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Sabres Central

Golisano issues in new Sabres era
By Rick Anderson
March 15, 2003

Tom Golisano smiles when talking to reporters during the press conference announcing that he would most likely be the next Sabres owner.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

It was the dawning of a new era for the Buffalo Sabres Friday afternoon at HSBC Arena. With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman opening up the press conference to announce that B. Thomas Golisano had signed a purchase agreement late Thursday night, the Sabres finally seem to be heading in the right direction after a season in turmoil. At the head table sat Bettman, Golisano and the CEO of Adelphia Communications Erland E. Kailbourne. Adelphia had agreed to the offer by the Rochester billionaire and everything was go for his takeover of the Sabres.

"This represents an opportunity for the Buffalo Sabres to move forward with strong ownership,'' Bettman announced. "We have what I think all the fans of the Buffalo Sabres can consider to be terrific news. "People should stop worrying about the Sabres (remaining) in Buffalo, because our knight on the white horse came riding in."

When all the figures and payments are added up, the total amount Golisano is paying has been estimated to be around $92 million. The team that has been without an official owner since the league took over operating controls from arrested former owner John Rigas last summer and declared bankruptcy in January, now is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Buffalo allow other bids for the Sabres, but they would have to be at least $95 million and also be approved by the league. Such bids would have to come in by April 4 and a team auction would then be set on April 9. However, it is extremely doubtful that another bid is forthcoming, especially in the light of the recent financial troubles by scores of NHL teams this year.

Golisano's purchase agreement assumes $45 million in assumed liabilities, $25 million to pay this season's debt and a $22 million concession loan.

``I'm very excited about creating a new era for the Buffalo Sabres,'' proclaimed Golisano. ``This team is a major asset to this community. I want to thank you all for a great beginning.''

When asked if he would be the type of owner who would throw money at players like the Rangers do, Golisano said, "It would be a poor assumption. Rationality must prevail."

"We have to have a balance here," Golisano continued. "It has to be a great experience for the fans, it has to be good for the players and staff, and the owner has to have a fair chance."

Will Golisano clean house?

When Golisano does finally get control of the team to shape the way he wants it, he will have to make some serious decisions about the entire makeup of the organization. That will start right at the top with GM Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff. Both have had a very trying year, trying to right the sinking ship. Regier was afraid to make any trade moves until some sort of direction was made clear. That meant he could not even attempt to make a trade until a possible owner appeared to be close to getting the approval. When Golisano became very close to where he was to make the final offer, Regier asked Golisano if he could trade such players as Rob Ray, Stu Barnes and Chris Gratton. Larry Quinn, representing the Golisano interests, approved of all three trades that were made before Tuesday's deadline. While those trades shook up the Sabres community, it was deemed necessary in order to pear the budget down further for the new owner.

Regier may still fall victim of a Golisano house cleaning at the end of the season, as could Ruff. Ruff has had his most frustrating year as a coach and didn't get any help from the front office. In fact, with Jason Woolley being traded much earlier, Ruff had to bring up bodies from Rochester to fill the voids left by the departing veterans. The team is last in the Northeast Division and has been floundering on the bottom of the league all season.

Both Ruff and Regier could very well be put out on the streets after Golisano has time to examine the franchise from top to bottom. Ruff has been mentioned to be a possible candidate for the Columbus Blue Jackets job next season.

Ray, Barnes and Gratton dealt

Besides the big news about Golisano getting much closer to becoming the new Sabres owner, the other big news for the Sabres this week were the three trades the Sabres made. First, they traded the ever-popular Rob Ray to Ottawa for future considerations. The trading of Ray came as a shock to many as it was almost an forgone conclusion that Ray would retire a Sabre. Then, for the second time in two years, the Sabres traded away their captain, Stu Barnes to the Dallas Stars for the Stars second round choice last year, center Mike Ryan and Dallas' second-round selection in the this summer's draft. Michael Peca was traded to the Islanders two years ago.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, right after Phoenix completed a late game, the Sabres traded Chris Gratton to the Coyotes for center Daniel Briere and a third-round choice in 2004. The Sabres also traded their fourth-round choice in 2004 in the transaction. Briere, who scored 32 goals for the Yotes last season, only has 17 so far this year.

Regier defended his moves.

"It's a cold, harsh, stark reality of where we are as a franchise,'' Regier said. "But it's an opportunity to re-accelerate the building process for what will amount to focus on not only next season, but even more so, beyond a new collective bargaining agreement. In Stu's case there is significant financial relief. On the other hand, it creates flexibility. As for what happens to those funds, that's something we'll get a little better feel for down the road.''

Both Ray and Barnes were excited about going to teams with a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year.

"It's a great opportunity, it's something you play for ever since you were a kid, to lift that cup above your head,'' replied Barnes.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to go to a contender,'' admitted Ray. "It's something the Sabres didn't have to do, but I appreciate the fact they did it.''

Ray was asked by the Sabres before the trade if he would be willing to go to Ottawa. He agreed to go to the other bankrupt team in the league. It was an obvious attempt for the Senators to toughen up for the playoffs, especially if they meet the Toronto Maple Leafs again.

Ruff, suddenly found some huge holes to fill on his roster.

"It's tough,'' admitted Ruff about losing his three vets. "Rob and I spent six years together in a coach-player relationship. There's nothing bad I can say about Rob. He brought a lot to this team on the ice and even more off the ice. Obviously, I'm sad to see him go.

Then he reflected about Barnes.

"I've always thought of Stu has an overachiever. As a player he works extremely hard. He's a hell of a player to coach and he's been a hell of a teammate for his fellow players.''

There was actually hockey played this week

With all the big news coming out of One Sabres Drive, it almost came as an afterthought that hockey was being played. The Sabres got 3 out of 4 points in Florida, but came home and lost two straight.

Buffalo beat Florida 4-0 on Saturday as Mika Noronen recorded his first ever NHL shutout.

Barnes and Jochen Hecht tallied just 37 seconds apart in the second stanza to put the Sabres up 3-0. Brian Campbell and Ales Kotalik also got the Sabres goals.

The next night, Buffalo and Tampa Bay played to a 1-1 draw. Noronen played back-to-back games and stopped 27 shots in the tie. Vincent Lecavalier spoiled Noronen's second straight shutout when he scored a powerplay goal in the second stanza. Kotalik got his 18th of the season to tie when Miroslav Satan set him up.

The Sabres came home and left their legs on the golf course as they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime. Marty Biron allowed a fluke goal in overtime, giving the Sabres the loss. With just 9.6 seconds left in regulation and the Sabres up 2-1, Radim Vrbata got the equalizer to send the game into overtime. Then Patrick DesRochers scored the winner when his long shot from the blueline somehow evaded Biron with 1:19 remaining in OT.

Friday night, with HSBC Arena still buzzing aglow from the Golisano press conference, the Sabres didn't do their part in the celebration as they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2.

Former Sabre standout Dave Andreychuk put the Lightning up 2-0 in the first period. Vaclav Prospal and Brad Richards got the other goals for the Lightning. Daniel Briere and Taylor Pyatt got the Buffalo tallies. Prospal scored with an open net with just 14.4 left to ice the cake for the Lightning.

Andreychuk was a Sabre for 12 seasons and with his goal, he passed the great Bobby Hull for 11th place as the NHL's all-time scorers with 611th career goals. Big Dave, who lives in Buffalo during the offseason, was happy that the Sabres finally have a new owner.

"I'm really happy for the city,'' admitted Andreychuk. "I still have a house here and someday I'm going to be a fan here. I want to make sure that there's going to be hockey here when I'm here. It's a good sign. It can only go up from here.''

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