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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

A whole new minority group. There's lots and lots and lots of us, more than anybody ever thought before. We used to think of ourselves as little clumps of weirdos. -- Janis Joplin.

I was reminded of the above quote by the late singer known as "Pearl" recently as I stood amid a sea of thousands of Buffalo Sabres faithful at One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza. We, some 18,000-plus, had just been sent joyously into the streets in front of the HSBC Arena after watching J.P. Dumont's fluttering wrist shot sail over the shoulder of Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery. The shot gave the Sabres a 3-2 overtime win and staked them to a commanding 3-0 series advantage over the once-mighty Senators.

The shot did a lot more than end a game, however. It also unleashed a torrent of pent-up emotions for thousands of long-suffering Western New Yorkers. The scene outside HSBC Arena after that game was akin to something you'd be more apt to experience at Mardi Gras. Strangers, united only by their love of a group of gutsy hockey players, hugged one another like loved ones saying good-bye at the airport. Choruses of "Ooh, aah, Sabres on the warpath" were heard between group shouts of "Sweep, sweep," in hopes that the Sabres would send the Senators to the golf course by winning Game 4 the next evening. (The fact that Buffalo needed Jason Pominville's shot in overtime of Game 5 to dispatch the Senators did little to diminish the excitement in Sabres Nation.) Drivers of the few cars lucky enough to have navigated through the logjam at the parking lots beeped their car horns to the meter of the "Let's go, Buffalo" chants that had been heard throughout the game.

The most sublime moment came when a group of young men, their heads and faces painted crimson red and midnight black, raced through the crowd carrying a tinfoil version of hockey's Holy Grail -- Lord Stanley's Cup. Most of the revelers treated their homemade creation as if it were the Blarney Stone or Pope Benedict XVI's ring and planted a sloppy wet one on the aluminum-covered spot where they hope the names of their favorite Sabres will be placed on the real Stanley Cup in June.

It was as I observed a gentleman who looked old enough to have watched the old Buffalo Bisons play on the frozen pond pucker up for a run at tinfoil Stanley that I realized that something special was happening. The scene unfolding on the streets of Buffalo had transcended the world of sports and spoke to a much larger issue, the one referenced by Ms. Joplin. Western New York was becoming united and maybe, in the eyes of the nation, we are no longer the little clump of weirdos we have long perceived ourselves to be.

Evidence of this shift is the fact that I am writing this column in the first place. Normally, we here at the Reporter leave the issues of the sporting world in the very capable hands of David Staba. It was the interest in the daily fortunes of the Sabres by the Irish lass I married that made me realize that something big was cooking on the Niagara Frontier. I'd been telling my better half of the wonderful exploits of our heroes on skates since last October. She responded to these reports with thinly veiled indifference. When the Sabres came strong down the stretch run of the regular season, I told my wife, "You'd better start watching, these guys are special."

"You said the same thing about the Bills when they beat Houston in Game 1 last year," came her painful, albeit historically accurate, reply.

Then the series with the Philadelphia Flyers began. I convinced her to watch the first game.

"I don't know why I'm watching this; they're just going to lose," she said while holding her hands over her eyes at the start of the second overtime with the two clubs tied 2-2 on the scoreboard.

Seven minutes, 31 seconds on the HSBC scoreboard later, her transformation was complete as Daniel Briere tipped home the game winner and the gates to the Sabres bandwagon were officially swung wide open.

With no disrespect meant to the legions of teenaged girls that turn up at Sabres games to swoon over the rugged good looks of winger Taylor Pyatt, I've always found women to be the barometer of when a sports team moves from the sports pages onto the front pages. Guys, suffering sports fans till the end, consider sitting through every minute of a 2-14 Bills season a badge of honor. Women, much more apt to sidestep a dead horse than to beat one, find more constructive things to do when lousy teams play and only dedicate their precious time when they feel that it all might be leading somewhere special. (Sort of the way that they treat dating.) So it was with great relief that I greeted the news that my bride was "all in" for the Sabres run to the Stanley Cup.

To show my happiness for her newfound love of Drury, Afinogenov, Numminen, et al., I secured tickets for Game 3 of the Ottawa series, and we found ourselves mixed in with what had become a critically growing mass of weirdos. At the pre-game party, Nick and the Nice Guys rocked out on stage while none other than the great prophet Rick Jenneret spoke words of comfort to legions of his followers. The women of the crowd sported all sorts of Sabres merchandise foreign to their male escorts. There were Sabre fingernails, Sabre face-art and Sabre earrings on display. One young woman in low-rider jeans wore a colorful whale-tail that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be an official Sabres logo thong. God bless the merchandising geniuses on Madison Avenue for coming up with that one.

As we circulated among the merriment, I was reminded of an exchange I'd heard on the radio the day before. Jerry Sullivan, the cantankerous curmudgeon of a sportswriter for the Buffalo News, was appearing with Mike Schopp on WGR-55 radio. Sullivan said that he fully expected this collection of Sabres to win the Stanley Cup, whether it was next year or the year after that.

"I expect them to win it next month," Schopp replied.

Why not? What's wrong with Schopp's unbridled enthusiasm? Don't tell me about Buffalo's curse; Boston had a curse, too, and you know what happened to that load of nonsense two years ago.

At the time of this writing, the Sabres are preparing for the start of their Eastern Conference Championship series against the Carolina Hurricanes. By the time this column hits the streets, the first two games will be in the books, and we'll have a much better idea if Jenneret was right when he serenaded Pominville's series-clinching goal with the line, "These guys are good, scary good."

Why can't these Sabres win it all and why can't they do it now? Tom Petty sang that "even the losers get lucky sometime." Maybe now is our time. The people in the streets of downtown Buffalo after Game 3 of the Ottawa series believed that destiny was dialing our number. That feeling of holding my wife and partying with a bunch of deliriously happy Buffalo weirdos is one that will stay with me a long time.

Its OK. Let yourself believe. This just might be the year that we all share the piquancy of victory when the final horn blows. I sure need something to replace the taste of tinfoil Stanley Cup that is on my lips right now.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter and author of "Buffalo Soul Lifters." You can write him at NFReporter@adelphia.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 23 2006