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The Straight Edge: Hockey more than a pastime for fans in some struggling cities

A young fan of the Buffalo Sabres watches as they play the Washington Capitals on Oct. 13, 2007 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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A young fan of the Buffalo Sabres watches as they play the Washington Capitals on Oct. 13, 2007 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Some people will tell you sports don’t mean a lick in the grand scheme of things.

Intellectual Noam Chomsky is famous for derailing pro games as a means of controlling the minds of the masses, throwing them off the “real issues” of the day.

The funny thing is, sometimes it’s the masses who truly need what sports provides; pride and community.

I mean, if you’re an affluent Chicago Cubs fan, or a Bay St. lawyer at a Maple Leafs game, you can live and die with your team on a superficial level and then go home to a nice, safe environment.

But for the same reason it was so important for the New Orleans Saints to play after Hurricane Katrina, hockey teams in many American towns right now are playing a key role in giving a lot of folks just a little daylight during some dark days.

Forbes magazine recently released its list of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities” and of the 10 listed, seven currently have hockey teams, while one – Youngstown, Ohio – had a team until recently (Youngstown is a team without a league right now).

For the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Flint Generals, Dayton Bombers, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Springfield Falcons, fighting the odds on the ice pale in comparison to what some of their fans have been going through economically.

Most of these cities are in the Rust Belt, so it’s really no shock that as heavy industries struggle in America, people are leaving the towns once built on coal or big auto.

But here’s the glimmer of hope: In many of these towns, hockey isn’t dying. Far from it, in fact.

The Sabres finished last season with the second-best attendance rate in the NHL, trailing only Montreal. Buffalo averaged 19,950 fans a game at HSBC Arena, which is 109.4 percent of the building’s capacity. The Stanley Cup champion Red Wings were seventh in the league, though their percentage of capacity (94.2 percent) dropped them into the middle. Nevertheless, for an auto town with a history of urban blight, there’s nothing wrong with hockey in the Motor City.

Track down to the minors and you’ll find much of the same: The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins ranked third in American League attendance last season, while the Dayton Bombers raised their crowds for the third straight year.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops, of course; the Springfield Falcons ranked dead last in AHL patronage in 2007-08, but on the whole it’s interesting how many of these teams are succeeding.

Buffalo is the best test case in all of hockey. A perennial small market to begin with, the Sabres are as much a part of Western New York as Mighty Taco or Top’s Friendly Market. Head out to a Sabres game on a Friday night and you’ll realize that it is the Friday night.

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Rolling into the city, of course, can be a little ominous. There’s precious little around the arena except parking lots. An old General Mills cereal factory (among others) lords over the landscape like a ghost and many other buildings wear wooden boards as bandages over their windows.

But once you park the car, you join a stream of energy that can barely be contained. The boys are boisterous and ready for a victory, while the girls have their hair done and their best jeans on – with a Sabres jersey on top, of course. HSBC Arena is a shining beacon in an otherwise grey land and once inside, the tribal drumming of mascot Sabretooth whips everyone into a frenzy.

No matter that the population has lost 41,926 people since 2000, or that unemployment is more than a full percent above the national average. The citizens of Buffalo have something to rally around.

“Look at the playoffs two years ago,” said Michael Gilbert, Buffalo’s director of public relations. “We had 15,000 people outside the arena who didn’t have tickets, watching on the big TV.”

The Sabres capped their season tickets at 14,800, because they know going to a game means more than wasting a couple hours and drinking a few beers.

“We want to keep the community engaged by keeping 3-4,000 tickets available for single games,” Gilbert added.

And obviously the strategy works there.

Buffalo has always been a working-class town. So has Detroit, so has Flint. While some might sniff at the fact these folks choose hockey as their pressure valve, it’s hard for me to see the logic.

By and large the game is played by earnest, humble kids who know how to put in an honest effort and do the most they can. If that’s not an appropriate outlet for the everyday worker, I don’t know what is.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every second Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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