Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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Things are starting to come together in Sabreland

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I figured that title might grab some attention. Everywhere I’ve gone over the last week, the Sabres are the hot topic of conversation. People, with mixed emotions, want to talk about the hostility of the season ending press conference. Here’s my take.

The Sabres tried. It didn’t work. Now, they’re rebuilding. It happens all the time in professional sports. We can question the management all we want. We can press them for answers and demand to talk to the owner. None of that will change anything. In 2007, the Sabres pushed their young players into becoming the core of the team. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, and Ryan Miller joined with veterans Jochen Hecht, Jaroslav Spacek, and later Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr. Regier put this group together in the hopes that they would grow into a Stanley Cup contender. The group was lacking, and it did not work. Now comes the painful process of tearing it all apart and starting over.

What can we really expect them to say? They were truthful about their intentions, and I think most fans understand. With both of Buffalo’s teams, fans have been clamoring for top draft picks for years. They understand how you get there. No one is looking forward to it, but everyone knows what has to happen.

So now, the main issue. Many fans believe that Darcy Regier should not get the chance to lead this rebuild. Noted. But the Sabres have determined that he’s their best option. Aside from Jim Nill, there’s probably not an executive in the NHL who would be a definite slam dunk. (And of course Nill took the GM job in Dallas after a long stint as assistant GM in Detroit.) Regier may succeed in rebuilding this team. He may fail. But from here on out, he should be judged based on the quality of this task. We have to get over it. He’s here. Let’s see how he does.

Regier has a new job. Over the last two years, he has led an extensive expansion of the organization’s hockey department and an extensive advancement of the organization’s use of technology. During the lockout, I had a chance to sit down with a Sabres staff member and discuss that. He spoke specifically about a new statistical evaluation system. The Sabres can access any player in the league and grade him based on positive and negative outcomes, every time he’s near the puck. It’s been his job to lead the organization in implementing these types of new thinking. Apparently Pegula, and top advisor Ken Sawyer, like what they’ve seen. Apparently they believe he’s up to another new task.

The most unfortunate part of this process is that Terry Pegula’s character and intentions seem to have been called into question. Why? Is there anyone who has committed more to the city of Buffalo, without an immediate return, than he has? What’s the price tag on Harborcenter now? $170 million, $200 million? This is a major investment, and Pegula is taking a risk for the betterment of this community.

Oh, but he has $3 billion and won’t even notice if he loses money on this venture. So what. It’s a willingness to invest in our area. We’ve been needing people like him for the past 50 years. Very few have stepped up. Pegula is giving Western New York what may be the key piece to the development of the Buffalo waterfront, with no strings attached. And all we can do is resent him because his hockey team is performing poorly at the moment? Think about it. A self-made billionaire, who wants to use part of his wealth for the betterment of our community. Sounds like someone who should get the benefit of the doubt from us. Yes, he guaranteed Stanley Cups. Hopefully they will come with time. But in the meantime, his intentions seem nothing but pure.

To the other hot issue. How can the Sabres raise ticket prices by 4 percent when they’ve missed the playoffs the last two years? I’m as disappointed as anyone about that one. I’m a season ticket holder. For the last seven years, on a night off of work, I often watch Sabres games from the top of section 314. It’s been painful at times. Maybe I’m unpopular, but I had a lot of trouble finding a fourth person to go to the Rangers game with us on April 19. That was a Friday night! I have trouble swallowing the fact the I have to pay an additional 4 percent for tickets, that at the end of next season, I may not be able to give away once again. But I understand.

I’ve been going to Sabres games since 1990. I remember my first game, when Guy Lafleur and the Quebec Nordiques came into the Aud and won. I was fortunate enough to attend Gilbert Perreault’s jersey retirement ceremony a few days later. More than 20 years later, I understand the Sabres’ importance in the community. I understand the challenges of a smaller market remaining viable in the NHL. As Ted Black pointed out, I remember how the Rigas era ended. Has everyone forgotten that we had a franchise that was losing significant money, with a weak season ticket base? Has everyone forgot how close we were to losing the team until Tom Golisano stepped up and took a major risk that fortunately for him paid off very well? If we, as season ticket holders, need to pony up more so that a staple of our community can remain strong, independent of the owner’s wealth, then that is something we will have to do. I just hope it doesn’t happen every year.

In the meantime, the Sabres are right in the middle of Buffalo’s resurgence. Their importance in the waterfront development can’t be overstated. A few weeks ago, construction workers broke ground on the Webster block, which will join a revamped Donovan Building, a growing Canalside, and a former Aud site that’s developing into an absolute dream. It’s just going to take a few years, just like the Sabres rebuild. Just imagine what everything could be like in downtown Buffalo then.

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