Originally posted on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 12/29/11

For many years, if you ventured down to my mom's basement, you may have noticed a couple names carved into a foundation pole down there. One of them was #29, Joe Reekie, a testament of my older brother's love of an unheralded, tough Sabres d-man of the 80's. My contribution was seen right next to this name and showed the different mentality of a teenage hockey fan than that of my sibling - #6, Phil Housley.

Even those who haven't been following the Sabres that long probably know a thing or two about Housley. He's a U.S. born offensive defenseman who joined the Sabres in 1982 fresh out of his St. Paul high school and scored 66 points his rookie season. He played 23 seasons in the NHL and currently sits as the second leading scorer among U.S. players. He was smooth skating, a true power play QB. And he was my first favorite player of any team, my first jersey, and also largely responsible for hooking my young self in the fastest, most exciting sport there is.

So I was pretty excited when Terry Pegula formulated the plans of Sabres Fan Appreciation Night for April 8, 2011, especially when I heard Phil would be there. Even better, thanks to our tax refund, the wife and I were able to attend, one of only 2 games we were at last season.

I'm not going to say that we got to the arena three hours early and that I was close enough to bear hug Housley. I'm not that gaga for meeting professional athletes, even for one I idolized as a kid. But we were lucky enough to arrive before it all started and to set up camp across the street, with a clear view of all the arriving limos with players. And when Phil arrived, still baby-faced at age 47 with his bright red hair, the memories of my infant days as a fan came rushing in. I was back in my mom's house lying next to the TV with my brother John (the Reekie fan) on the other side of the tube, watching Phil glide up and down the Aud ice. Back then, the Sabres perpetually couldn't get past the first round of the playoffs (and always seemed to lose vs the hated Nordiques), but my passion hadn't been dulled by years of heartbreak yet. If I could bottle that idealism and naivety, I'd drink it by the gallons now.

The arrival of the players outside the arena was just one of the many things that made for an amazing night. The game was ultra-important for our current Sabres, as they could clinch a playoff birth with a point, something that seemed a pipe dream before the hero Pegula came riding into town on his white horse. These two aspects, the nostalgia and the present day excitement, made for an electric HSBC Arena.

Before the puck drop, Pegula gave us another opportunity to dip ourselves into the deep wells of memory when each era of the old Sabres skated out on the ice together before congregating as one at center ice. As I looked around the arena, I imagined the other fans were also transporting themselves back to their youth, be it the 80's like me, or maybe the old school 70's , perhaps even a portion to the 90's and 2000's for the younger crowd. The commonality of Buffalo sports comes to the forefront at times like these, when bickering, divergent, even hostile viewpoints, disappear into a hive mind of unity and childlike joy. It's honestly a beautiful thing.

Then it was time for the actual game. It seemed perfect to be playing the Flyers on a night of reflection, given all the battles we've had with them over the years. As a funny side note, Heather and I joked that it would have been great for Danny Briere to walk down the red carpet in his old Sabres jersey and then suit up for the Flyers for the game. But it was not to be.

In all honesty, all the hoopla would have been slightly dulled if the game was boring or the Sabres laid an egg. But it was a terrific game that equalled the ancillary stuff. The Sabres held a 2-1 lead early in the second period on goals by Nathan Gerbe and Jason Pominville before a shorthanded goal by Kris Versteeg and an even strength goal by Briere took the air out of the building a bit. I remember feeling a bit depressed as the possibility of losing this game, on this night, vs this team, would have been difficult. And the Flyers had all the momentum and were taking it to the Sabres for the rest of the 2nd.

But the good guys weren't going to falter after all. It's as if the hockey gods decided to finally take pity on Buffalo fans, perhaps admiring Pegula's respect the revered hockey alumni. The comeback started with the emotional boost of Lindy Ruff taking goalie Jhonas Enroth out of the net at the start of the third and putting in Ryan Miller, who was coming off an injury. The skaters were clearly galvanized by the return of their leader and their play improved ten-fold. Halfway through the 3rd period, the Sabres tied the game and then held on for the all important point. A real fun and interesting moment came a the end of the game as the Sabres d-men (I specifically remember Myers being on the ice) passed the puck around their zone, killing the clock to secure the playoff spot. The Flyers sat back, also benefiting from the point, as the crowd rose in unison with a standing O. It was a glorious moment after all the struggles that Sabres faced after starting the season so poorly in 2010.

Could all this jubilation get even better? Thomas Vanek said yes. One minute into overtime, he grabbed the puck at center ice, willed himself through the Flyers D, and lifted the puck into the net. Thomas smashed into the glass in ecstasy, exulting the crowd with more happiness than I've ever seen in him. To top off the night, the Sabres brought out the season ticket holders who won game worn jerseys of the players, and as the players finally exited, Miller lifted his arms up and down, pumping up the crowd one last time. A very uncharacteristic Ryan moment that gave me chills (and still does).

One completely cool sidebar - during the second period, Ted Black came into our section to hang out with the fans behind us, drinking a beer and cheering like a crazy man. Just another brick in the wall of awesome that was April 8th.

You may have noticed that I almost completely glossed over the Sabres tying goal in the 3rd. There's a reason for that as I needed to save it for the end. Gerbe scored that one, his second of the night, on a beautiful spin-o-rama play. To be honest, the shot came so fast and unexpectedly that I didn't even see it go in the net, and it was on my side of the arena to boot. I heard the crowd roar, the players celebrate, and then I spazzed out with jubilation. Gerbe scoring in such a dramatic fashion meant more to me than if it was any other player on the roster. A few weeks prior, after he scored an all-out effort empty net goal vs Montreal, Nathan became my new favorite player. I've written in the past here about why I love Gerbe so, but in a nutshell it's because of his determination and tenacity. People probably told him his whole life that he was too small to excel in the game and would never make the NHL. Case in point of the abuse he takes was early in this game when that idiot Dan Carcillo patted him on the head like a little boy. He takes that crap continually with a smile on his face and with the heart of a lion as he fights for pucks in the corners.

But he has talent too. He's quick with some slick moves and is fun to watch. Kind of like my first hockey love, good old #6. Fandom like many things in life is like a big circle, as events and people come around to a similar theme or idea. Housley to Gerbe makes perfect sense in my journey as a Sabres fan. Fan Appreciation Night helped me reflect upon that road and made me feel great about being a Sabres fan. What an amazing night.

Follow Mark on Twitter.

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