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Sabres Central

Can the Sabres survive the storm?
By Rick Anderson
May 12, 2002

The Buffalo Sabres have endured all sorts of dilemmas in their history. They had that no goal controversy, crucial injuries at key times and bitter battles between a GM and a head coach. All those pale by comparison with the problems the team is going through currently.

In a week that Sabres fans would soon want to forget, the fans are fearing the worst. Could it be that the Sabres are on their last legs in the National Hockey League? John Rigas, the owner of the Sabres, had to resign under a cloud of controversy this week as his Adelphia Cable company is trying to prevent drowning in bankruptcy. The Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting an investigation of Adelphia's accounting practices. And the cable giant is following in the notorious tracks of Enron.

"After much thought and prayer about what will best serve the needs of the company and our stakeholders, I have concluded that Adelphia needs fresh, independent leadership, and that after half a century at the helm the time is right for me to step down," said a dejected Rigas on Tuesday.

It was around a month ago when it was revealed that Adelphia Cable, sixth-largest cable company in the country, failed to disclose it had guaranteed at least $2.3 billion in loans to Rigas' family. The stockholders had been kept in the dark and that sparked a downward spiral of the Adelphia stock. The Adelphia stock has been taken off the Wall Street trading until further notice. It had dropped below the $6 mark and it has caused many Adelphia stockholders pain and misery.

During all this Adelphia nightmare, the future of the Sabres is on hold. There has been nary a word spoken by Sabres officials about what lies next for the franchise. With Rigas stepping down from his CEO position, followed the next day by his son Tim Rigas' resignation, it is only a matter of time before the Rigas family has to either sell off most of the Adelphia cable empire or go bankrupt. Just where would that leave the Sabres?

As of now, it is "business as usual" for the Sabres. While "mum" is the word, the Sabres players themselves are starting to have anxious moments considering their future with the team.

"My level of curiosity is quite high with what's going to happen," related Sabres defenseman Jay McKee. "I don't know what could happen. Nobody really knows what's going on."

"It's hard for me to comment on, but you always want the best for yourself and your club, and if they're able to bring in players or want to bring in players, you don't want that part to be affected," said McKee.

Veteran defenseman Jason Woolley doesn't see any light at the end of the tunnel.

"I don't see us going out and signing any big free agents," said Woolley. "I don't know what mode our team is in right now. We didn't make many changes last year. It'll be interesting to see what happens this summer. Hopefully, we'll find out more as the summer goes on."

Woolley has been in contract disputes before with the Sabres management and knows just how tight the purse strings were even before all this happened. Now he is just trying to be patient and see how these events pan out.

"I'm not getting caught up in this at all. Maybe I should, but I'm not. If we get closer to the season and we continue to be in turmoil I'll get more concerned. Right now, I just hope things get sorted out and the right moves get made."

The revelation of off-the-books debts and now with the disclosure of a federal investigation of the company, the Rigas era of owning the Sabres appears all but over.

Now the big question is whether there is a local businessman or a consortium that will step to the forefront and buy the team off of Rigas. The only possible Western New York businessmen who could afford such a venture are Bob Rich, Jr., Mark Hamister, or some kind of consortium involving businessmen and with those two as the major players. Both indicate at the present time that they are not too interested in taking over the debt-ridden Sabres. Another possible player could be Jeremy Jacobs, who is president of Delaware North. He also just so happens to own the Boston Bruins. That would play a conflict of interests and Jacobs would have to sell his interests in the Bruins in order to become a partner in a Sabres ownership consortium.

One of the only bright spots this week was the promoting of Erland E. Kailbourne to replace Rigas as chairman of the board and interim chief executive officer. Kailbourne headed the "Save the Bills" campaign a few years ago to help sell the luxury suites for what was then called Rich Stadium. It appears as if Kailbourne will have to organize another campaign, this time to save the Sabres.

Maybe the fact that Kailbourne did play such a big hand in the Save the Bills campaign played a part in him being selected as the Rigas replacement as king of Adelphia. Also, Kailbourne helped build Fleet bank into a powerhouse amongst banks. Now it looks like he has his work cut out for him, not only with Adelphia, but with the Sabres organization.

It is feared that if the Rigas camp can't afford to keep the Sabres, that the team will be sold to the highest bidder. One thing going for Buffalo fans is the fact that the Sabres are about 7 years into their lease with HSBC Arena. That lease has a built-in clause that prevents the Sabres from leaving Buffalo under any conditions save one. If the team declares bankruptcy, then that attachment is cut free. If bankruptcy is in the future for the Sabres, it is possible that the NHL will have to step in and take over the team. If that scenario transpires, then it is anything goes as far as the club's future in Buffalo goes.

Before the latest round of setbacks for Adelphia, it was said by inside sources that the Rigas family would do nothing concerning selling the Sabres until after the 2004 Collective Bargaining agreement is settled. Indications are that it would be difficult to sell any NHL team until the ink dries on the contract between the league owners and the players union. It is predicted that the talks could turn into a battle between the two groups and there could be either a strike or lockout that could last at least a year.

The survival of many small market teams will hinge on just what is settled during the CBA talks. Some sort of revenue sharing/salary cap device has to be incorporated into the league in order for teams like Buffalo, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Nashville, Carolina, Ottawa, Edmonton, Florida, San Jose and even Montreal to stay competitive with the big market teams. Failure to level the playing field so that teams like the Sabres can compete will result in a much smaller league. Reverting back to a modern day Original 6 is not too far fetched.

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