As some of you might know, I made the trek down to the Queen City as part of a friend's birthday celebration to catch The Heroes take on the Buffalo Sabres. I tried my best to talk myself into believing that the Leafs had a chance to win and then it was confirmed that Vesa Toskala was starting in net. Right then, my expectations for the game matched the subterranean levels of my expectations for the city itself. Unfortunately, while one was exceeded Toskalol did his best to remind just why I have a series of voodoo dolls with his likeness.
But things didn't have to go that way. In the space of a couple of minutes the wheels fell off:
The Leafs were dominant in the first period and thoroughly outplayed Buffalo in every aspect of the game. It took the Sabres almost 13 minutes to get their first shot on goal and they were outshot 10-4 by the visiting Leafs. The only goal of the period came just over three minutes into the game as Viktor Stalberg scored the first goal of his NHL career on a shot that appeared to deflect off of Craig Rivet.
Things had started out so well too. Cutting off work at 2pm on a Friday and meeting up with the rest of the weekend warriors including a pal that had flown in from Calgary helped get things off on the right foot. Driving 2 kilometres on the QEW in about 40 minutes made me start questioning whether he would make it on time. Thankfully, we got across the border despite the border agent's best attempts to trip us up with his quick-fire questions.
Traveller's Tip # 1: Don't try to answer questions at the border as quickly as you can. Take your time and pay attention. Otherwise, that's how you end up saying 'yes' when you mean to say 'no' and you end up finding out that latex gloves are cold.
Once we crossed the border it was time to get used to how different things are in the United States. Instead of kilometres the speed is measureed in miles, instead of asphalt they apparently use something that resembles the surface of the moon (or a bombed out downtown core which brings me to...), and instead of an attempt at a vibrant downtown core they have abandoned buildings, parking lots, and HSBC Arena. Oh, and Chippewa Street but we're not at that point of the night yet.
The lobby of the hotel, much like HSBC, is already overrun with Leafs fans. Time is running short so we hopped in a cab to the arena to partake in some pre-game beverages. One short hour later and our table top would have brought tears of joy to any of the local cart-pushers. With 15 minutes to puck drop it was time to get into the game.
Traveller's Tip # 2: When in a busy bar a big first tip and a request that rounds come out two at a time will help ensure that at most only one hand will be devoid of a refreshing drink.
At this point the trickle of Leafs fans has become a full on deluge. Once we grab a couple of tallboys and hit our seats (row 19 behind the net the Leafs' attacked twice) to find ourselves surrounded! Thank God they were all Leafs fans. Saw some jersey fouls but the matching Wendel Clark jersey in front of me erased my memory of those. I was really confused before the beginning of the game because something seemed off. Then my buddy pointed out that almost every seat was filled before the anthems. Weird concept.
As you can tell from D.O.' excerpt, the game started well enough. Leafs RAUP was, as Joe Bowen is wont to say, was in good voice especially after Viktor Stalberg opened the scoring past the Leafs' nemesis Ryan Miller. My stomach sank when some yahoos started a 'Millllll-errrrrr" chant. As the birthday diva pointed out "It's probably not a good idea to heckle a goalie that thrives on that kind of thing". Too right. Fab and Gus Katsaros from Maple Leafs Hot Stove showed up a little late and missed the goal. They are clearly cursed but it was interesting watching Kats jot down notes and listen to Fabs talk because he was born to take over for Andy Frost. Also, apparently I have a potty mouth but really, after that game, I thought I controlled it pretty well because not one parent complained.
The first period actually flew by despite a couple of Leafs' penalties but once refreshments were purchased it was a lot easier to take a look throughout the crowd. That's when I spotted not one, not two, but THREE Buffalo residents (surely Sabres fans would rather spend money on Sabres' merchandise) with "Losers Since" #67 Leafs jerseys. Now, I loudly proclaimed that it just goes to show that real fans travel to support their team and fake ones wear their opponents' colours. With the team playing well and the sweet taste of liquid courage it seemed like we were set for a banner night.
Then the refs and Vesa Toskala landed a devastating one-two.
Traveller's Tip # 3: If you find out that Vesa Toskala is starting the game for your team get back in your vehicle and go home because he is the worst goalie on the planet. It's not even subjective. He's 46th in save percentage and GAA. For those keeping track, that's last in the league. And both other goalies have significantly better numbers. It's Toskala and as Chemmy put it, if you doubt it then you objectively know less than fuck all about hockey.
Jochen Hecht clearly interfered with Toskala on the first goal. We couldn't see it very well live but on the replay there is no doubting the fact that once again the referees blew an easy call and cost the Maple Leafs the first goal of the game. The team's improved on their ability to deal with those kinds of setbacks. What they haven't been able to deal with came up next. On a lazy dump in I visually started following the puck on its anticipated path around the glass. Unfortunately, Toskalol had a different idea. Rather than leave well enough alone he decided to do his best Jim Carey Price impression. In the span of maybe a second I went from "ok, let's chip it out" to "What the hell was he thinking thank God he got to it" to "I'd cry if I didn't expect it". Being about 100 feet away from that kind of trainwreck makes it all the more vivid.
Traveller's Tip # 4: The amount that your drinking will increase during a Leafs loss on a road trip is directly proportional to how much the tickets cost. My liver suggests that we should have gone with puckurgently's price bracket instead.
That really took the wind out of the Leafs' sails and the fans' enthusiasm. Suddenly, the HSBC was just the ACC South as the atmosphere began to resemble a mausoleum giving more credence to the argument that team performance comes first, vocal support comes second. Predicting that the rout would quickly be on was not exactly Nostradamus-level but it came true as first Mike Grier redirected a shot in with his leg/skate and then a wrister beat Toskalol over his useless glove. Once Jonas Gustavsson came in it wasn't clear who was cheering louder, the Leafs fans or the Sabres fans but at that point the game was over. The team's traded goals in the third period but that was all she wrote.
I have to admit that the Sabres fans were really well behaved. Sure, it helped that they were winning and outnumbered but the only guy that wasn't in a good mood was one that thought I was serious about throwing him over the escalator. Then there was the 10 year old kid that looked at me like I was insane when Lee Stempniak scored with 19 seconds left. Like 3 goals in 19 seconds is so insane.
Thank God for Chippewa Streeet though. Like an oasis in a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland it stands alone as a beacon of hope for the town of Buffalo and apparently it also houses all of the attractive women who, it should be noted, were much more pleasant than their Toronto counterparts. There might be better looking ones in Toronto but except for the 9 with the Tim Hunter nose (and yes, after she was rude to my friend I told her that) they were all pretty cool.
Traveller's Tip # 5: Getting strange women to talk to you involves listening to them. However, playing the 'dumb' card is not a good way to keep them talking if that involves pretending not to know what the seven wonders of the world are.
I guess it helps to have lowered expectations because at worst they are met (thanks Toskalol, you'll be getting a bill) and at best you are pleasantly surprised (single ladies with funny accents).
Traveller's Tip # 6: 50 Chicken Wings in Buffalo is a good idea. At 4am, however, that might not still hold true.