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Golisano to Regier: "We have to at least break even"

photo by Rose Mattrey

Golisano business mandate sunk Sabres' Cup chances

Listening to the opening 15 minutes of last week’s press conference, where the ownership team of Tom Golisano and his minor partners Larry Quinn and Dan DiPofi bid this city goodbye, was a somewhat surreal experience.

Golisano rolled out his organization’s accomplishments during his tenure. The huge marketing successes which have added substantially to the season ticket base, both for the Sabres and the Bandits. The introduction of variable ticket pricing, a model which has been embraced by many pro sports franchises. The substantial capital improvements to the arena, including a new HD scoreboard and companion ribbon board, and amenity enhancements such as new point-of-sale terminals, the Pour Mans Aud Club, and team exhibits. The success on the ice, highlighted by one of the best overall winning records in the league, and two trips to the conference finals.

It’s easy to forget what a shamble this franchise was in back in 2003, when the league had to run the team following the meltdown of the Adelphia company. Golisano was not the choice of the moneyed interests in this region to take the helm of the Sabres, and competing ownership groups with little more than grandiose ideas and little capital were being given favored status by then Governor George Pataki. Golisano bided his time and when the other wannabe owners’ plans fizzled out, Golisano stepped in and wrote a check.

Golisano achieved almost mythical, rock star status. He turned over the day-to-day operations of his company, Paychex, to others so he could be closer to his team. He commuted from Rochester to almost every home game. During the Sabres’ first year coming out of the lockout, a magical season which took them to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals, Golisano led the fan rallies onstage in the party on the plaza. Fans cheered him and clamored for his autograph. “I wish we had 20,000 more seats inside the building so we could let all of you in,” he told the ticketless fans who were watching the game on the big screen outside the arena. For Buffalo, he seemed to be a dream come true.

But as much as the Golisano legacy will be one of hope and renewal for a team that we almost lost, it will also be one of failure and missed opportunities. This sentence summed it up: “We have to at least break even.” Golisano tried yet stumbled when explaining his approach to the league salary cap, saying that room had to be maintained in case that special player became available. He brought out the example of New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk, the clear marquee free agent this past year, who joined the Devils, and now their team is floundering.

The bottom line is that this ownership group never really had the mettle to put this team over the top. There is no doubt that minority partner Larry Quinn is a diehard, bleed-blue-and-gold Sabres fan. He has admitted in the past that he has fantasized what it would be like if the Sabres actually won the Cup, the euphoria and celebration that would ensue and what that moment would mean to this city.

But hoping and wishing and assembling the best hockey minds to pull it off are two different things. General manager Darcy Regier sits paralyzed during trade deadline time and free agency time, constrained perhaps by budget mandates, by his own shortcomings as a guy thrust into that role by poor advisors or perhaps by a combination of all. The losses of Danny Briere, Chris Drury, and Brian Campbell were disasters for the club. The Sabres never seemed to make that splashy move to shake up the team and make it better. They have ridden the entire last decade and more on the wings and a prayer of one elite goaltender; Should that goaltender go down or falter, the team’s chances were doomed. Golisano can spin regular season stats all he wants, but compare his organization’s overall accomplishments to those of Pittsburgh, Detroit, or the resurgent Chicago, winners of last year’s Stanley Cup, and all of a sudden the Sabres look rather lame.

Interesting too that the mantra of “breaking even” didn’t apply to Golisano’s political adventurism and the money poured blindly into questionable causes. His brilliant agenda and platform of reforming New York’s dysfunctional government as a gubernatorial candidate later devolved into petty and mean-spirited engagement. His 2008 “Mothers and Fathers Demanding Answers” Web portal was light on issues of reform and heavy on the destruction of a single politician, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and his entire family. Golisano seemed more interested in settling scores from local committee races of two decades ago than bringing real change to government. He brought State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to HSBC Arena and showcased him there—the same disgraced Joe Bruno whose jail cell awaits while he appeals his criminal corruption conviction.

So, from Western New York to Tom Golisano: Thank you for saving this team. Thank you for the renewal of this franchise. Thank you for not selling this team to the Balsillie people in Hamilton/Kitchener. Please don’t insult our intelligence by giving us hope that you’ll save the Bills when simple math dictates that $1 billion invested in 30-year treasury bonds will yield $40 million a year in income, far more than you could ever hope to realize operating the Bills in Buffalo with that same cash outlay. And good luck to you.

Let the Terry Pegula era begin.

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