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Schedule Kerfuffle

NHL schedule announcement keeps fans on edge

There is most likely an unintended consequence to last week’s delay in the release of the 2013 NHL schedule.

For the Buffalo Sabres, last Sunday after the schedule announcement, their phones and internet and ticket windows blew up, resulting in the sale of more than 31,000 tickets in just one day, a team record (not counting the 2008 Winter Classic which was staged in a much larger venue). “Sunday’s ticket sales took us by surprise, and frankly, blew us away,” said team President Ted Black in a prepared statement to the press.

As soon as the NHL lockout was declared over, a week ago Sunday, fans watched for the announcement of the schedule with great anticipation. After all, there were plans to be made, tickets to be shared and distributed, and Leafs fans to sell off excess tickets to at boxcar prices, so our friends from Toronto could drive down to accept their usual punishment. Lots of work to be done in a very short time.

Certainly, the league had to have a 48-game schedule ready to go, no? After all, the date January 19 had been circled by everyone as the drop-dead date even as the two sides in the labor skirmish were battling toward the abyss or a resolution.

By last Wednesday, the NHL announced that no formal schedule would be announced until both sides formally ratified the memorandum of understanding, and player voting would not conclude until early Saturday morning.

But we then learned that the Sabres would not open on Saturday along with the rest of the league, but would begin play Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Enter the sleuths…and the speculation.

On Friday, the Winnipeg Free Press released a Jets schedule that included three dates with the Sabres. One of those dates turned out to be incorrect. Later that day, a widely read spots blog in Philadelphia revealed a photo of a document purporting to show a good portion of the Flyers’ schedule, undoubtedly taken by someone stealthily using a camera phone. The dates displayed for Sabres games on that document were spot-on.

Season ticket holders began receiving their tickets in the mail for the first three home dates, so now we knew a couple more dates and opponents.

There was more. On the First Niagara Center’s website, about 20 dates for “Sabres Parking” were listed on the master calendar, ostensibly showing days when the team would be playing at home.

WGR Radio had gone into overdrive by the time Friday afternoon hit. Radio personality Mike Schopp was beseeching listeners to call with any intel, determined to piece together a complete schedule. By the end of the day the station had figured out about 19 home and away dates. “We’ve got the Sabres playing at the [Florida] Panthers on February 28 and again on March 28.” Correct. “A caller just reported that he called the Capitals to reserve a suite for the Sabres/Caps game, and the team said the date at the Verizon Center was January 27.” Correct again.

As Saturday dragged on, fans and the media were becoming increasingly frustrated. The #GarageLeague hashtag was trending on Twitter; not only were fans anxious to begin planning their game dates, the beleaguered restaurants and bars and other businesses wanted to begin the process of bringing on extra staff and resources for the games, and not have to make the calls on a Sunday. Yet the day stretched on, lawyers for the NHL and NHLPA undoubtedly salivating over billable hours, and the public waited. And waited. And waited.

At approximately 10:45pm on Saturday, almost a full week after the announcement that the league and the players had reached an agreement, the 2013 Buffalo Sabres schedule was at last released.

“I understand the public frustration, but we didn’t have a complete schedule in place until Saturday, and in fact one final change was inserted to our schedule on Saturday,” said Sabres vice president for public relations Michael Gilbert.

Gilbert reported that the team received a draft schedule on Wednesday, and numerous adjustments were made in the ensuing days. “We had the home dates in place, but it’s not official until the league says its official, so we could not release anything until that time.”

As things turned out, all the schedule talk and speculation just added to the drama and mystique and water-cooler discussion. Mini-pack buyers and Blue and Gold members swooped in on the presale. So much for fan apathy and boycotts.

Come this Sunday, hockey in all its passion and glory returns to Buffalo. Judging by all the buzz going on around the city, it’s safe to say that Buffalo is pumped.

Taro sez...

• The Sabres have 15,400 season tickets sold, with a waiting list of 3,000 requests. The team had just 80 cancellations during the offseason and the lockout.

• Only 18,000 tickets in total for the 24 home games remained unsold when the ticket windows opened to the general public on Tuesday. The team sold 5,000 more single-game tickets the first day,

• Four games are sold out: January 20, Philadelphia; February 17, Pittsburgh; March 12, New York Rangers; March 20, Washington. For all remaining games, only single seats are available in the lower bowls.

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