Buffalo Sabres Blogger Summit A Revealing Good Time

 

photo by Chris Elardo

On Wednesday January 11th, I had the privilege of attending the Buffalo Sabres Blogger Summit held at the First Niagara Center in Downtown Buffalo, New York. The event, a Q & A session with Sabres’ team President Ted Black and Vice-President of Public & Community Relations Mike Gilbert, was to be a “live suggestion box”, in which the “blogging community” was to connect fan ideas, concerns and suggestions with the Sabres organization.

 

It turned out to be so much more than that.

TED’S A PEOPLE PERSON

Ted Black entered the catering section of the arena (where the players are served their breakfast every morning, and where they had us all assembled) ready for action. He thoughtfully walked around to each one of us, introduced himself, and thanked us all for attending. “No, Mr. Black. Thank YOU for recognizing us by hosting such an event”. By the time he hit the back of the room, closest to the food and drink that the Sabres organization were kind enough to lay out for us, he had popped open a frosty bottle of Labatt Blue. This was a sure sign that Mr. Black (well, we might as well call him Ted now, as long as we’re sharing some bitter Canadian beer together) was ready to settle in and answer some tough questions, but also to let us know that he’s a person, just like me and you.

 

OKAY, LET’S OPEN IT UP TO SOME QUESTIONS, THEN

Of course, given the TWC/MSG fiasco currently preventing many Sabres fans from seeing their favorite team, the first order of business was an inquiry about whether or not the Sabres organization could, or would, entertain the thought of starting up their own regional sports network (not unlike the old Empire Sports Network). In a lengthy answer that brought Ted back to his former glory (he is the former Senior Vice President and General Manager of FSN Pittsburgh), he basically stated that in a two-sport town like Buffalo, where one of the sports (football) is already spoken-for with regards to a national television contract, there wouldn’t be enough content, having just the Sabres, to sustain it and fill up programming slots year round.

In other words, the Sabres would televise around 70 games on such a network during the fall and winter, but there wouldn’t be anything to broadcast during the late spring and summer months, unless they were able to partner with a major-league baseball team.

For all those at the mercy of big television networks and their carriage rights and expiring contracts, I wouldn’t hold your breath for any such network to happen any time soon. Also, the Sabres are under contract with MSG for the foreseeable future.

SABRES, AMERKS AND THE CBA

The date was October 26th, 2005. The place was Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York. The foes weren’t AHL teams, though. The Sabres faced-off, and lost 3-2, against the Washington Capitals in front of a sold-out crowd of 11,146. That was the last time the Sabres played a regular season game on their AHL affiliate’s home rink, and chances are it won’t happen again anytime soon. Why? Let’s let Ted explain.

“What probably won’t happen is playing a regular season game in Rochester, and that’s just we have 14 or 15,000 (Sabres) season-ticket holders and that building holds (just over) 10,000 people. And the economics just aren’t the same as it was when they did that, which I thought was really cool that they did that coming out of their bankruptcy. I think I would like to see the Sabres do more in preseason down there…(although) next year might be an oddball preseason because the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) expires in (mid)September, and I think they’ve already scheduled training camps to begin later than normal, just to take that deadline into account…so that may put a wrinkle in our plans to do something down there. I’d also like to do more things with the Amerks up in the Buffalo area, and we’ve been kicking around some ideas which, unfortunately as of this date, I wouldn’t be able to share with everyone just yet.”

So, look for some AHL action in the First Niagara Center, possibly as early as next season. Judging by the NHL realignment fiasco, and the fact that Donald Fehr is the NHL Players Association Executive Director now, Rochester may be the only team to play hockey on a downtown Buffalo, New York rink next year.

They’ll never learn, will they?

NHL DRAFT AND ALL-STAR GAME IN BUFFALO?

“I’ve said that at the NHL level I’d love to bring the draft, I’d love to bring the All-Star Game, and I’d love to get back in the queue for the NHL Winter Classic for Buffalo”, Black said.

The last time the city of Buffalo hosted an All-Star game was January 24, 1978 in Memorial Auditorium, which ended with a 3-2 overtime victory for the Wales Conference. Buffalo’s Rick Martin tied the game with 1:39 left in regulation time, and Gilbert Perreault won it 3:55 into overtime, receiving a standing ovation for his efforts.

