Buffalo, Where Hockey Players Lose Their Love Of The Game
It was nearly three years ago, the end of the 2017/18 NHL season, when Ryan O'Reilly infamously said to the press that he lost the love of the game multiple times throughout the year. It was a statement that shook the Sabres organization to its core, resulting in one of the worst trades in franchise history.
I'll be the first to admit how much I loathed ROR for making that statement. I wanted his head on a platter. Never did I feel he pre-planned it though. In watching the interview, which I did over and over again back then, it looked to me as though the press coaxed it out of him. Nonetheless, it was a very bad thing to say, so much so that the follow up question was, "Do you think you need a change of scenery?"
Seems like ancient history, doesn't it? Sort of anyway. I mean it feels like ancient history since O'Reilly was a Sabre but that whole losing the love of the game thing, well that's not ancient history at all. It's still around, lurking into every shift of every game. Fans see it nightly. It's palpable. It's on the players' faces. And it's on the scoreboard.
What happened? Is it a curse? Did Ryan O'Reilly curse the Buffalo Sabres? The ROR Curse!!! I hope it doesn't last as long as The Curse of the Bambino. I jest. No way do I believe it all comes down to ROR. He is merely a symptom, or as they say today, he was asymptomatic of a curse.
Perhaps some "lost the love of the game" contact tracing needs to be done. The Sabres contact tracing officer ought to start asking players who they have come in contact with that might've caused them to mentally tune out during the games. Maybe we can find the source and kill it dead.
Two paragraphs of jokes indicate that I am desperately trying to cover up my outrage. I was fooled into thinking O'Reilly was the problem. He looked slow on the ice and detached for that entire season and his comments in the season ending interview sealed my feelings about him. He needs to go.
It wasn't him though. For the last decade or so, there's been a wicked stench in the air about this team. It possibly goes back even a little further than a decade. I'm talking about 2007 when Drury and Briere weren't re-signed. Although the Sabres made the playoffs twice after their departure (2009/10, 2010/11), the team was ousted in the first round each time, never to return. If you believe in curses, this is your source.
I, however, do not believe in curses. But, I do believe in karma. Not in a religious sense though, but in a sense that attitudes and feelings do creep into the psyche and subconsciously dictate certain behavior. That behavior quickly turns into habit and it's viral.
During that season's end chat with the press, ROR also stated that he found himself being happy just to get out of a game without making a mistake. He was speaking for himself but if you're a fan of the Sabres, and I know you are, you've seen that exact style of play among the Buffalo players from long before O'Reilly's tenure and ever since.
Mr. O'Reilly was perhaps the most honest player and the most in tune with the "curse" than anyone in the organization. He told us the truth and we ran him out of town for it. In his next act, he made us all eat crow as not only did he become a Stanley Cup champion that following season, he was also named the MVP of the playoffs. That award, by it's very nature as well as in a practical sense, goes to the player most responsible for his team's championship. Good for him.
And very bad for Buffalo. It made the curse worse... sorry for the rhyme. The Bills had a similar curse. Twenty years and no playoffs. How did they break it? The revolving door of leadership. In May of 2017, the Pegulas hired two general managers: Brandon Beane and Jason Botterill.
They each had many press conferences in that following off-season. One of them was very polished and handled questions, tough questions, with aplomb. The other stammered and had flop sweat when the cameras turned on. Botts' team was much deeper in the hole, but they both had their share of problems to work through and both made some big moves. Beane solved his problems. Botts didn't.
Not trying to get over on Botts here. The point is that you need a strong leader in order to turn the corner on the karma. That, right there, is the answer. Leadership. Nobody likes changing coaches and GMs every two to three years but if you know you don't have the right leader, be done with him. A franchise can change on a dime with the right leadership.
During the Bills' twenty year playoff drought, they had ten different head coaches and seven general managers. That's the equivalent of a change in leadership every two years for the coaches and three years or so for the GMs. In my opinion, making a leadership change was the right move every single time. I don't believe any of those departing head coaches were the right long term solution. Do you? If so, let me know in the comments below which coach or GM would have been great if given more time. Do the same regarding the Sabres. As of right now, the Bills' current head coach is going into his fifth season with the team and the current GM his fourth. So they did find their guys.
The Canes, the Leafs, the Panthers all turned things around in a season or two after being near the bottom of the standings for a number of years, and those are just a few recent examples. It happens often and it is almost always preceded by a change in leadership. The revolving door of leadership, which is standard when a team is losing and not at all unique to the Bills and Sabres, is so very hard on the fans causing them to blame the lack of success on it. Yet changing leadership is not the cause of the curse, it's the solution. The right leadership can improve a team's fortunes quickly.
My advice to the fans, don't attach yourselves to losers in the hope that someday they will be winners. Embrace the grind of change. And to Terry and Kim, when hiring your leaders, please get some high level league professional consulting to assist you. Then get out of the way.