabres had just scored on Dixon Ward's shot to the Toronto Maple Leafs' empty net. The Sabres were in the finals for the first time in 24 years.

"You could hear people screaming in the streets because they were so excited, and kids were yelling, and it was 10 o'clock at night," recalled Dave Pietrowski, who, like so many fans in western New York, had been riveted to the game on TV.

The best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals are tied at one game each. Game 3 will be played here Saturday night.

A Stanley Cup win wouldn't erase the pain of the Super Bowl losses, but it could boost the psyche of a city dealt blow after blow for its perceived sports failures, harsh winters and economic hardships.

And with Dallas as an opponent -- the city that broke Buffalo's heart not once, but twice, with consecutive Super Bowl victories in 1994 and 1995 -- victory would taste that much sweeter.

Of course, defeat would be that much more bitter.

If a Buffalo team falls again to a Dallas team, Buffalo fan Bob Young said, "I don't want to hear about it."

The Stars, the National Hockey League's best regular-season team, went into the finals heavily favored. The Sabres finished the regular season just seventh in their conference and have been underdogs throughout the playoffs.

The matchup led Stars center Mike Modano to openly wonder if the Stanley Cup finals, already awarded to Dallas in the minds of many, might prove a letdown.

The shots didn't stop there.

"It could be worse. We could live in Buffalo," Woody Paige wrote in The Denver Post after the Colorado Avalanche lost to the Stars. He said Buffalo would be worse "for obvious reasons" and because Buffalo has never won a Super Bowl, an NBA championship, a World Series or a Stanley Cup "and likely won't again this season."

"Buffalo falls more than Niagara," he declared.

Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo, said an NHL championship would be good for the community's under-fire self-esteem.

"A Stanley Cup championship would give Buffalo a positive image; then, by inference, people would begin to think that there is something special about the city," Jain said. "After they take a longer look at Buffalo, they'll learn that the city has a lot to offer beyond professional sports."

Plus, it would make the city's long-suffering fans feel better.

"I am the consummate loser," declared Pietrowski, a Sabres and Bills season-ticket holder. "I went to Syracuse University. I've been to two Final Fours, a Sugar Bowl, four Super Bowls, and my team has never won."

The memories are hardly bad, though, he said, recalling the parties and camaraderie. And, win or lose the Stanley Cup, Buffalo fans aren't likely to start hurling themselves from the Peace Bridge over another missed chance.

"When the Bills are 8-8 or 16-0, it's virtually the same audience," Pietrowski said, pointing to the team's regular sellouts. "It's the same thing with the Sabres. It wasn't too long ago we were drafting first in the draft and we finished last, but there were still 12,000 people at every game."

Rick Martin, a member of the last Sabres team to compete for the Stanley Cup, still lives in the area. He's not convinced a championship would do much for the city's image.

"It's a great town but the media likes to beat up on Buffalo. Even if they win it somebody will come up with some kind of negative spin," he said. "They'll find a way to downplay Buffalo."

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who led his team to those Super Bowls, is a little more hopeful if the Sabres win.

"People are always ragging on the Bills and the people of Buffalo about those Super Bowls," he said. "Maybe this will shut some people up."

 
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