 

FROZEN FOUR TOURNAMENT IN FUTURE?

The NCAA’s ice hockey championships are known as the Frozen Four (meaning final four teams), and the city of Buffalo hosted this event in 2003. Sabres fans will remember a young University of Minnesota sniper by the name of Thomas Vanek, whom Buffalo picked 5th overall in that summer’s NHL entry draft. The next three years are spoken for, in terms of host commitments, to the cities of Tampa, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but as Black says, “We’d love to have the Frozen Four back here…It’s something we’d fully endorse and we’d support that in every way possible…to me it’s ‘do whatever you can to bring an event like that to this city’, even if it’s break-even for the Sabres organization, it’s still a ‘win’ for the city.”

 

WE WERE THE FIRST TO HEAR THE TRUTH ABOUT IT

Last week there were varying reports throughout the hockey world regarding Sabres coach Lindy Ruff‘s contract extension. Leafs TV and Sportsnet analyst, and former NHL goaltender, Greg Millen stated last Tuesday that Ruff had signed a seven-year contract extension last April. Not one to back down from tough questions, Black set the record straight for us Wednesday.

“As a business person, I mean, I ran a TV station before, had contracts with talent, my person policy is I don’t release that stuff…But, the speculation that it’s seven-years or it’s six-years, those kinds of things, when you don’t comment on it, puts you in an awkward position that you feel compelled to say ‘I’m not going to comment on anything that’s wrong’. And then you can kind of decipher that when Ted doesn’t comment, that means it’s really true. But, I’ll make an exception in this case and tell you those (contract terms) are completely inaccurate. That’s the only exception I’ll make…So, now I’ve had to go on record to deny that.”

While he didn’t divulge the length of coach Ruff’s new deal, it’s believed to be either an three or four-year deal with an option.

 

“PITTSBURGH WON THE CROSBY LOTTERY, BUFFALO WON THE OWNER LOTTERY”

When Black was asked why, as consumers, we should still watch and support this hockey club when no changes (to a losing team and season) seem to be on the horizon, he didn’t come up for air for a good five minutes, stating, “I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to promise you we’re going to win every game. What I can tell you, I know there’s a level of frustration. We’re not where we want to be right now at all. I think you kind of have to take a step back, and I know there’s a kind of cloud of negativity that can develop. When you say there’s no change and no change coming, I’d ask you to take a step back. We’ve been here ten months, and I think this franchise is on the right trajectory.”

To develop his thought, Black goes on to add, “A year ago, I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who thought we’d pursue, and acquire, two of the most highly sought-after free agents, whether they’re performing to everyone’s expectations at this moment in time is another matter, but that’s something that hadn’t happened in this franchise’s history. When you look at the ownership change and commitment put forth by Terry Pegula, I don’t think that has ever existed at this level, certainly not with the resources that he’s put behind it. I can tell you, I don’t think I would trade owners with anyone, in any sport. So, in that regard, Pittsburgh won the Sidney Crosby lottery, and Buffalo won the owner lottery.”

Perhaps Ted took a breath at this point, but further drives home his point with this doozy:

“When we trade for a player who waived his no-trade clause (Robyn Regehr), I’d like to hear a list of players who have waived their no-trade clauses to come to Buffalo. That’s probably a very short list.”

Well played, Ted. Touche.

And when this franchise has a cruel history of watching talented players leave via free-agency for other cities…that’s not going to happen on our watch. So when you say that there’s no change coming, I would challenge you to take a step back a little bit, and don’t get too caught up in the fact of where we are (in the standings) this season. We’re not happy with where we are, but look at our track record. Do you think we’re just going to sit back and not do anything (trade-wise)? This isn’t X-Box, boys and girls. There haven’t been a lot a trades right now. It takes two clubs to make a deal, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Darcy (Regier) has every resource available to him.”

 

photo by Chris Elardo

 

SO THE WORD IS OUT ABOUT “HOCKEY HEAVEN”?

