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Monday, April 09, 2007

Memorial Auditorium Memorial

I remember the very first Sabres game I went to at the Aud. My dad split a pair of season tickets three ways, so he had two seats for one-third of the home games. They were about four rows into the Upper Blues in the right corner behind the net the Sabres defended in the first and third periods. I remember squinting down to the far end of the ice during the warm-up skate trying to read what was stitched on the front of the opponents’ uniforms. Finally I asked my dad if we were playing the Montreal Canadiens. – No, he said, but close. We’re playing the Washington Capitals. The Canadiens wear red as well. I don’t remember the score, seeing specific players or plays, or even the exact year (I must have been around five or six years old), but I do remember leaving at the end of the game, running to keep up with my Dad, weaving in and out of the crowd down the long and winding claustrophobic, sloping halls, all the while holding the tiny wooden Sabres souvenir stick, pretending to be one of the my new heroes I had just watched play hockey live for the very first time. I was hooked.

When I heard that the Aud will soon (for real this time) be demolished my immediate reaction was “it’s about time.” But then this was immediately followed by a twinge of nostalgic sadness, and even regret, and I thought about those old Washington Capitals away jerseys. I know it has to happen; I know it’s for the best. Logically, I understand this. But I still don’t like it and I don’t think I should be expected to. A big part of my childhood is about to be violently destroyed, imploded, at long last rendered totally and completely dead.

I live in Los Angeles now. I haven’t lived in Buffalo full-time since I left in 1996 to go to college at Syracuse University. I don’t know 21st-century Buffalo well at all. My understanding of the city – my idea of what it is – is, at best, the seven-to-ten-years-ago version of the city. It’s the version where Niagara Falls Blvd. isn’t the congested nightmare it is now, Chippewa was just starting to really pick up, and there were still Perkins restaurants. And while I’ve been to plenty of hockey games at HSBC Arena and have seen the best Sabres teams of my lifetime play there, I’ve always driven past the old Aud on my way there, and in doing so, was constantly reminded of how my love of the Buffalo Sabres as they have existed for the past decade or so – first propped up by the brilliance of Dominik Hasek and now just simply better than everyone else – is inextricably linked to and informed by my love of the Buffalo Sabres as they were when they were when they played in the Aud, mired in mediocrity. Now I think I worry that when the Aud is finally gone for good that somehow my memories of the place, of the teams that played there, and therefore of an important part of my childhood, will go with it and suddenly the city of my birthplace will be even more inaccessible to me than it is now.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the current Sabres team. Probably more than any other incarnation I’ve watched, and with good reason. I love the thrill and excitement of knowing that my team skates and scores like no one else, that they not only play better than everyone else, but that they play a style more aesthetically pleasing than just about the entire league. It’s fun. But I don’t think I would appreciate them quite as much if I hadn’t first fallen in love with Paul Cyr, Mikael Andersson, and Jacques Cloutier. At different points, I inexplicably loved Gilles Hamel and Viktor Gordijuk more than anyone else on the team, and Christian Ruuttu was my favorite player in the entire NHL. Sure, there was always Gilbert Perreault to fall back on, but those mid-80s Sabres teams that served as my introduction to hockey were by-and-large so forgetful and uninspiring that there must have been something else to capture the imagination of a six-year-old boy. That something was the Aud.

I go to a few Los Angeles Kings games each year, and I usually get in a Sabres game when I’m home for my annual visit. I honestly can’t tell the difference between the Staples Center and HSBC Arena. They’re both very nice arenas, and that’s all I have to say about either of them. They don’t inspire any kind of emotion whatsoever. There’s a sleek beauty and precision to them that makes one logically understand they’re, you know, nice and all, but they don’t embrace you as an organic part of the setting. There’s a coldness to them. But the Aud… the Aud had grandeur. It had a stoic nobility. I used to get goosebumps walking into that place, and sometimes I still do just by thinking about it. I’ve been to a few concerts at the Great Western Forum, and I imagine Lakers fans have similar strong, visceral reactions to that building as I do with the Aud, except I don’t have any championships and Magic Johnsons or Kareem Abdul-Jabbars or James Worthys to remember. The French Connection was broken up a few years before my time. I never saw Roger Crozier play or Danny Gare score fifty. I began watching hockey at the very beginning of the Sabres’ 10-year run of no playoff series wins. I was fifteen (!) before I saw my team win a playoff series; the May Day goal was the first taste of success my Sabres had of any kind. And still, I look back on my trips to the Aud fondly.

