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Sabres Central

Tis the season to be dismayed!
By Rick Anderson
December 21, 2002

Alexei Zhitnik skates around Panthers right winger Ivan Novoseltsev during third period action against the Florida Panthers. The Panthers shutout the Sabres 3-0.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

Twas a week before Christmas and all through HSBC Arena, not a creature was stirring, not even fan interest. The skates were all hung in the locker room with care, in hopes that next season the team would still be there.

The team was nestled all snug in the league basement, while visions of a rich new owner danced in their heads.

With less than a week before Christmas, the Buffalo Sabres and their fans received an early Christmas surprise. Actually, it was more fitting for a new sequel to "The Grinch who stole Christmas."

The Sabres may have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and, on top of that, the prospective ownership team of Mark Hamister and Todd Berman may withdraw their bid to buy the team if the local government doesn't agree to spend $35 million on making improvements to 6-year old HSBC Arena.

The modern day Grinches of Hamister and league commissioner Gary Bettman have stolen Christmas from Buffalo Sabres fans. It couldn't have come at a worse time. With the city and county governments slashing programs along with jobs, getting a commitment from either the City of Buffalo or Erie County to agree to Hamister's plans seem improbable at best.

Scrooged

The Sabres fan not only have the Grinch to deal with, but the old Scrooge himself, John Rigas. Rigas, as you know, was the catalyst of the whole Sabres downfall. If he had not cheated, lied and stole from his Adelphia company, the fate of the Sabres would not be in turmoil right now. But Rigas and his two sons were led off in handcuffs last summer for fraud and embezzlement and they left the Sabres holding the bag to the tune of $157 million owed Adelphia.

Now Hamister and Berman must face the music of a bankruptcy case that Adelphia will be going through soon and the judge in that trial will be forced to look out for the best interests of Adelphia. That would pose the possibility that the Hamister bid be rejected by the judge who would say the Sabres would have to entertain bids from outside interests to get the price more acceptable to the Adelphia creditors.

On Thursday, Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra went to New York City meet Bettman face-to-face about the bleak Sabres situation. They came away from that meeting shaken with the realization that the Sabres are very close to going Chapter 11. In fact, Bettman revealed that there is only enough money to meet salaries into January. Then, the team will be forced into some very unpleasant decisions, most likely bankruptcy. That move would open the doors wide open to the likes of multi-billionaire Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

Hamister may withdraw bid

Hamister threatened to withdraw his bid to buy the Sabres if his demands for HSBC Arena improvements along with other concessions are not met.

In order to proceed with his bid, Hamister wants quite a few concessions.

"I need to be satisfied that New York State, the County of Erie and the City of Buffalo want this team in Buffalo," said Hamister. "They can suggest that is their position simply by helping us straighten out the financial problems with facing the arena. We will take all the risks attending to the team, we'll make all the investments in the team, provide all the resources for the team. What we want the government to do is come to their building and solve the financial issues related to their building. We'll help them do that...we'll contribute towards that, but they need to be a player in the process."

Some of the items requested by Hamister is a complete overhaul of the current arena sound system for an estimated $4.5 million. On top of that, he demands that a $500,000 acoustic curtain be purchased to encompass HSBC's top level for concerts that are around the 10,000 range.

An even bigger project in Hamister's list of demands is for the construction of a new parking ramp close to the arena. That could go in the range of $10 million.

Hamister wants to keep the revenue for any and all signs in a close vicinity to the arena. Hamister also demands that the annual $500,000 lease to the City of Buffalo be dropped along with other rents the team must fork over each season.

Total cost for meeting Hamister's demands is in the range between $20 - $25 million. This is needed to make the arena more viable to attract more events throughout the year.

"I need an economically viable arena, and we don't have that today," said Hamister. "We will close this transaction if we rationalize the arena. We will not close the transaction without the arena. We will withdraw then."

Hamister said that the sound system for concerts is turning off entertainers and concert goers alike and is preventing attracting many more concerts throughout the year.

"The building itself does not work for a lot of these concerts," Hamister said. "Ten thousand people in HSBC Arena sounds horrible and looks horrible."

Hamister's demands sets up a showdown between Hamister and the government agencies involved. With money being so tight in these governments' budgets to just maintain the current level of services, providing corporate welfare to a pro sports team will not sit well with a lot of the area voters and taxpayers.

One thing that Hamister could have done much better was to be more upfront with the fans and media as soon as it was announced that his bid was accepted by Bettman. Right then, he should have come forth and stated his goals to make HSBC Arena more viable and a profit-making structure. The way Hamister did it could be viewed more of a threat than as a constructive and positive proposal for the arena.

These are definitely the darkest days in the history of the Sabres franchise. Right now the future of the team is in peril and unless if some sort of compromise is reached in the next few weeks, this most likely will be the last year the team will be playing in Buffalo.

On the ice - all goals in one game

On the ice, things weren't much brighter. The Sabres were shutout in 2 of their 3 games. On Saturday, they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers 2-0 as backup goalie Robert Esche had to stop only 15 shots in recording his only shutout of the year. Donald Brashear and Eric Desjardins did all the damage, getting the puck past Martin Biron.

Wednesday, the Sabres came out and played one of their best games of the season, completely dominating the top team in the East, the Boston Bruins, handing them a 4-2 loss. Chris Gratton, J.P. Dumont, Taylor Pyatt and Stu Barnes tallied for the Sabres. It was Gratton's first goal in almost a month and the Sabres showed the same drive and intensity they had in their first two games of the year when they outscored their opponents 11-2.

The Sabres could only maintain that level of play for one game this week as they fell to the Florida Panthers 3-0 Friday night before only 10,752. Roberto Luongo made 30 saves in preserving the shutout. The Sabres did get some good shots on him, but Luongo was the master in the crease.

''We just seem to play much simpler,'' said Luongo. ``Everybody does their job on the ice. Twenty guys show up and we win games.''

With the Sabres down two men, the Panthers got on the board when Jaroslav Bednar got a shot over Biron's shoulder, hitting the crossbar and into the net.

"We handed them up a big, sweet ball right down the middle with those two penalties," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.

Then Ryan Johnson scored through Biron's 5-hole to give the Panthers a 2-goal cushion. The Sabres couldn't get the puck past Luongo and an empty netter sealed the Sabres fate, similar to how a bankruptcy judge could seal the Sabres fate in Buffalo next year.

Sabres Talk

With the sky falling on the Sabres, it is a wonder the players can focus on playing hockey.

"Obviously there's an air of uncertainty," admitted Ruff. "But we have to focus on how we want to play. This season's been laced with distractions. To have another one, we can't use that as an excuse."

While the refs were allowing the Panthers to commit all sorts of infractions, the Sabres were called for every nudge. However, the Sabres knew that they could have played smarter.

"We took some penalties we shouldn't have taken," said Biron. "Everybody got wound up and out of control. We can't do that. You have to be stronger than that."

Meanwhile, Luongo was in the comfort zone.

"I enjoy a game that I get 30-35 shots more than a game where I get 20,'' admitted Luongo. "For me, it keeps me in the game and it keeps me focused.''

The Panthers are one of the best teams in the league when they have the lead going into the third period.

''That's probably the smartest third period we've played this season,'' said Panthers coach Mike Keenan. ``When we had the lead, we did the right things.''

"It all comes from experience,'' Luongo added. "Lots of times we had the lead and we gave it up, and lately we've had the confidence to preserve that lead and we've closed them off.''

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