Since You Brought It Up, NHL Network…
I’d like to personally thank the NHL Network for picking at a rather large scab on the collective psyche of Western New York sports fans Wednesday. I’m of course referring to the re-airing of Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final – the “No Goal” game. In a decade that had already brought us “Wide Right”, an unprecedented run of Super Bowl futility, and would still not be complete until the following January with “Home Run Throwback”, this night was the Sabres’ contribution to arguably the most memorable – and heartbreaking – decade in Buffalo sports history. Seeing people talk about it on the Twitter started me thinking about that night, and what was going on in my life during that series. Indulge me as I recount maybe the most amazing time in my life (aside from the ’05-’07 run) of being a Sabres fan.
In the late spring and early summer of 1999, I was 6 months out of Buffalo State College, B.A. in Communications in hand, getting freelance work in TV production with the Sabres’ Daily Hire unit. Folks, I’m not gonna lie to you – this was an AWESOME job for a 22-year old, lifelong fan to have. Access to almost any part of then-Marine Midland Arena, free meals before the games, and if that weren’t enough for ya, the check you got afterwards sealed the deal. The playoffs made the gig that much more awesome. It meant that instead of working on the jumbotron crew like I normally would’ve when I got scheduled, I’d be working as a grip for the national TV folks – ESPN and CBC (among others) that never made much effort to visit Buffalo from Oct. to Apr. Suddenly, the foot of Main Street was a pretty hip place for the networks to be. And with each successive playoff win, the town got more and more jazzed for what was becoming an improbable run to the Final matchup with the Stars (ugh, Dallas…again!) It wouldn’t, or couldn’t make up for the Cowboys destroying in consecutive Super Bowls, but it was palpable how badly this town wanted it.
And the Sabres, despite clearly being the inferior team in the series, were up for the challenge. Splitting the opening 2 games in Dallas meant coming home, where they had gone undefeated through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The arena, which had gotten progressively louder with every game (I still don’t believe I have since ever heard the building get as loud as it did when Ray scored his goal against the Leafs in the Conference Final. A true blow-the-lid-off-the-joint moment.) was going to be in full throat. It was the biggest Sabres’ home game in my lifetime, and I was not only going to be there, but get to be in a small way a part of it like few other fans would…
And then my grandpa died.
Now this was not an out of the blue event. Grandpa had been ill for a while at that point. Truth was, I had pretty much been on funeral standby since just after New Year’s. So when the call came, yes there was the initial shock, but I had been preparing for it. It just meant now that I would be travelling to Atlanta after Game 4. I went down to the Arena and talked to my boss, Joe, about what was going on and the circumstances, and let him know that I would be able to make it back in time for Game 6. He asked me if I was sure that I’d want to work, and told him honestly it would help me more to work the game. And with that, I went about my business getting ready for Game 3, a spectacularly dull affair (a true Ken Hitchcock joint) that saw the Stars win 2-1. Buffalo of course came back to win Game 4, making it best-of-3.
The morning after game 4, I found myself sitting by the Delta gate at the airport, catching a morning flight to Atlanta. Turned out, since there weren’t any direct Buffalo-to-Dallas flights, I was catching a plane with a bunch of media folks (including Pete Weber) following the series. It obviously was not the case, but for a few fleeting seconds, it felt like I was following the series back to Dallas along with them. But my travels stopped in Georgia. Time to say goodbye to Grandpa.
Now as all of us WNY natives know, those family members that have moved away always keep Buffalo close. So, not a big surprise that I got a lot of Sabres questions from relatives during my 2 ½ days in Atlanta. They knew that I had been doing work for the team, so they were naturally curious how all that was going. You wanna talk about conflicting emotions? Feeling awkward? Anyways, after serving as a pall bearer at the service & the family broke up from the post-funeral get together, it was time to hit the couch and watch some of Game 5. As I remember it, it turned out to be an uncompetitive affair. Dallas held serve at home, setting up the do-or-die scenario for the Sabres in Game 6.