There was the ever-present man in the wheelchair, juggling outside the front doors to the Aud and selling bags of hot peanuts. The narrow lobby that made it seem like you were walking into a bank or a library, except you were immediately hit by that hockey smell of cold ice, years of sweaty equipment, popcorn, and concrete. I loved the colors of the seats; the Golds, Upper Golds (they had a slightly different hue, it seems to me), Reds, Blues, and Oranges. I saw a majority of my games from the Blues, was lucky enough to see one game from the very first row in the Lower Golds (on the blue line, a game against Edmonton, Clint Malarchuk was in net, Tony Tanti scored a hat-trick, Scott Mellanby looked at me), and was terrified of the ridiculously steep steps up in the Oranges. How is it possible not a single one of the infamous drunks up there bit it and toppled over the railing? I remember giggling under my breath when someone in the Upper Blues would curse out the refs. I loved those snaking hallways that got really weird and confusing up in the balconies with random nooks and a concession stand hidden off in a corner. I loved it when the coaches had to walk across the ice to get to the bench. I loved the old organ blasts after goals. But best of all, the intimacy of the Aud with its steep banks and narrow rows that put you almost over the ice made it easy to feel closer – not only physically but spiritually – to the team.

And so I hold onto those memories closely, no matter how mundane. I saw Alexander Mogilny’s very first NHL goal (21 seconds into the season opener vs. Quebec, with assists from Pierre Turgeon and Phil Housley – and after a spectacular laser show introduction to the team, by the way). I recall way too vividly a random Igor Larionov goal from his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks, as well as a random Mikko Makala one-timer goal against his former team, the Boston Bruins. I was there when Clint Malarchuk made his first public appearance after his horrific neck injury (which I had watched on television in my great-grandmother’s bedroom, and at first wondered why he vomited on the ice). I couldn’t see him standing in the Zamboni entrance, but I almost cried at the thunderous standing ovation he received upon his return. I remember Tom Barrasso’s very first game back in Buffalo after his trade to Pittsburgh – he was the back-up goalie and we missed the warm-ups, but I can still see him skating a lap, head down and a towel around his neck, before the first period began and he took his place on the end of the bench. (I cried the day he was traded away… something about Sabres goalies makes me emotional, apparently.) I was at Rick Vaive’s first home game as a member of the Sabres. I was at way too many playoff losses against the Boston Bruins (I may be the only person who is still super-pissed that Ray Bourque finally won a Stanley Cup. I don’t care about the feel-good nature of it all; to this day I hold a grudge against that man for all his success against the Sabres, and the fact that Brad May deked him out before scoring the May Day goal to end the playoff drought makes the moment extra special to me). I remember going to a Sabres-Blackhawks game, excited to see Ed Belfour , and thoroughly disappointed when Chicago instead started a no-name back-up with a ridiculous-looking helmet who made the luckiest horseshoe-up-his-butt saves in a 3-0 Chicago win. I remember watching Adam Creighton, Norm Lacombe, Bill Hajt (and feeling bad when the crowd would constantly boo him), Dean Kennedy, and Scott Napier. These are mostly forgettable players on forgettable teams, but I can still see them doing specific things out there on the ice.

When I remember the Aud, despite the meaningless of most of the memories as they pertain to hockey history, I remember nothing but great times. I remember leaving a game early to beat traffic, and as my Dad and I hurried through the empty hallways to buy another souvenir stick before exiting into the frigid winter outside, the organ blasted and the crowd roared for a last-minute goal, and moments later I pumped my fist in the air as the public address announcer informed me that Phil Housley had just scored again. What kind of a memory is that, that it deserved to bring a smile to my face? I mean, it was a nothing game, a goal I missed because we were leaving the thing I loved so much before it was even over?! The fact of the matter is I relish these kinds of memories. I replayed them in my head frequently, even before news of the Aud’s impending destruction. Why is that? Does any Sabres fan fondly remember Sergei Petrenko or Kevin Maguire or John Tucker or Steve Dykstra or Colin Patterson or Lee Fogolin (the second time around, I wasn’t alive when he played for the Stanley Cup runner-up Sabres) or Darcy Wakaluk? What kind of a disease do I have where all of these players and the things they did or didn’t do are deemed to be, somehow, memorable?