By this time in the evening, Black was on a roll. He didn’t hold back when divulging this little nugget regarding potential free-agents and where Buffalo ranks on their list of places to play, which will excite just about every fan of the Buffalo Sabres:

“Look at our track record, look what we’ve (ownership) done to build up this franchise. I can tell you, I have a very, very close friend who is a (NHL) player agent. He said in prior years, Buffalo wouldn’t be on the primary conversation list for us at all. They’d be the second or third consideration if they (the free-agent player) couldn’t get any interest from the top teams, but that now, come July one, agents are going to be calling you within the first five minutes and they’re not going to wait a day later.”

That last statement likely had the whole room drooling at the mere though that players might want top make their homes here in WNY, and play for this owner and organization. We are no longer an afterthought, per Ted Black.

THOUGHTS ON THE MORGUE, er, I MEAN FIRST NIAGARA CENTER

It’s no secret that the arena downtown has been deathly quiet this season, save for the Boston Bruins rematch on Thanksgiving eve. The word on the street (and out of Ville Leino‘s mouth) is that the music is stale, that it doesn’t pump the crowd, or the players, up enough.

Ted has an uncanny knack for the obvious, in regards to the arena atmosphere, stating, “Winning is the best game entertainment going, so that’s one thing to do (to fix the negative atmosphere)“.

Actually, that’s really the only thing that needs to happen, and Black agreed by saying , “You know, it’s one of those things. When you win, no one complains about the music, the beer tastes great, the beer is cold, I’m better looking, I’m skinny. You know, when you win, you look smart. When you lose, you don’t. That’s really the bottom line”.

Dishing on Leino’s comments about the in-game production, Black quipped, “As to Ville, we may have to put him up in the DJ booth and have him spin some discs.”

 

A PARTING GIFT FOR ALL THOSE ATTENDING

I don’t think some of us knew how close we were to the Sabres new multi-million dollar dressing room, but we were about to find out. Black offered to give us a tour of the room (which Mike Gilbert led, thoroughly narrating the entire way), and to say I was excited would be to downplay the speed at which I jumped out of my chair ready for my walk-through.

It was everything you thought it was, from pictures seen on the web to video on television, and it didn’t disappoint. Noticeably warm right from the onset of the tour, it was an inviting room. It’s words of wisdom above the door :From it’s circular design (allowing everyone to see one another); action pictures depicting that specific player above each player’s stall; state-of-the-art equipment drying system (the reason for the balmy temperatures in the room) and lighted, recessed logo in the middle of the room, it was a room that words fail to do justice to.

The hallway leading out of the dressing room was  a sight to behold. This is where the history of the franchise lives. Many players and coaches names adorned the wall leading to the ice, along with the retired jerseys. Photos of the members of the Buffalo Sabres Hall-of-fame, from the first inductee to the most recent, lined the brushed-steel wall, with their names scattered about in various shapes and sizes.

The fitness center was an impressive site, as well, with enough equipment to train a small army. Gazing at the sheer size, there’s is no doubt as to why Mr. Pegula had to open up the bank vault to fund such a major construction as this. Without a doubt, Sabres’ Strength and Conditioning Coach Doug McKenney must love “going to the office” everyday.

Two words came to mind throughout the grand tour: First Class.

 

photo by Chris Elardo

 

LEAVING THE ARENA, WALKING ON AIR

The night was a success. Although we probably didn’t make as many suggestions as Mr. Black would have liked, I think he enjoyed himself as well, and stated that he would continue to do these “Blogger Summits”. These types of events keep the fans connected with the team through us, the blogging community.

The passion for the Buffalo Sabres franchise was present in spades, from the enormous turnout of blogging media, to the excited faces of Sabres’ management, through to the arena employees and audio/video department that recorded the event.

Whatever your feelings are about the state of this hockey team on the ice right now, two things are clear-cut and apparent with regards to the organization off it:

The franchise is in good hands and, yes, they do want to win the Stanley Cup.

 

To listen to full audio of the event, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Topics: Buffalo Sabres Blogger Summit, Buffalo Sabres Locker Room, Donald Fehr, Frozen Four In Buffalo, Greg Millen, Hockey Heaven, Lindy Ruff, Mike Gilbert, Msg/twc Dispute, Nhl All-star Game In Buffalo, Nhl Draft In Buffalo, Robyn Regehr, Rochester Americans, Sabres Bloggers, Sabres Regional Sports Network, Sidney Crosby, Ted Black, Terry Pegula, Tyler Myers Jersey, Washington Capitals

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