To the Sabers and their fans, the return of the goathead was about more than just a jersey

It was 90 minutes before faceoff Wednesday night and Sabers coach Don Granato had gone through the perfunctory pregame lineup news when the conversation turned to the night’s major point: Fashion.

The game against the St. Louis Blues has been circled on the calendars of fans – and in the Sabres’ locker room – since the summer. It was the Return of the Goatheads.

Black and Red is back for 12 games this season. No offense, Blue and Gold. Just a nod to history. And people were stoked about it.

The Men in Black gave them lots to be excited about too as the Sabers won their second straight over two nights and snapped the St. Louis’ Blues’ eight-game winning streak with a 6-2 victory. Jeff Skinner scored 18 seconds into the first period and joined Jack Quinn in registering two-goal games as goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen got his first NHL win of the season.

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“It’s probably a jersey to some, maybe to everyone outside of Buffalo,” Granato said. “But I think that to people in Buffalo, it’s much more than a jersey. It’s an era. It’s a pretty, pretty cool era.”

Sure it was. It’s funny to look back now and think about how reviled the black and red look was when it debuted with the opening of the then-Marine Midland Arena in 1996. Frankly, these unis were considered downright sacrilegious, an affront to all the Knox brothers stood for in bringing this franchise to life and running it in the dignified manner they did for more than two decades.

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And just like that, nearly three weeks of misery have been replaced with straight full-mark victories to get the Sabers’ record to 9-11 through 20 games.

It was easy to ponder that great arena in the sky Wednesday night and wonder what late, great Hall of Fame hockey columnist Jim Kelley would think of the night. It was Kelley, remember, who is most credited for saying in this newspaper that the jersey’s crest looked like a goat’s head and the name stuck.

Suffice it to say, Sabers management of the late 1990s was not enthused with the moniker.

But a funny thing happened as the Fashion Police spent those nights a quarter-century ago arguing the merits of the sweaters: The Sabers became winners.

What are your memories of the goatheads? Surely, you start with Dominik Hasek (I renew my point that his retired number banner should be in black and red). The ’99 run to the Stanley Cup final. Derek Plante’s 1997 overtime goal against Ottawa in what remains the only Game 7 win in franchise history. The Steve Shields-Garth Snow goalie brawl. Michael Peca in double OT against the Canadiens. Rob Ray – Rob Ray! – with a sick mitts deflection in the ’99 East final against the Maple Leafs.

And more. Jason Wooley’s Shot Heard Round the Hockey World. Miroslav Satan. Stuuuuuu Barnes. Campbell and Umberger, Danny Briere and Chris Drury, JP Dumont, Jason Pominville and the lifelong memory of the Scary Good spring of 2006. Wednesday’s intro video on the Jumbotron even featured an appearance from a 40-something Ryan Miller wearing a black and red jacket and the crowd roared.

On the drive to Ottawa last week, I found myself on the phone chatting with former Sabers agitator Matthew Barnaby. He’s written a book about his hockey career and we started reminiscing about “The Hardest Working Team in Hockey.”

Sabers Blues pregame

The Buffalo Sabers hit the ice in retro jerseys before the game against the St. Louis Blues at KeyBank Center, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022.

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Sabers were terrible in 1995-96, the last year of Memorial Auditorium. But Barnaby, Ray, Brad May, Bob Boughner and others took no prisoners and fans loved them.

The next year, in the debut of the new arena, the team got better. Fans showed up in hard hats. A marketing slogan was born. Ted Nolan owned the town. Red and Black was suddenly a hit.

“It was such a great marketing tool, especially when you see the fans in hard hats and everything,” said Barnaby. “It truly was. Now we’re at 2022. More than 25 years later and I can unequivocally stand by the statements made by that slogan. That was the hardest working team I ever played for.

“I played for the New York Rangers, and we had (Eric) Lindros and (Mark) Messier, (Petr) Neved, (Brian) Leetch and all those guys and didn’t make the playoffs. And I look at a team of Vaclav Varada, Curtis Brown, Brian Holzinger and Matthew Barnaby that didn’t win a Stanley Cup, but achieved some really, really good things. Because we really worked hard, we really bought in for each other. I can say without any doubt in any year that I ever played, it was the one team that everyone accepted the role.”

On Washington Street two hours before the game, you saw some of the oldies but goodies: Miller, Varada, Gaustad, Satan, Holzinger. You also saw a Thompson and a Dahlin.

As you might expect, the stands were peppered with jerseys as folks clearly brought them out of retirement for the occasion. Spied in front of the press box during the national anthem were Afinogenov and Zhitnik, Biron and Hasek, LaFontaine and even Tuch. Bills legend Thurman Thomas tweeted a shot from home that showed he had donned his goathead.

The atmosphere in the sold-out building was festive. Sabretooth rappelled from the rafters prior to the opening video. On the MSG broadcaster, goaltender Martin Biron wore his black No. 43. During the first period, Ray intoned from his spot between the benches that “You see certain numbers out there and different names pop into your head.” Personal goal songs were suspended for the night. It was back to the 90s siren and the “Woo-Hoo” after goals. Organist Curtis Cook had a jersey on and broke into the “Friends” theme at one point in the second period.

It was fun. It all seemed to work.

Before the game, Granato was musing how his team had the same feeling it did during the two April celebrations of retiring broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. It was more than just a game on those nights and this felt the same way.

“Our players being young got to feel what it’s like to be part of Saber history and got a familiarity with that,” Granato said. “To everybody outside of Buffalo, it’s a jersey. Not here.”

As the Sabers announce their new reverse retro jerseys, check out the sweaters that have been worn by the team over the years.


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