BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — When Liam McHugh shifted to full-time NHL coverage in 2011, the University at Buffalo graduate was excited to reconnect with his college town. “This is great,” McHugh thought to himself after attending a Sabres game in Philadelphia. “I’ll be getting back to Buffalo all the time for playoff hockey.”
McHugh didn’t foresee a playoff drought. He attended Sunday Night Football games in Orchard Park while working for NBC, but a dozen years later, he still anticipates that spring visit to Western New York. Now the studio host for the NHL on TNT, McHugh asserts the Sabres will soon end their record Stanley Cup playoff sabbatical, and begin a long postseason stay.
“I’m just so happy for the Buffalo Sabres fans, because the wait has been so long,” McHugh said this week by phone, ahead of the Sabres’ final regular season appearance on TNT when they face the Hurricanes on Wednesday night. “Hopefully they make a run this year. But if they don’t, to me they are absolutely a playoff team next year. And that should continue for the next decade.”
McHugh compared the Sabres’ ascendance with the Bills, who followed their record 17-year postseason drought by making the playoffs in five of the past six seasons and becoming perennial Super Bowl contenders.
“The buzz surrounding the Buffalo Bills the past few years is something that has been desperately needed, considering how long the drought was with that team,” McHugh said. “There is potential for a similar rise with the Buffalo Sabres. This is a young team that’s exciting. When they make the playoffs eventually, and I know it’s been a long time, but it’s a team that is built to consistently make the playoffs and get better. Which I think is fantastic.”
The Sabres have 56 standings points through the first 49 games, their best record to this point since the dawn of the drought. On a six-game point streak, with five wins, the Sabres can move into playoff position with a win against the Hurricanes in the final game before the All-Star break. They are currently the eighth team in the Eastern Conference based on points percentage, and second in the NHL in scoring.
“One of the things we’ve talked about on our TNT panel,” with former NHL players Anson Carter and Paul Bissonnette, “is the cool thing about this Sabres team, and it’s similar to the Bills,” McHugh said. “They play a style that is attractive to the fans right away. That’s what every fan wants out of their team. And if you are a casual fan, with no stake in the game, and the Sabres are on, you want to watch them play.”
Meaningful hockey games in Buffalo, late in the regular season and into the playoffs, would be a boon for the NHL and its television partners, said McHugh, who also has covered the Olympics, Premier League and Major League Soccer, Tour de France, Notre Dame football, and NFL playoffs in his career.
“It’s massive for us,” McHugh said. “We do great numbers in Buffalo, because they are huge hockey fans. Even when Buffalo is competing for the No. 1 pick, it’s a great market for us. When that place is rocking and those fans are into it, I love how you flip the television on and it feels like a big event.”
McHugh played two seasons for UB’s men’s soccer team before graduating in 1999, during a time when the Bulls were new to the Mid-American Conference and mostly uncompetitive in every sport. He was a proud alumnus during UB’s rise to Top 25 status in basketball and football a few years back.
“You blink an eye and all of the sudden you are 25 years out of college, you aren’t connected with the people you were with when you were young,” McHugh said. “Sports help bring that back. I got texts from a lot of my old friends when UB basketball was making the tournament, or UB football making bowl games. And I’m thrilled that the Sabres are able to do that now.”
McHugh recognizes how a championship run could galvanize Buffalo sports fans near and far.
“They deserve it,” he said. “I don’t say this now just because there have been droughts and down times. But because the fans there are phenomenal. They are as great, or better, than any fanbase I’ve seen throughout the country. They are devout. It’s an all-year-round obsession.
“When that place is winning, when Buffalo is buzzing, it’s unlike any other town.”
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.