BUFFALO, N.Y.—Down is up. Bad is good. Winning is losing.
Welcome to the theatre of the absurd — a.k.a. the First Niagara Center — where Sabres are bad and their fans want to keep them that way so they cheer for the Maple Leafs, or any other team that comes to town.
It is all in honour of Connor McDavid, the Erie Otters phenom deemed to be the next Sidney Crosby and the first overall choice of the June draft. And Sabres fans, who have endured more losing than Leafs fans the past few years, want that first overall choice.
When the Sabres and Leafs clashed on Wednesday in the Tank Battle, you couldn’t really tell who was rooting for whom. The last-place Sabres won — if that’s the right word — 4-3 and are now a frail two points out of 29th overall.
“You might as well go for 30th,” says Sabres season-ticket holder John Harnish of Buffalo. “Allegedly this guy (McDavid) is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime player, so you’ve got to go for it.”
Adding to the absurdity on Wednesday was the notion that some Leafs fans — worried that a win would move them up the standings, giving the team a lesser chance at McDavid — were cheering for the Sabres. The two teams have been bitter rivals through the years, remember.
“Who am I rooting for? Buffalo,” said Ernie Sibbett of St. Catharines, wearing his Leafs jersey. “Because I want us to keep our draft spot … It’s all about McDavid.”
And as the game played out, the absurdity continued. The in-arena announcer thanked Sabres fans for their loyalty, raising eyebrows in the press box.
There were Sabres fans joining in the cheers when Nazem Kadri put Toronto up 3-1 midway through the second period. Not to be outdone, Leafs fans high-fived each other when Buffalo’s Cody Hodgson scored 30 seconds later.
The building seemed positively confused when Matt Moulson scored on the power play early in the third to tie the game. Some Leaf fans were giddy when Matt Ellis put Buffalo up 4-3.
It was a big night for the Leafs’ top line, with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak each picking up two assists. James van Riemsdyk had a goal and Eric Brewer got his second as a Leaf.
It really is all about McDavid, or sometimes Jack Eichel, in Buffalo. “McEichel,” some have taken to calling it.
Even on sports radio in town, the updates mention the points cushion the Sabres had over — under? — Arizona for last place and the best chance to win the first pick in the April 18 lottery, giving fans something to care about.
There has been no shame in Buffalo, where the Sabres have had paraded McDavid around their building, hosting an Erie Otters game, and Buffalo GM Tim Murray makes no secret what he thinks of McDavid.
A recent headline in the Buffalo News said it all: “Dreams of McDavid occupy Sabres’ Murray.”
The Sabres have really been a bad team for some time. They’ve had a fair bit of luck against the Leafs over the years, but not so much against the rest of the league. They haven’t won a playoff round since 2007 and have been in playoffs only twice since.
So fans feel they deserve McDavid. But there is a real cynicism in Buffalo that the Sabres will actually get McDavid. They finished last overall last year but lost the draft lottery — and defenceman Aaron Ekblad — to Florida.
This is a fan base that has long believed the league is out to get it. Just mention Brett Hull’s foot-in-the-crease Stanley Cup winning goal in 1999 in a bar sometime here to understand where the locals are coming from.
While the Leafs began their downfall in January, the joke around Buffalo is the Sabres started their tank in June when Murray fought the league on changes to the draft lottery — and won. The league wanted the lottery to determine the top three positions, meaning the team that finishes last overall could pick as high as No. 4.
The Sabres, seeing McDavid or Eichel as a franchise saviour, got the league to postpone that change until 2016.
Now, the Leafs have had their share of issues with fans this season. Consider the frequent jersey tosses and the team’s ill-advised response of salute-gate. Sometimes fans at the Air Canada Centre will start cheering for the Raptors or Blue Jays during a Leafs loss.
But Leafs fans haven’t gone to the extreme Sabres fans have gone to in embracing the tank.
“They’re all in to finish 30th to guarantee one of the two guys,” said Buffalo News columnist Mike Harrington. “They are all in. They’ve been all in for a while.”
The absurdity in Buffalo probably hit its nadir when the Arizona Coyotes visited on March 26. The Coyotes sat in 29th, four points up on Buffalo, and Sabres fans actively cheered for Arizona to keep it that way.
“It bordered on civic embarrassment,” said Harrington. “You’re talking a tremendous majority of fans rooting for Arizona goals.”
At Wednesday’s Leafs game, the mother-son fan duo of Matina and Xristos Assimakopolous stayed true their blue-and-white colours. They were cheering for the Leafs, not worrying about McDavid.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. That’s they way I look at it,” said Matina.
“The tanking, OK, but when you’re going to see them, you want them to win,” said Xristos.