Almost every town in the world has something that they pride themselves on, something that they can hang their hat on that no one else can. For my hometown, Roanoke, Virginia, it’s being called the Star City of the South, due to the giant star that has sat on Mill Mountain since November 23rd, 1949. Other places are known for their foods, their weather, or their culture. Each of these things offers a specific significance that allows the community to rally itself in times of trouble or concern. For the residents of Buffalo, New York, it’s the Buffalo Sabres, their hockey team. As noted in director Mary Wall’s documentary The Fan Connection, the Sabres are the only team in the NHL where the chant doesn’t reference the team name, but the city. This is the larger concept that Wall explores in her documentary, the notion of community, of support, of shared success and tragedy that makes Buffalo such a special place.
For the unaware, the Sabres have played 51 seasons of hockey, with seasons lasting around six months, including around 82 games total. Wall’s film describes it as a “marathon” and that certainly seems to be apt. But the documentary isn’t about exploring the history of the Sabres, but the team’s connection to Buffalo, its resonance. To do this, Wall speaks and her team interview and engage with individuals ranging from former and current Sabres players, city of Buffalo officials, academics, and, of course, the fans. While the documentary does spend a great deal of time jumping between various fans to share their feelings on the team and Buffalo, the documentary primarily follows three central groups: Mark; Mickey, Michel, and Frances; and Renée and Hannah. Each of them possesses a unique connection to the team, but also to Buffalo itself. While not a perfect cross-section of the fandom, the three groups do represent the message that Wall appears to want to get across which is the unrelenting hope, the persistence despite defeat, and the resolute defiance to move against unfavorable odds which seem to define the people of Buffalo.
The production note describes The Fan Connection as shot with a fly-on-the-wall approach and this is a great way to describe it. The whole film is incredibly lo-fi, relying on a mixture of archived footage and what appear to be hand-held interviews in official and unofficial locations. This shooting style offers a sense that Wall and her team are imbedded with the community, a part of them, versus outsiders coming in to explore. According to the official documentary website, Wall is, herself, from the Buffalo area, which makes the approach all the more understandable. Wall isn’t the one being investigated so there’s no sense as to whether she is a Sabres fan who chants “Let’s Go, Buffalo!,” but one can gather that she’s been known to wear the blue and gold that make up the team’s colors based solely on the approach of the film. There’s an intimacy on display that only comes from knowing your subject well and from having the truth of the people on camera. That so much of the frames appear shot with camcorders versus high definition equipment only lends to the sensation of familiarity, as though Wall and her team were brought into places without barriers so as to get access to home videos, photos, and other significant memorabilia. The downside to this, of course, is that if you’re not familiar with Buffalo or, to a degree, hockey, it’s harder to connect with the greater story at work as it relates to the Sabres and their quest for success.
In one scene, as Mark is explaining his feelings on the team amid his journey to learn to drive, it comes up that the goalie for the Sabres got a concussion during a match. Mark and others speak about the incident with such emotion, a tad dejected for what it means for the chances for the team. Considering that Mark, like the other two groups, have their lives juxtaposed against the journey of the Sabres, it seems odd, then, that the audience is never given a timeline of when these events occur. We’re not told what season is going on at any point, so, as far as we know, the injury being discussed happened at some other point than where Mark is on his quest for automotive freedom. It’s not until the end of the documentary during the usual “here’s where they are now” portion that we know the documentary took place before or around 2019. I’m willing to grant that the film’s heart is not about a specific period, but about how the town and its people come together despite its financial adversities, represented perfectly by the Sabres own tribulations, yet, by not knowing when, specifically, these three groups overlap regarding the season, it’s difficult to see the precise relation. Because of this, the bulk of the resonance comes from the human component, of which there is plenty to celebrate.
While I, myself, fly no flag of any affiliation, I can certainly understand how individuals can build an identity around it. In one interview, Dr. Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo’s psychology department remarks on the psychological need humans have for such behavior, as a means of creating connection to something bigger than themself. It explains why my mother (a University of Cincinnati and Virginia Tech alum) speaks to every Bearcat and Hokie with zero shame. It’s why you can predict my eldest brother’s mood (a Virginia Tech alum) based on how the Hokies did in whichever game was played. Such is the case with the figures at the forefront of The Fan Connection. For Mark, Mickey, Michel, Frances, Renée, and Hannah, the Sabres are a part of who they are, what makes them them. All the good made greater when the Sabres succeed, all the bad softened by the people around them. Despite the things within the documentary that keep the audience at a distance, there’s plenty that welcome us in, sharing their stories as if we were one of them. Though I still am no fan of professional sports, I may just start chanting “Let’s Go, Buffalo!” should the Sabres cross my path. If that doesn’t sound like a reaction to a successful story, not sure what else would be.
For information on where to find a screening in your area, head to the official The Fan Connection website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.