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Hockey Heaven? Try Hockey Purgatory

No more games on cable. What else can go wrong this season?

Back in 1974, the Buffalo Sabres tried something new, showing select home games on cable television. Two local companies, Cablescope in Buffalo and International Cable in the suburbs, were racing to wire streets and neighborhoods, offering what was then an unheard-of service: 12 channels of crystal-clear television, a station offering uncut movies without commercials, and access to white-hot popular Sabres home broadcasts, in an era where obtaining tickets to the games was an almost impossible task.

The initial 10-game package of home games was an instant hit. Customers clogged the switchboards demanding that their streets be hooked up next, and the Sabres’ bond with cable TV was cemented.

That unbroken string of cable broadcasts came to an end this past Tuesday, when customers of Time Warner Cable, the successor franchisee to the region’s main cable TV provider, was left in the dark by the MSG network, the station which holds the rights to carry Sabres games. Access to the broadcasts are now available only via DirecTV satellite service or Verizon FIOS.

In the Sabres front office, they must be pulling their hair out. First of all, the team’s contract with MSG was negotiated by the former ownership, and while the Sabres don’t divulge the specifics of the deal, the rights fee has to be enormous. MSG made a huge investment and strategic play in the media giant wars; controlling content in this market gives them leverage against a big entity like Time Warner, not only here in Western New York but in the far more lucrative New York City market. Simply put, the Sabres are not a direct party in this fight.

But they become collateral damage. In a big way. This spat could not be happening at a worse time for the team, as the poor play and dismal results on the ice have fans tuning out in droves already. No Sabres on TV? No problem. Let’s find something else to do. Sponsorships are affected, businesses buying commercial time move their advertising dollars elsewhere, and the erosion of the fan base eventually begins to eat away at those 15,000 season tickets.

So where does this all stand right now? Unfortunately, nowhere. The team is locked into a deal with MSG through 2017, and breaking that deal is not as simple as, say, throwing money at the Portland Pirates to end a minor league affiliation.

The other unfortunate consequence of the MSG arrangement is that the quality of the broadcast has gone backwards rather than improve. Viewers can only reminisce about the good old days, when Empire Sports Network included a must-see lineup of Fan TV in the afternoons, a top-notch pre-game buildup, and Hockey Hotline after each game, offering fans a chance to call in and talk about the Sabres with the on air hosts.

Today’s broadcasts are vastly different. It’s a race to the test pattern right after the final whistle blows. During last week’s game from the Prudential Center in Newark, viewers were treated to cutaways to the Devils’ intermission hosts, complete with their Noo Yawk accents and chatter about all things Devils. Did anyone stay tuned in? Didn’t think so.

Taro is in an exceptionally cranky mood as the New Year begins. We’ll leave him to dish out the rest…

Taro Sez…

• The goalies can’t stop pucks. Ryan Miller looks like a guy who no longer wants to play here. Did anything match the desperation of the goaltending situation in that Pittsburgh game a couple of weeks back? As one looks at the hideous record, it appears that Drew McIntyre, doing spot duty, has actually emerged as the best goalie on the stat sheet.

• The core isn’t producing. Granted, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are carrying this team almost singlehandedly. But Derek Roy and Drew Stafford, who was awarded huge dollars this past summer, are both looking more and more like dispassionate busts who have no business playing on any NHL squad. Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht have expiring contracts. Here’s a bold move: Sweep all four out of the clubhouse at trade deadline time, and send a strong message to the new core that this team means business when it comes to winning “multiple Stanley Cups.”

• The coach’s shelf life has expired. It’s hard not to like Lindy Ruff and root for him, a tried-and-true Buffalo guy. But it’s apparent his system no longer is working. He is aging right before our very eyes, as he tries to spin every setback and every loss with the same tired clichés. Want a different spin? How’s this for candor : “Fuck the media.” Yes, he said that earlier this year.

• Shame on Canadian fans. Okay, enough about the Sabres. World Juniors attendees piling on the Team USA squad up in Alberta are embarrassing themselves and their country. So if Team Bin Laden laced up the skates against the Americans, would these fools root for the terrorists? Gratefully, the tournament moves to some town in Russia due north of Kazakhstan in 2013, then to Sweden in 2014. Which means we get some respite from this sorry act for the next couple of years.

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