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Buffalo's resurgence reminds Toronto of its one true rivalry

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018 – Page B15

TORONTO -- Asked to do a quickie scout of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kyle Okposo goes through a few blandishments and then says, "Power play, pretty bad."

The Buffalo Sabres forward has an unusually studious mien - wistful expression, scholarly glasses. He's so deadpan that no one twigs to it for a minute. Then Okposo smirks.

"Now that [William] Nylander's signed, you guys have nothing to talk about," he says. "I'm trying to give you a sound bite." Well, that's really appreciated, Kyle. A lot of us have been working for years to make this "rivalry" happen. It's thankless work and geography can only be so helpful. If we're being straight here, it's the players who haven't pulled their weight.

But all of sudden Buffalo, the most cursed sports city north of Hell, has found a little run of form. Finally.

The NHL's most necessary rivalries will always work in this order: Original Six teams vs. each other; Canadian teams vs. other Canadian teams; American Original Six vs. Canadian teams.

Nashville fans can throw a trawler's worth of catfish on the ice, but you can't get past that historico-cultural logic.

The NHL head office has tried, failed and will continue to do both into infinity.

For example, Seattle. Welcome to the league, welcome. Leave the cheque on the desk, take a seat in the back and shut up. Also, once again, welcome.

Some teams are just never going to matter like some other teams. Buffalo's the former sort.

But it exists in perfect harmony only when it is matched up evenly with Toronto, and vice versa.

Forget Montreal, Ottawa, Boston or Detroit. Every kid who grew up in Toronto on a diet of American cable TV, Irv Weinstein and house fires in Cheektowaga knows Buffalo is his/her natural enemy.

These two cities are also each other through a glass darkly. For instance, Buffalo is the only American burg in which you might wander by a couple arguing loudly in the street, one yelling at the other, "How could you treat me so disrespectfully in Tim Hortons?!" - which, hand to God, happened on Tuesday.

Later that afternoon, the City of Toronto released a PSA titled "Toronto Maple Leafs urging homeowners to test their smoke and carbon monoxide alarms." I'm pretty sure that wasn't intended as an arch, cross-border insult meant to be understood only by people of a certain age, but I will continue to live in hope.

Given this tension, it is simultaneously joyous and profoundly disappointing to see Buffalo's hockey team figuring it out.

This isn't just the Ottawa Senators hitting organizational rock bottom and beginning to tunnel.

Buffalo has achieved something more than "not the absolute worst." They're a contender.

Bring your children over and tell them to get a look at the Sabres winning 10 in a row and briefly leading the NHL on points. See, kids? Anything really is possible if you put your mind to it (and have a top-eight draft pick six years in a row).

This isn't just blind luck (there's some of that) or life's big wheel turning around (some of that, too). Buffalo did on-the-fly renos over the summer, clearing out some roster mainstays and, apparently, their bad juju.

Jack Eichel is in the midst of becoming something more than one of the few decisions the Edmonton Oilers got right these past few years. No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin - who looks like a 12-year-old after being bombarded with gamma rays - is putting Erik Karlsson's "Favourite Hockey Swede" award in doubt. The rest of it looks suspiciously ... competent.

When you ask the Sabres about it, you get the same "believe in ourselves" nonsense that pros fall back on when things go right or wrong and they're not sure why. If sports was a matter of believing in yourself, Donald Trump would be the quarterback of the New York Giants.

But there is something to be said for chemistry. The Sabres always had a few players. Now they've finally got the mix right.

They look like Toronto from two years ago. Like that iteration of the Leafs, all they have to do is make the postseason to call this "mission accomplished."

If these two teams are each other on an alternate timeline, there is still a noticeable difference in swagger.

"I'm a bit of a hockey nerd. I've seen them play a lot," Okposo says of the Leafs.

"To be honest, I haven't watched any of their games," Toronto's Mitch Marner says of the Sabres.

Marner's from Toronto's outer rings, less than two hours drive from the KeyBank Center. Did he ever come down here as a kid?

"No," Marner says, like it's a dumb question.

Get in a car and traverse a frontier to watch terrible hockey?

Why bother when he could've taken the TTC to get the same thing?

There is a wonderful/awful tradition of Leafs fans flooding this building because buying a ticket here, driving to New York state, getting a hotel room and taking a bubble bath in Moët is cheaper than sitting in the rafters in Toronto.

The economics no longer work quite so well, but the rooting imbalance remains.

Asked about the evening to come, Buffalo defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen says, "Hopefully, it will be loud, electric and more Sabres fans than Maple Leafs fans."

Ristolainen was smart to play it conservative. I'd call it close to 50/50, with more Toronto fans in the expensive seats.

They were certainly there earlier, were louder and excited the Buffalo fans on hand into paroxysms of vocal hatred for the Leafs. The anthems were buoyantly taken up by fans from both countries. So, a success all around.

North American sport has no tradition of the split-allegiance stadium, a regular occurrence everywhere else in the world. There are no visitors' sections, which is bad. You also don't get people throwing bags of nails at each other, which is good.

Sabres-Leafs in Buffalo offers a small taste of that South American-style experience. Even when both teams were terrible, it worked in a car-crash sort of way.

But when they're playing for something more than pride and a paycheque, it becomes one of sport's most fun-filled nights of harmless loathing.

Huh? How did I get here?
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