Ralph Wilson Jr. died today at the age of 95. I’m not in the habit of whitewashing people in death, not even my own family. I hope that same courtesy gets extended to me when I move on. I am a human being, not a fantasy of the living. That said, there are certainly some nice things to be remembered about Wilson. Almost all of them happened before I was born, and before many of our readers were too.
Ralph Wilson begrudgingly helped make the Bills after having been a minority owner in Detroit and making a first attempt at Miami. Still, he was a steward of the fledgling AFL and a steward of its Buffalo franchise and he helped the team stay in Buffalo over the years when little else did. He was a part of the most success the city of Buffalo has ever seen in professional football in the 1990s, somewhat similar to Golisano with the 1999 and 2005-2007 Sabres.
And like Golisano, he was a part of dismantling that success.
That will always be Ralph’s legacy to me. He was a man, in his firing of Bill Polian, who couldn’t get out of his own way. He couldn’t handle not being the smartest person in the room, couldn’t handle not being the reason for success. He also, in his later years, failed to secure the franchise’s long term position in Buffalo. That should resonate louder than most things.
Ralph Wilson made us, that much is true. But we may soon find that he unmade us as well.
Confessions: I have no idea what week we’re on and I did something I really should have done from the beginning. I added even strength save percentage as one of the categories. My previous justification was that ES goal differential accounted for goaltender ability, but I didn’t think that was a direct enough measurement. Enjoy.
In a terrifying incident, the likes of which the league hasn’t seen since Ondrej Pavelec’s collapse mid-game a few years ago, or perhaps even the Zednik incident of 2009, Rich Peverley of the Dallas Stars collapsed on the bench during the Stars game with the Blue Jackets Monday night. Obviously BBG, along with the rest of the hockey world, wishes the best for Peverley including a swift recovery, a return to hockey, an ability to exit on his own terms, and future wellness.
However, I have a bit of a problem with Peverley being hailed as some kind of tough guy, particularly the reactions to this quote:
“The first thing (Peverley) asked me was how much time was left in the first period,” Ruff said.
He’s being hailed as the best of macho hockey culture and a conquering masculine hero, and while reports from the Stars indicate that the condition isn’t serious, all I can think about is Peverley putting himself at risk (and I tend to think all heart conditions are of some seriousness) with a wife and kids at home.
Without a medical background I don’t have a huge amount of commentary on Peverley’s situation specifically, but I do find that I have far more respect for someone who hangs up the skates willingly than for someone who wants to put themselves at risk by continuing to play, especially when their responsibilities extend beyond themselves.
That is the benefit of things like Twitter and being able to find a wealth of information about our favorite players. We start to see them as human beings, and things like concussions and heart conditions are less team-killers, and more real ailments that these men and women and their families have to deal with. That drives a willingness to mete out some of the uglier aspects of hockey (via supplemental discipline) and I think we all end up better for it.
When you look at the roster now compared to what it was even just two years ago it’s been a complete and total dismantling. Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Andrej Sekera, Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Paul Gaustad, and even Steve Ott are all gone. The only players left over from anything resembling glory days are Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, and Tyler Myers. For now. The only players on the roster resembling top players are Christian Ehrhoff and several ghosts of Sabres future.
Even if you believe that the roster needs to be set on fire and danced around for the path to start heading upward once more (and there is nothing to indicate this is true, no matter how loud Jeremy White bleats it), that is a startling amount of decay in a short period of time. The Sabres have become Schrodinger’s franchise, existing as terrible, and simultaneously as even worse than you thought. I’m of the mind that the key to fixing a dilapidated house is very rarely to burn it down. You need to figure out which beams to keep and which to discard, what’s structural, and what’s cosmetic, and most importantly if any part of it can be repurposed (aka traded) for something more useful.
I tried to retrace this dismantling as best I could back to a singular moment and while some would probably offer 7-1-07 as the best option, I’ve chosen to give the franchise a partial clean slate after the ownership change. Because of that, and because of the mini-rebuild that saw the team make the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 I think the current issues stem from Pegula and Company mis-evaluating what they were given. Thus my singular moment that sent this franchise into its tailspin is the Leino contract, something that suggested management thought the team was closer to contending than it actually was.
When Terry Pegula bought the Sabres he put a three year deadline on building a team that could be a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.
Now, just a bit over three years later, he has DELIVERED! Last night against the Coyotes, Ryan Miller looked solid as always. Two early, kind of flukey goals got past him, but Miller dug his heels in and, for what might have been the first time this season, the Sabres in front of him decided to play like they’re supposed to be there.
This depresses me. Not because I’m a Sabres fan, and not because I think the team is better off with Miller on the roster. Not even because the team has fallen so far from it’s glory days, with only Drew Stafford left on a roster that’s a shell of what it once was. No, this depresses me because Miller is just another name on a long list of guys that have given their heart and soul and in some cases made significant sacrifices to try to win in Buffalo, to try to win it for us.
Before Miller there was Hasek. And Lafontaine, and Mogilny, and Andreychuk, and Gare, and Schoenfeld and Perreault, and Robert, and Martin, and Lindy Ruff. Twice. There were the Knoxes, and there was Punch Imlach and there was Jim Lorentz and Ted Darling and my greatest fear is that all too soon there will be Rick Jeanneret. Always chasing that silver dream, never reaching it. What would it be like to watch those guys achieve the ultimate while wearing the blue and gold? What would their stat-lines read, what would their legacies be, what would their smiles look like, how loud would it get when they triumphantly hoist that trophy towards the banners of Sabres past?
We will never know.
I don’t know what other fanbases are like, but I know that Buffalo doesn’t just root for their players. We’re not the New York Rangers who bought a cup with Mark Messier or the Kings with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. No, we claim our players. They become one of us. As countless retired NHLers-turned-Buffalo-residents have shown, they stay one of us. Somewhere along the way, Warburg, and Lac-Saint-Charles, and Waterloo, and St. Catherines get erased and Buffalo gets written in their place. That ‘East Lansing’ that sits on Miller’s bio in so many places was halfway to gone. This doesn’t just make the Sabres worse, and this doesn’t just fundamentally alter our fandom going forward.
Good luck Ryan Miller. That’s not just the right thing to say at this juncture, that’s what we mean. Desperately so. To many, you’re still one of us. You’re almost still wearing the same colors. We root for that ultimate thrill, not out of selfishness, but because we like to see the adulation it brings to those around us. The happiness of our fellow Buffalonians matters to us. It matters to us. And as far as most of us are concerned, you’re still one of us. Good luck. Go Blues.