Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew it was coming. The Arizona Coyotes defenseman knew he was entering an arena in Buffalo in which fans of the home team might actually be rooting for him and his team to beat their beloved Sabres.
“It’s weird,” he said, smiling and shaking his head slowly when we chatted earlier this week. “Obviously, you guys talk about it a lot, we just try to stay focused on what we have to do. Everybody in this locker room tries to win every game. It’s weird because, it’s like, you don’t want to lose games but [there’s] still good players you can get. So it’s a weird situation.”
It was even weirder seeing it play out in reality. It was strange to hear the cheers in Buffalo when Coyotes forward Sam Gagner scored the winner Thursday, to see fans in Sabres jerseys leap up and celebrate the goal that beat their team.
When I pointed it out on Twitter, one Sabres fan at the game said it was just a natural reaction.
“Not like the fans were chanting ‘Let’s go Yotes,’” responded Justin Spencer (@Spencia1) in a tweet.
Ultimately, what these fans were cheering for is the long-term success of the team they love. That’s perfectly understandable.
For the league, though, the optics aren’t good. And you can’t help but feel for the players who turned in a good effort against the Coyotes. There may be tanking going on, but both the Sabres and Coyotes played with the pride you’d expect from professional athletes.
To see that effort cheered against at home would be frustrating.
“It’s tough to get momentum when your fans are rooting against you,” Sabres defenseman Mike Weber told the Buffalo News. “I respect our fans. I love our fans. I show up to work every day to do whatever I can for them and to play hard for them and my teammates. I’ve never seen that before.”
Some Friday notes
• Inevitably, when there’s a scene like what happened Thursday evening in Buffalo, it becomes a league-wide debate that could lead to possible rule changes -- in this case, changing the lottery system.