From the Rink - The First Niagara Center

Hard-hitting journalism from a highly-contested NHL game.

Driving into Buffalo late on Thursday afternoon, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had driven through Buffalo in the past, but had not yet found time to stop. The closest I had ever been to the Sabres' home ice was a glimpse from 190 when the rink was still named by HSBC. I also knew that I was heading to see a team that, while playing solid hockey all year long, had a pesky habit of losing to a select handful of teams that were definitely not better than them. The Sabres were accredited members of that exclusive club, leaving me a little nervous about what to expect from the Habs. Despite the variables underlying the game, the venue, and the city, I ended satisfied on all three counts.

One of first signs of a good trip was the ease with which we found parking. A mostly empty lot sat directly off the highway exit, a block from the rink, and selling their spaces for 40% of the cost of a similar one in Toronto.

We took a quick tour of the neighbourhood, walking the closest blocks in an attempt to find food. A cold wind was cutting through the city, and the place seemed mostly deserted as residents took shelter from the end of winter. The few sports bars closest to the rink were jam-packed, however, and so we settled on arena cuisine.

Taking the quick jaunt over to the rink, passing a streetcar line and maybe three other people, we arrived to the rink. Tucked underneath the interstate and amidst a nexus of public transit, the rink is actually fairly attractive. A large, glass facade greeted us at the main plaza, and while the property next door was torn up and under construction, the arena seemed to be living up to what one might expect from an 18-year-old facility.

Another sign of a decent trip: reasonably-priced food. I enjoyed a Beef on Weck, a sandwich which I gather is a Buffalo specialty. The arena has kiosks devoted to this sandwich seemingly at every turn, and they were a decent hot-dog alternative. Also offered were a solid variety of beers, both of the draught and 24-oz tall boy variety. Compared to the typical Toronto sporting event experience of 16-oz beers (your choice of Bud or Canadian), I figured I was making out pretty well.

Travelling up to the 300 level and finding our seats, I immediately took note of the grade of the seating. While the angle is probably the same at many new, corporate-style sports facilities, it took a few minutes for the feeling in my stomach to adjust to the imagined possibility of toppling out of my seat and landing in Ryan Miller's crease.

On the other hand, it did make for an excellent view, and sitting above Ryan Miller's crease meant a first-hand view for about 85% of the game's notable events. Buffalo would end up with a couple of scoring chances at the opposite end, including their eventual 2-on-1 goal, and Brandon Prust would also put Pat Kaleta out of his misery about 150 ft from my seat, but on the whole, I couldn't have asked for better.

Another plus for the rink, and the city, was excellent service. Everyone we interacted with, save for one gentleman, was efficient and friendly. The one exception? Having crossed the border and lost my cell service from my usual provider, I turned the phone off to avoid roaming charges. While saving a few bucks was a nice thought, it also left me roaming the 300 level concourse to find a pay-phone to check-in with home base. These devices, like the phonogram and the penny farthing, simply aren't as common as they used to be. I read the instructions on the phone and did as it asked, but ended up standing in the aisle waiting for something to happen. Like a Sabres fan on that night, I fear no amount of patience would have been sufficient.

Having spent 75% of my American change to no avail, I decided to ask for help. I described my plight to the Guest Services guy, and our conversation went something like this:

Me: I put three quarters in the pay-phone and it still won't let me make a call.

Guest Services: We've been having some trouble with our pay-phones this year. They won't make calls to Canada.

Me: Is there anywhere else I can make a call?

GS: Not really. You could try putting more money in the pay-phone.

It was right around the "more money" portion of his sentence when I turned the roaming service back on. I later imagined this as an analogy for conversations that take place in Darcy Regier's office. I just have a feeling they go the exact same way.

Undaunted, I returned to my seat and was treated to some phenomenal Canadiens hockey. It's hard to gauge noise level when your point of reference is the TV, but it seemed like the home fans were doing okay at the outset. Sadly, even a few spirited, "Let's go, Buffalo!" chants were not enough to spur the Sabres to action. The Canadiens would launch an avalanche of shot attempts toward the Sabres net, and combined with a couple of nice goals and a handily won fight, it seemed like the Canadiens had things well in hand. Still, a nagging corner of my brain reminded me of the Habs' recent trouble against the Sabres, and in the second period in general.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry. Brendan Gallagher out-waited Miller as he came out of the corner, and Andrei Markov added a power-play marker later in the second period. Francis Bouillon pounded Steve Ott, P.K. Subban added a goal on a third period bomb, and outside of a second period, offensive zone breakdown that led to a shorthanded rush and a Sabre strike, the Canadiens dominated in all facets of the game.

The Canadiens successes were well received, as my visual estimate revealed that at least 30% of the crowd was dressed in red and white. Attendance was announced at a hair over 19 000, and while the Sabres may have found a way to unload 19 000 tickets, it was clear that the actual number of occupied seats was lower than this. By the end of the game, a only a fraction of the original crowd remained.

As the game drew to its close, I started to think back to my sole experience at Le Centre Bell. One of the best parts of that game, a 4-0 Montreal victory over the visiting Devils that was over by the end of the second period, was that even as the game was well in hand, the fans continued to sing and chant through the concourses of the arena and the streets of the city. While I have never experienced a Buffalo win, it was clear there would be no singing or chanting on a night when the home team gave such a dismal effort, and was defeated in so many ways.

Thankfully, the Canadiens fans picked up the slack. Walking back to the car down Washington St., the Ole chant was loud and clear, just as it would have been down Rue St-Catharine.

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