So after saying goodbye to family, I’m on a plane back to Buffalo. I’m due at the arena late morning/early afternoon of the next day. Pretty big vibe when I get there. We all know that the Stanley Cup will be in the building. As the day moves on agonizingly slowly towards face off, the players begin to arrive. The Sabres coming one by one, the Stars on their team bus. Interspersed with them, some media personalities – your Bob Coles, Ron MacCleans, Don Cherrys. Later, the owner of the Stars shows up with his family in tow. Finally, game time arrives, and along with 18 and half thousand in the seats and however many souls were watching/listening elsewhere, I watch, not knowing that we’re settling in for 6 hours and arguably the most controversial finish to a Cup Final ever.
Allow me to just jump ahead to about 5 minutes to go in the 3rd period. The game is tied, and all things considered, it’s an educated guess that if Dallas scores the next goal, this series is over. It so happens that for this series, I am working for the SRC – French language CBC, and stationed on this night in the Zamboni entrance area helping the handheld cameramen with their cables. The SRC guys are nice enough, but very uptight. I bring this up because that in addition to wearing the proper credential, in order to go out on the ice in the event the series ends and the Cup is presented, the TV folks were to wear official blue pullovers so as to be easily identifiable. The ESPN guys are wearing theirs. Ditto the CBC folks. Us? Well, here’s where the uptight thing comes in. Turns out the league only supplied enough jackets to them for 1 crew to have. Thus, they had been reluctant to hand them out to us earlier in the game. You know, because we wouldn’t fold them up nicely and put them back in their baggies to take to Texas for Game 7. Sheesh. Anyways, they FINALLY hand these suckers out to us when it has become painfully obvious to everyone out there that the next goal wins the game.
Just so happens that at this time the Zamboni entrance is starting to resemble the front of the stage at a typical rock concert. You have all the before mentioned network camerafolk, their assistants, the Sabres’ ice crew, and security. Now add additional reporters/photogs from Buffalo, Dallas, and parts in between media outlets that are going to head out onto the rink if Dallas wins. Space became limited awfully quick. And remember, THIS WAS BEFORE REGULATION TIME ENDED.
Now let’s advance 2 ½ periods into the future. It’s late. So late it’s early. And at this point, for many of the assembled mass around me, it’s gotten past tedious. Folks are started whining long ago about how “they’ve got an 8 o’clock flight out of town and just someone end this thing already so I can get back to the hotel room, etc”.
…then the Stars started jumping on the ice right in front of all of us. Next everyone started surging forward…
“OPEN THE DOORS!!!!!!” This is a shout repeated multiple times by dozens down there in the Zamboni area. There was no thought BY ANYONE DOWN THERE – media, security, NHL pencilnecks, me – NO ONE that maybe they need to review the goal to make sure that there wasn’t a skate in the crease. The only thought was to get those doors open so we all could get out there for the celebration and Cup presentation. And for the next little while, my only thoughts are making sure I’m keeping cables clear and outta the way so players, officials, and family don’t get tripped up and crack their heads on the ice.
About 30-45 minutes later, after the presentations and the Stars have retreated to their locker room and the stands are mostly empty, I’m helping clean up equipment off the ice. The metal connectors on the camera cables have been on the surface long enough now that you can feel the depression in the ice that they have formed when picking them up. So I, along with a bunch of other folks are just doing our thing, when in walks one of the CBC photographers.
“You guys got screwed.”
“The goal shouldn’t have counted. Hull was in the crease. You got screwed.”
Needless to say, that made the next couple hours of takedown and commiserating both quite interesting. Neatest thing? Aside from being out on the ice as the Cup was presented, was being 6 feet away from it outside the arena by the Stars’ bus as they were packing up to leave. Definitely cool. Most frustrating? Not having easy access to something blunt and heavy to swing at it the exact moment I had to witness Ed Belfour literally dancing through the hallway towards the doors to the parking lot. By the time I’m driving home, the sun is appearing over the eastern horizon. As it turns out, I was scheduled to work at the Bisons game that afternoon – a bunch of us were. So after about 3-4 hours of shuteye, we sleepwalk our way through a thoroughly uninteresting AAA baseball game, still in shock over just how everything played out less than 12 hours earlier 3 blocks down Washington Street.
I’m not in shock anymore. Maybe just a little bitter about the league not wanting to follow its own rulebook because it would have been inconvenient (shock). And who knows if they really would have won it anyways – Dallas was the better team.
I’ve still got that jacket, though. Rather have the banner hanging in the arena instead. Maybe this year. Got a feeling the new boss will get the tools to finish the job.