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Monday, July 2, 2007
Updated: July 3, 9:06 AM ET
Woe is Buffalo

By Greg Sukiennik
Special to Page 2

No one ever said it was easy being a Buffalo sports fan.

But losing Daniel Briere to the Flyers and Chris Drury to the Rangers on the first day of free agency -- in effect, gutting a Stanley Cup contender in a single day -- is, for my money, a worse kick in the groin than "Wide Right."

At least Scott Norwood had a chance to win Super Bowl XXV. At least he was on the field, with a tough but makeable kick in front of him.

At least poor Scott Norwood tried.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier? It's hard to say he even tried. He had months to re-sign his prize co-captains and did nothing about it until the last minute. Offering proposals below market value to two of the most highly sought free agents on the market less than a week before the deadline does not constitute trying or a good faith effort. It constitutes a lame and halfhearted one at best.

And in Drury's case, it constitutes sheer folly.

Reiger and owner Thomas Golisano have heard a lot of praise in the past three years for building a winner out of the ashes in Buffalo, a small market that nearly lost the Sabres when the feds uncovered the Rigas family's financial shenanigans and the team had to declare bankruptcy. They've been hailed as visionaries for building a team that could compete and win in the new NHL, for building a roster that, despite being largely devoid of salary cap-crushing superstars, rolled four solid lines with scoring ability and speed to burn. So they're neither hapless nor clueless.

Thing was, they did have a legitimate superstar in Drury, a player who has been redefining "clutch" since he was playing Little League baseball in Trumbull, Conn. And they inexplicably let him go for nothing.

Perhaps they've heard a little too much about what hockey geniuses they are.

Losing Briere hurts too, but as much as the team will miss his scoring, I was mentally prepared to let him go for the big money -- as long as the Sabres kept Drury, whose leadership qualities and hockey IQ are off the charts. And while I wondered why either would leave, considering the way they were absolutely adored in Buffalo, there's only so much time to make money in a sport with a hard salary cap -- so I get the "it's a business" thing from their perspective.

How much does Drury mean to Buffalo? When the Ottawa Senators' Ogie Oglethorpe wannabe Chris Neil took a run at Drury's head during the regular season, Drury's teammates went berserk and touched off a full-scale brawl. And when coach Lindy Ruff was fined $10,000 for admitting that he did what every coach in the league would do -- tell the guys to "go out and run 'em" after his co-captain and best player had been left dazed and bleeding on the ice -- the fans offered to pay Ruff's fine.

Simply put, Drury was a god in Buffalo. Consider the Buffalo News' Bucky Gleason's assessment of the situation in this column, which, although written before Black Sunday, remains timely.

Better yet, watch this play a few thousand times like I have and marvel at Drury's hockey skills and IQ. In the waning seconds of regulation of Game 5 against the Rangers, not only does Drury win the crucial faceoff -- without which the game ends and the Sabres probably lose the series -- he regains control of the puck and hits Tim Connolly with a beautiful pass to set up a one-timer. Then, most crucially, instead of stopping to admire his handiwork, he keeps skating to where the rebound will likely emerge and puts the rebound back on net. Here it is again at ice level.

No wonder the Rangers were willing to pay the man.

The question is: Why weren't the Sabres?

And yet again, Buffalo sports fans like me pay with a stake through the heart. "Wide Right" and Brett Hull's skate in the crease weren't enough. Three more losing Super Bowls and Frank Wycheck's illegal forward pass (some call it the "Music City Miracle") weren't enough. Brad Park's slap shot in overtime of Game 7 of the 1983 Adams Division finals wasn't enough. Blowing a 14-3 halftime lead over the Chargers in the 1980 AFC playoffs wasn't enough. Leading the Hurricanes 20 minutes from the 2006 Stanley Cup finals and falling short wasn't enough. Coincidence or vast anti-Buffalo sports conspiracy? You decide.

And yet, Buffalo fans come back for more, like misery was a fresh batch of hot wings and a frosty pitcher of Genny Cream Ale.

For folks in Buffalo, maybe the Sabres and Bills, in spite of their letdowns, are something to cheer for in a city where not much else has gone right lately. For me, it's a little more personal.

I grew up in Massachusetts, but half my family is from Buffalo, and my grandfather passed away just as the Sabres started making their 2006 playoff run. After they decimated the Flyers and stunned the Senators in five games -- capped by Jason Pominville's brilliant short-handed game winner and team play-by-play legend Rick Jeanneret's equally brilliant "Now do you believe?" soliloquy -- I was once more hooked. I wanted a championship for my grandfather, who never got to enjoy a title the way I got to witness the Red Sox finally winning it all. And the way the Sabres played in 2006-07, reeling off win after win to start the season and finally getting healthy with the playoffs around the corner, it looked like it was finally possible.

The playoffs should have been a tremendous ride, win or lose. But instead they were a miserable experience for me, because in the back of my mind I knew Drury and Briere were unsigned and the team I was watching was unlikely to get another chance to do it again. It was a zero-sum game, Cup or bust. I couldn't enjoy the victories and the losses were agonizing -- especially the way they went out, to the Senators.

And now that team has been dismantled. The Sabres as a franchise might surprise everyone and succeed in spite of these losses, but the team that went to two consecutive conference finals now has no way to redeem itself, no way of finally clearing the last obstacle and reaching the Cup final. And that is a shame.

I watched the clip of the Game 5 tying goal again, to remember it wasn't all misery.

"Chris Drury! Who else? Who else?" a delirious Jeanneret asks as the fans go nuts following the game-tying goal.

"Who else?" Now that's a good question.

Greg Sukiennik is a news editor at ESPN.com.