BUFFALO, N.Y. - Hockey's back, and so are droves of die-hard Sabres fans, who are showing few signs of holding any post-NHL lockout grudge in Buffalo.
It's evident in the demand for tickets. The Sabres announced Monday that it took them one day to sell more than 31,000 of the remaining 80,000 tickets they had available for their 24 home games.
It was apparent at the team's store, where fans stood in line for up to a half hour to take advantage of the Sabres selling all of their merchandise—from $320 jerseys to toddler pyjamas—at half price.
"Surprised? Not really. It's been the buzz in Buffalo," said Jason Brosius, who was in line preparing to buy a Nathan Gerbe jersey with a list price of $164.99. "I missed hockey. Everybody missed it."
And then there was the traffic-jam forming Monday evening in front of the Sabres arena, the First Niagara Center. That's where fans were preparing to attend Sabres practice, which the team opened to the public. By the time the puck dropped, nearly all of the lower bowl of the arena was filled with fans.
The show of support allayed whatever fears team president Ted Black had regarding what lingering effect the four-month lockout might have in turning away Sabres fans.
"Sunday's ticket sales took us by surprise and, frankly, blew us away," Black said. "As of Saturday afternoon, we didn't even know what our final schedule would be. And for the fans to respond on Sunday is really humbling."
The ticket-sale total was the second-highest for a single day in team history. It trailed only the number of tickets sold for the 2008 Winter Classic, when Buffalo hosted Pittsburgh at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1.
And the tickets the team put on sale Sunday were made available only to current season-ticket and mini-pack ticket holders. Individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public on Tuesday, leading to the expectation that the Sabres will sellout much if not all of their schedule before their home-opener on Sunday against Philadelphia.
The Sabres cap their season tickets at 15,400, leaving about 3,200 tickets available for each game. The team has a 3,000-person waiting list, and estimates it lost about 80 season-ticket holders since last summer.
"I think it's one of the many affirmations that you continue to get that Buffalo is one of the premier hockey markets in North America, if not the world," Black said. "Hockey runs so deep here at all levels, men, women, grandparents, people who have grown up with the game. It's just part of everyone's DNA."
Many fans in Buffalo grumbled through the labour dispute, blaming both the NHL and players in comments made on local sports talk shows and in letters to the editor. And yet, their passion for the Sabres was evident last week, when hundreds turned out at a suburban arena to watch Buffalo players hold informal workouts.
Brosius credited the continued support on Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who purchased the team two years ago. Pegula has spent freely in an attempt to build a winner, and has also addressed fan concerns by making numerous improvements at the arena.
"It seems like he cares," Brosius said. "He cares about us. He cares about the city. He seems like one of us."
The NHL's return and a packed arena should also provide a boost to numerous downtown businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, which rely on the Sabres to draw people downtown.
Josh Ketry, operations manager at the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, is planning to hire additional staff, and added that current employees should expect to get an additional 10 hours of work per week.
"It's absolutely exciting to have them back," Ketry said, noting his establishment is busy during home games, and also draws fans to watch the Sabres play on the road. "I was happy for everyone, not just us, especially in the cold winter months when it's kind of the toughest to bring people down here."