BY Tim Schmitt
Autographed pictures of National Hockey Leaguers Mike Foligno, Pavel Bure and Doug Gilmour line the back room at Clancy’s,
a quaint Pine Avenue lounge that once included Sabres’ play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret among its ownership group.
On a Thursday night with the Sabres still mathematically alive for a playoff spot, Niagara Falls’ Wayne Vigue sits at a raised table with his wife and friends, his eyes more focused on the Quick Draw monitor than the big screen TV directly in his view. Even if Vigue, a longtime Sabres fan, wanted to check up on his team, he’d have to swing his head back toward the bar — the biggest screen is showing an NCAA Tournament game that nobody’s watching.
“It’s pretty sad, but at this point, I don’t really want to watch (the Sabres),” Vigue said. “I feel like they’ve already bought the farm.”
Vigue’s point is a good one — figuratively and literally. Buffalo’s playoff aspirations are all but dead heading into the last week of the regular season, and since a crop of unrestricted free agents have deserted the team, the Sabres have usurped most of their minor-league talent, leaving just a token handful of prospects for the future. And nobody’s sure where the Sabres’ farm club will be located next season — no formal agreement has been made with Portland, Maine, even though it seems the feud between the team and its longtime affiliate, the Rochester Americans, has reached irreparable measures.
It’s a long fall from just one year prior, when the Sabres had their claws firmly entrenched in the collective psyche of Western New York. As the team ran to its first-ever Presidents’ Trophy for being the NHL’s best regular season team, game nights were just short of regional holidays. Fans gathered inside and outside HSBC Arena, and wherever friends or family could watch the game on TV.
It looked like the perfect ending for a rags-to-riches story.
High to low
Last March, ESPN The Magazine’s Ultimate Standings ranked the Sabres as the franchise with the highest fan satisfaction of all the four major sports leagues. A complicated formula that included value, ownership, stadium experience, coaching and fan relations were all part of the equation. Of the 122 major sports franchises, the Sabres ranked highest in value and fourth in fan relations. It seemed the rise of a team that wallowed in bankruptcy just a few years before was complete, and the Sabres were the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and compete for their first-ever Stanley Cup.
But the team lost in the conference finals for the second straight season and the off-season, as has been well-documented, was nothing short of disastrous.
First, Buffalo lost co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency, then management was forced to match the seven-year, $50 million offer sheet Thomas Vanek signed with Edmonton, a move that fell under heavy scrutiny since the team would have received the Oilers’ four first-round draft choices in return.
This season, the Sabres were forced to deal all-star defenseman Brian Campbell, the latest in a long exodus of popular players that also included Mike Grier, Jay McKee, J.P. Dumont and Dainius Zubrus.
And a wave of enthusiasm has been replaced by feelings of disenchantment and betrayal as the moves have dropped the team from serious championship contention.
All this coming despite Buffalo’s place at or near the top of the NHL’s attendance lists. Buffalo’s home attendance trails only Montreal — although the listed capacity of the Canadiens’ Bell Centre is more than 2,000 seats larger than that of HSBC Arena — and the Sabres’ combined attendance percentage is second to only Pittsburgh, with phenom Sidney Crosby.
“This year we started off a little bit slow and plus we lost Drury and Briere and everybody was sort of all just like, ‘Oh well, we stink again,’ ” said Jim Krell, a 32-year-old carpenter who said he’ll keep his season tickets. “They’re pretty inconsistent and it’s kind of like everything’s not an event. I mean last year every game was kind of like an event. It was almost like 41 Bills games. And this year it’s just sort of ... it’s not like it was.”
Last year, sales for Sabres merchandise skyrocketed, and at one point Buffalo had seven of the eight highest-selling jerseys in the NHL.
Although merchandise is still moving, it’s at a considerably slower pace, according to Adam Martin, co-owner of Dave And Adam’s Card World. Martin, a Buffalo native who founded the company with Lewiston’s Dave Silver, said deep playoff runs and the team’s popularity led to tremendous sales gains through a two-year span.
“Last year, the Sabres phenomenon led to unbelievable, virtually inconceivable sales of apparel like jerseys and hats,” Martin said.
As for this year, the decrease has only been about 20 percent, Martin said. With new faces, new jerseys quickly hit the streets. For example, fans were already wearing Steve Bernier jerseys two days after the team picked up the winger from San Jose in the Campbell deal.
But another off-season like the last could mean a more dramatic downturn in business. Martin said orders for next year’s team jerseys have already been placed, and that his business’ order “wasn’t too conservative.” He said the introduction of a white throwback jersey next year could spur sales.
“We always have hopes for the team we love, but we’ll play it by ear,” Martin said. “You’d like to thing they’ll attempt to sign Ryan Miller, and Jason Pominville and that could change attitudes a little. If they lock up a semi-well known free agent that could help.
“But if they stand pat and don’t do anything, we’ll see a hit in sales.”
Spending to make money
Although the Sabres have let a number of high-priced free agents walk away, Buffalo is far from the league basement in terms of spending. The current salary cap allows NHL teams to spend up to $50.3 million per season. When the season is complete, the Sabres will probably finish with a cap mark near $45 million, almost $10 more than the Nashville Predators. Still, it’s interesting that the Sabres are among the league’s bottom dozen payrolls, and on that list only two are currently holding playoff spots. Of those two, Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh will see its payroll spike considerably next season when Crosby’s salary jumps from $850,000 to $9 million. Another star, Evgeny Malkin, will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Meanwhile, the Sabres have a number of contract issues that will surface July 1. At that date, the team can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents Miller, Maxim Afinogenov, Jaroslav Spacek, Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik.
Projecting out, Buffalo has contracts in place for the 2009-10 season for Vanek, Derek Roy, Toni Lydman, Henrik Tallinder, Jochen Hecht, Adam Mair and Nathan Paetsch.
“My gut reaction is to say that you have to spend a certain amount to be (competitive),” said Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn, who’s taken a large portion of local criticism. “But I don’t think you need to spend to the cap.”
“But if you ask me if our problem was not spending enough money, I would say, ‘No, it’s that we are real young. Take our team — when we are a more mature team we will spend more money.’ ”
Many assume the team will make a big offer to Miller, the team’s franchise goaltender, as soon as the bargaining period opens, especially in light of the negative off-season the Sabres endured last year. The team has softened its stance on negotiating with players before their contract has expired.
“You are trying not to get stuck (with contracts) that inhibit your ability to spend later,” Quinn said. “Players you really like you know they are going to be expensive later, so you make room for them.”
Can the bridge between ownership and fan base be repaired? Certainly. If history has shown anything, it’s that fans are forgiving, so long as the team is winning. Sabres fans campaigned against a new logo two summers ago, then led the NHL in merchandise sales the following year, after the team won its first 10 games in a row. And after the league held a year-long lockout in 2004-05, Buffalo’s attendance jumped 11 percent.
But few could have predicted the team’s rise and fall could come this swiftly, especially considering the stockpile of talent Buffalo had as recently as two years ago.
“I’m very disappointed in the loss of Briere and Drury, they handled that very poorly, and the loss of Campbell, too,” said Diane Roth, a Buffalo resident who said she’s still considering season tickets next year despite the team’s troubles. “They need to know that they’ve got to sell a team here. They need to concentrate on the people who are solid on the team, and they need to know how to pay the people who play the best.”
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266. Gannett News Service and intern Jeff Sowa contributed to this article.
BY Tim Schmitt
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