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Sabres Fans’ Last Laugh Should Probably Be A Sob

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 18: Jack Eichel #9 of the Vegas Golden Knights takes a break during a stop in play in the third period of a game against the Los Angeles Kings at T-Mobile Arena on February 18, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Kings defeated the Golden Knights 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s Prodigal Sons Week, and as you know from your reading, that means baseball, Ben Simmons, and most revealingly and yet least revealed, Jack Eichel.

Eichel returned to Buffalo Thursday after a protracted and acrimonious break-up that paled in significance to Simmons’s only in that Philadelphia makes more national noise than Buffalo. He had loudly rejected the Sabres for their losing, their medical plans for his neck, and their general Pegula-ness, until he got his trade, to Las Vegas. Sabres fans, who have grown so weary of hating their owners that they only send their hardiest to actually attend games (they fill barely 40 percent of their capacious building on any given night) gathered 12,347 strong to performatively hate Eichel in a 3-1 victory for the home squad.

And they did hate, with the perfect coda reached when the ESPN+ broadcast captured two locals double-birding Eichel as he left the ice—a Hallmark card for the Eichel era-ette, all 375 games of it. And unlike Simmons, who spoil-sported in public silence while watching his Brooklyn Nets beat his former Philadelphii, Eichel almost basked in his return because, well, if you’re gonna play the role, commit to the role.

“That’s about the loudest I’ve heard this place ever. Heh, humph, really,” Eichel said afterward, pretending to be surprised by the way he affected the disaffected. “It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.”

He’s got Buffalo there. A team that filled its building about a third of the time in the Eichel years now has the poorest attendance in North American male professional team sports, and yes, that includes MLS. Sabres fans were among the continent’s stoutest in the arcane butts-per-seat-per playoff-appearance stat (18,154 over 19,070 over zero), until this year, when the hive’s collective anger over the Pegula regime’s steadfast refusal to achieve has all but overcome whatever credit they get for supervising the revivification of the Bills.

But as neither Terry nor Kim hang around for booing time as the Sabres have leapt in their time from a playoff team to a stead yrun between 13th and 16th place ever since, the fans have had to adjust their contempt-fueled sights to what’s available, and that meansEichel.

He was booed during warmups, booed when his name was announced in the Golden KInights’ starting lineup, booed every time he touched the puck and essentially whenever he made the effort to take in oxygen and exude carbon dioxide. Scorned Buffalonians are in their way more strident than the stereotyped Philadelphian, even though the Flyers have been on roughly the same hellbound trajectory as the Sabres over the last decade.

Oh, Eichel tried to be polite, sort of. He did acknowledge the requisite scoreboard honorific that all departed stars get now as a perk of showing up for work. “I’m sure there were mixed [reactions],” he said. “It was a nice tribute, and there were plenty of people here that were supporting me, and there were plenty of people here that were booing me. They must be booing me because they wish I was still here.”

Well, Jackie old sock old shoe old goat, you’re all they’ve got. Nobody’s getting all worked up about the Tyler Ennis/Jason Pominville/Thomas Vanek era. None of them disputed the team’s medical advice, and certainly none of them were as insistent about it, which is a relatively new development in player empowerment. None of them were named captain at age 21, none of them were compared to Connor McDavid (and not only because Connor McDavid hadn’t been invented yet), and none of them were designated franchise saviors. The Sabres, it should be noted here, used to be good, and didn’t need saving. Eichel opted out for the same reason 60 percent of the Sabres’ audience opted out: the team is a shambolic mess. In short, the fans booed the empty seats next to them just as much as they booed Eichel.

And they got the kind of short-term gain that will convince them to boo him next year as well, a win in another lost season that moved them from 15th in the Eastern Conference to 15th in the Eastern Conference. Eichel played 17 minutes, took 23 shifts, had two shots that were diverted by the 40-year-old Craig Anderson, and Buffalo’s reduced fan base went home slightly less disgruntled, or more merely gruntled, than it was at the beginning of the evening. This whole hate-Eichel thing might work out just fine, as long as Sabres fans remember that he didn’t put them in this mood. The Pegulas did. Eichel is them, and they are Eichel. Boo that.