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Sabres Central

Split personality haunts Sabres
By Rick Anderson
October 19, 2002

Rob Ray assaults the Rangers' Darius Kasparaitis from behind in first period action. Ray got a 4-minute penalty and the Sabres were 2 men short, allowing Eric Lindros to score twice.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

The Buffalo Sabres entered their second week of the season with a split personality. In fact, if one looks at the Sabres as a whole, it is suffering from a multiple personality complex. There is the team itself, trying to keep up the momentum from its impressive first two game, the ownership muddle in the continuous search to find a credible owner, and the fan base that has developed an apathy towards the team.

The team's performance on the ice was certainly not as compelling as its first two games where they scored 11 goals and allowed just two in beating the Islanders and the Canadiens. The Sabres ran out of ammo against the Chicago Black Hawks in Sunday's 3-0 loss. The Sabres extended their scoreless drought five periods when they got behind the 8-ball against the Rangers, allowing two Eric Lindros goals in a span of 26 seconds while they were two men short, thanks largely to Rob Ray getting two penalties for assaulting Darius Kasparaitis from behind which included an unsportsmanlike penalty for arguing with the ref.

As quickly as the Sabres lost their scoring touch, it mysteriously reappeared in the second period against New York's money team with a 4-goal outburst, putting them into a 4-3 lead after two.

The Rangers, who were awarded 9 powerplays to the Sabres 5, scored on three of them. Besides Lindros two quickies in the first period, Pavel Bure notched the game at 4 in the third stanza when he took a shot from the right side that glanced not only off the post but deflected off Martin Biron's skate past the goal line. The goal came with just under 9 minutes of play and neither team could get the winner.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was proud of the comeback effort in the second period in comparison to the previous year when they would usually pack it in.

"The team is gaining confidence offensively," lauded Ruff. "They believe they can score and get back in the game. This year, we're going to go after it."

Miroslav Satan, who up until Thursday's game had been scoreless, concurred with his coach's analysis.

"Last year we had trouble coming back when we were down,'' said the Sabres gunner who picked up his first two goals of the season. "We want to show teams that we can come back, and we did that tonight with a strong second period.''

Now the team has to cure the split personality it has suffered from the last few years. The Sabres have had great success against the powerful NHL teams, and then lose to the bottom of the barrel teams the next game. Inconsistency was one of the biggest reasons they finished out of the playoffs last year.

Fan backlash?

While the players themselves have a new upbeat attitude this season, the fans do not share the optimism and are staying away from HSBC Arena in droves. The announced attendance for Thursday's game was 12,357. That was almost the same number of no-shows as Buffalo's first game against the Islanders.

With the turmoil over a search for a new owner, the Rigas scandal and the dearth of a superstar on the team, the fans seemingly are staging a backlash against the team they have supported in earnest since 1970. One has to look at the entire picture to find the reasons for the fans apathy towards the team.

One of the biggest complaints is that the fans got tired of the team's boring style of play. If was felt by many that the entertainment value the team provided did not match up to other venues. The fact that Sabres owner John Rigas lied to the fans in his now infamous "Supply the Tools" speech along with stealing and cheating from his own Adelphia Cable company, turned many former season ticket holder off. Add to that the fact that the Sabres never did replace the gapping holes left with the departure of Michael Peca and Hall of Fame bound goalie Dominik Hasek, and the Sabres fans didn't feel there was a commitment by the front office to make the team competitive.

Two other key components to the apathy amongst fans has to be the declining economy in Western New York and the third consecutive ticket increases by the Sabres front office. The average middle income family just cannot afford the high cost of even a ten-pack this year, let alone between $1,500-$3,500 for a single season ticket. With the combo of the weak economy and the higher ticket prices, fans were going elsewhere for their entertainment.

"Do I hear a bid?"

That could be the cry of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as he is trying to quicken any possible bids for the Sabres. Only one potential owner has submitted an official bid for the team, Mark Hamister. The group headed by Sherry Bassin has been strangely silent after making numerous promises that they were going to blow the competition away with a powerful "cash on the table" offer. Bassin had gotten some big-time money players in his group, Montreal millionaire Alan Maislin, whose family runs a major Montreal trucking firm, and Frank DuRoss, a Utica businessman and owner of the AHL's the Providence Bruins.

The Bassin group kept promising that the bid was just a couple days away. DuRoss even conducted a press conference on the steps of HSBC Arena, saying that he was joining the Bassin team and their bid was coming in the next few days. That was on August 24th.

"We've got our money, we're all cash," Maislin said on August 9th. "We've done our due diligence (investigating the team). We're going to make an offer. We are committed to keeping the Sabres in Buffalo. Our intention is to run a good hockey club and a successful operation.

"I don't believe that, that Buffalo's small market. If you're in the National Hockey League, you're in the big leagues."

Thomas Golisano also entered the race, but it was widely accepted that it was just campaign rhetoric as he was running for New York State governor. So the only really legitimate group left is the Bassin consortium. However, something has gone astray with the "imminent" Bassin bid. Either that group is having second thoughts, or the complexity of the Adelphia bankruptcy situation is delaying their submission. Another possibility for the lack of bids is the lack of fan support. Bettman had issued several statements that the fans had to get the season ticket base up to the league average of 12,000 to help better the image to potential owners that they will support the team. With the success of the Buffalo Bills and Drew Bledsoe, it is possible that a lot of former season ticket holders put their money into Bills season tickets instead.

Road from here

It is obvious that the 3 different Sabres domains have to come together to form a whole. The Sabres on the ice seem to be playing with a new attitude and enjoying hockey again. Somehow they have put all the rumblings off the ice in the background and concentrate on their task at hand. It is a difficult task at that. They must continue to play the exciting brand of hockey they have been playing in order to help win the fans back. Also, to finish out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year is something that could literally doom the franchise.

The spirit of the players is very encouraging. Veteran defenseman Jason Woolley is enjoying the reborn spirit on the team.

"It's a lot more fun, I'll tell you," describes Woolley. "There's no question. Right now, we're all on the same page."

"We're a lot more relaxed, The atmosphere from the coaching staff down to the players is a lot better, a lot more positive. Guys are enjoying coming to the rink, enjoying going out there and playing for each other. I think that's something we got away from last year."

Captain Stu Barnes used the Rangers game as an example of the never-say-die attitude the Sabres seem to have inherited from the Bills.

"I think we look at it as a positive," Barnes talked about the comeback. "It's a dangerous club over there. They've got a lot of guys that score a lot of goals, and they got up early on us. We stuck with it. We battled back. Guys worked hard. We got a point, which is better than no points."

While the Sabres do their work on the ice, the NHL is attempting to speed up the bidding process by telling all interested groups to get their bids in soon.

While the ownership muddle continues, the fans don't want to put their hard earned dollar towards season tickets. They reason that the future status of the team is in serious jeopardy and they don't want to sink money into a sinking ship.

Ruff continues to put blinders on himself and the players from the off-ice turmoil and is doing an outstanding job keeping the minds of his players focused. While Ruff will still sit players who are not performing, there is a much more relaxed and stimulating attitude on the team.

"It feels much better this year," admitted Woolley. "Guys are working hard, are playing for each other. There's a lot to be said about being positive and feeling like you're on the same page from the coaching staff down. Right now, that's where we are."

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