BUFFALO — The usual number of fans squeezed into the seating area between sections 104 and 105 of the First Niagara Center on Friday night, prior to the Buffalo Sabres game against the visiting San Jose Sharks. From there, they could reach over the glass and hope to strike a high-five from one of their hometown heroes, as they took the ice for the pre-game warm-up.
For a couple of days prior, local media had been reporting that Ryan Miller was going to be the starting goalie, despite earlier announcements that his backup, Jhonas Enroth, would get the call. Presumably, fans would have one last opportunity to see Miller play as a Sabre in Buffalo, before a trade would send him to another team, in another city.
Shortly after 4 p.m., I asked the following rhetorical question on Twitter: “Three hours to faceoff. How long before the Ryan Miller trade?” Sports reporters on Buffalo television stations were still playing up the final Miller appearance during their 5 p.m. broadcasts.
Traditionally, the starting goaltender skates out onto the ice first, ahead of his teammates. Imagine the stunned silence when Enroth, not Miller, was first on the ice on Friday.
Magically, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jeremy Rutherford confirmed reports that Miller was a late scratch, at 6:26 p.m. Rutherford was with the Blues in Anaheim, so his vision must be 20-20.
While the Sabres swirled at their end of the ice without Miller, fans looked at each other in surprise. My 6:30 p.m. tweet was “Enroth first on ice for warm-up.”
Two minutes later, I tweeted, “Where is Ryan Miller?” Then at 6:41 p.m., “First Niagara Center in stunned silence.”
Even hockey guru Bob McKenzie was operating in the dark. At 6:35 p.m., he tweeted, “Amid reports Ryan Miller/Steve Ott scratched tonight, much speculation BUF is close to trading one or both.”
It was three minutes after 7 when the Sabres’ Twitter account formally announced that Miller and Steve Ott had been scratched from the lineup. But everyone in the building already knew that, by then. And anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter account was fairly certain that the two Sabres were off to St. Louis.
Details on the trade came a minute later, confirming the worst-kept secret in the National Hockey League.
This is not to fault the Sabres media presence, in any way. The club had been under a microscope for weeks, as the March 5 trade deadline neared, and the slightest flicker of activity was enough to trigger an explosion. The average fan knew Miller and Ott were gone as soon as Enroth emerged for the pregame skate.
It was a shame that the people who bought tickets were the last to really know what was going on. Miller and Ott spoke at a press conference between the first and second periods, but it was not broadcast on the scoreboard. There were video tributes to both players, but no public appearances.
They were simply gone.
The timing was poor, despite the red-hot trade rumors made even more intense by the free-for-all that is social media. In-person tweets and unofficial reports resulted in the team’s executives having the rug pulled out from underneath them at a critical time. The fans deserved better.
The confusion continued Saturday, when Pat LaFontaine resigned as the Sabres’ president of hockey operations.
There have been much better days in the history of the franchise. The French Connection was one of the greatest lines in the history of the league. While Gil Perreault finished his career in Buffalo, Rick Martin was traded to Los Angeles where he played just four games. Rene Robert was traded to Colorado and later, Toronto.
And contrary to what we heard Friday, when Martin and Robert left town, no one said, “Now they have a chance to win a Stanley Cup.”
They left with dignity.
All three players had their numbers retired by the team. So did LaFontaine – eight years ago, this week.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.