The truth of the matter is, in and of themselves, they aren’t. It’s only when they’re connected to my own life that they take on any kind of meaning. Seeing Mike Ramsey collect himself behind the net before every game is only noteworthy because I saw him do it dozens of times with my dad. I saw Dale Hawerchuk play numerous times, but I know the only time I saw him in a Winnipeg Jets uniform was at a meaningless mid-season game I watched not from our season tickets in the Blues, but from the Oranges with my Boy Scout Troop. That Clint Malarchuk ovation can’t be divorced from the injury, which can’t be divorced from my great-grandmother’s bedroom (where I watched it), which obviously reminds me of my great-grandmother. And so the sadness I feel when I think about the Memorial Auditorium being replaced by a Bass Pro Shops store is influenced by my own sentimental attachments to the building, which is itself a portal to my own past. This sentimentality is a legitimate feeling to have, but it can also be a little dangerous because it can be difficult to move on. Emotion is often at odds with logic. There’s really nothing inherent to the building itself that is so desirable, unlike, say, Yankee Stadium which has actual baseball history relevance; the Aud just happened to be at the right place at the right time in my life, so to speak. The rest of my lamenting is akin to the “I walked miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways” kind of thing, and herein lies the bigger problem, the point of it all. I think the personal feelings I have for the Aud are analogous to the dramatic feelings the city as a whole has for it, which is why groups were so desperate to find new uses for it and why, despite never finding any, it remains standing in idle wastefulness. The stately, quiet dignity of the Aud is a symbol of Buffalo, in more ways than one. It’s a place haunted by the ghosts of these old teams, but they seem to be romanticized memories. The feel-good-times of the new team in the early ‘70s and the success of the mid-to-late-‘70s teams set the foundation, but what was built on it? Nothing, really, for the duration of their time at the Aud. The era I watched them.

As I said, I’ve attended a bunch of games at HSBC Arena – games that are obviously much more recent than the games I took in at the Aud. I’m pretty sure the first team I saw in the new arena was the St. Louis Blues, but I’m not positive. I’ve seen Ottawa and Florida; big wins against Carolina and the Islanders, and a lot of others, but aside from the first Thomas Vanek goal I saw in person, the rest of the memories are hazy. Despite the past success of the Bills, if the city was to announce that Ralph Wilson Stadium would be razed starting tomorrow, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Ralph Wilson Stadium is a place where – out on the field – actual good things happened. Meaningful games were won. No such things happened at the Aud, for the most part, during my fanhood. Mostly bad things happened there. The Sabres went 10 years without a whiff of playoff success, and when it finally did come they were beaten immediately afterwards. A goalie almost died right there on the ice in the goalie crease. An all-time great defenseman actually did die on his way back to Buffalo. First-round pick after first-round pick failed to live up to expectations. Players were shipped out to find success elsewhere (Barrasso won two Cups; Ray Sheppard scored 50 goals after being traded for a dollar; Dave Andreychuk finally did something in the playoffs with Toronto), and successful players were brought in but forgot to bring their success with them (Vaive’s back gave out; Craig Simpson’s back was never there; Grant Fuhr and Dale Hawerchuk had untimely injuries; Petr Svoboda never seemed as good in the blue-and-gold as he did on those obnoxiously-good Canadiens teams).

I’m nostalgic for the place where all this hope went and died, but feel nothing for the place that housed Buffalo’s greatest sports triumphs? It makes no sense. But that’s the way it is. Every now and then when Brian Campbell is lugging the puck up the ice, I see another young-faced redheaded defenseman slipping past opposing forwards, crossing the blue line, and instead of dumping the puck to the corner like he should, holds onto it and looks for an open teammate cutting to the net, and I’m brought back to the Upper Blues, sitting next to my Dad, clutching a souvenir stick and watching the boys in blue and gold. But then Brian Campbell delivers a vicious bodycheck, and I know there’s no way Phil Housley could ever, in a million years, do that, and I realize those old times are done with and over. The Whalers or the Nordiques will never again just barely beat out the Sabres for the final playoff spot. The blue and gold is back, but there’s no looking back with it; now it offers actual hope and promises of a happy future that didn’t seem possible not too long ago. And this hopefulness can be extrapolated to relate to the city as a whole. As long as The Memorial Auditorium just sits there, rotting useless and obsolete, wasting space, the city can’t move ahead. It’s a constant reminder of a glorious past that’s long gone, but also of a more recent past that isn’t as glorious but still very much alive. I witnessed nothing but my team’s failure in that building, and its remaining presence symbolizes the kind of indecisiveness and rudderless thinking in Buffalo that drove me away in the first place. That place should have been gone a decade ago.

Yet for some reason, I still feel a little sad it’s going.