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The Sabres Aren't Moving Anywhere

Relax, People!

The scene was Key Arena in Seattle, right next door to the landmark Space Needle. The date was April 13, 2008, and the Seattle Supersonics were playing their final game.

This would be no ordinary game. Sonics owner Clay Bennett had pulled the trigger: He was breaking his lease with the City of Seattle. He was pulling stakes and taking his team to Oklahoma City. In doing so, he was ripping the hearts out a solid and enthusiastic fan base, ending a long and storied history that began in the city in 1967, displacing a team that won a world championship in 1979. Yes, there were quarrels over a new arena for the Sonics, but the city had pulled off new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks. Surely, in this rich city, the corporate home for Microsoft and Boeing, something would be worked out, right?

As the game wound down, tearful and melancholy fans began chanting, “Save our Sonics!” A packed house, a wonderful NBA city, great fans who deserved better. How could this happen?

It was a surreal scene that night in Seattle, a black eye for the NBA, and a testament to corporate sports ownership greed at its worst.

Could this same scene be replayed here in Buffalo in the near future? Possibly.

Will it? Nah.

Last week Western New York Hockey Magazine released the bombshell story that the Sabres were for sale, that the owners were entertaining offers below market value. Immediately the name Jim Balsillie came up—the billionaire who wants to land a NHL team for Hamilton/Kitchener/Waterloo.

The article’s timing couldn’t have been worse. There already were plenty of frayed nerves around town with the Buffalo Bills playing their Toronto game, fueling speculation about what might happen to our football team down the road. Now this.

But whether Tom Golisano elects to sell his team or decides to stay on as owner, the Buffalo Sabres are staying put. They aren’t moving anywhere. Despite all the consternation and national headlines that the story brought on, we all need to relax.

Here are plenty of good reasons why the Sabres will be with us for a long time to come:

An ironclad lease. One of the positives that came out of the bankruptcy reorganization is that the Sabres had to reaffirm their lease with HSBC Arena. It is a long-term lease, and while any such arrangement can be broken, it is not likely to happen here. The Sonics lease, by comparison, was set to expire in 2010 anyway.

A great hockey market. Gary Bettman’s great vision to bring the NHL to all corners of the United States could be deemed a failure. Franchises in Phoenix, Miami, and Carolina, among other places, are greeted with fan apathy and disinterest. Buffalo, meanwhile, enjoys a strong customer ticket base, consistently high television ratings, rabid enthusiasm in the community, and proximity to Canada, which injects its own feel and culture into our hockey product.

The Tom Golisano factor. Tom Golisano has been loved, hated, then loved again by the Buffalo populace. The good? He saved our hockey franchise. The bad? His underlying commitment to building a true champion. (Some guys named Drury and Briere come to mind.) The ugly? Any of those Responsible NY mailers will do. But no matter what you think about Golisano, his commitment to this region is beyond question. Any deal to sell his team surely will be predicated on a solid commitment to keeping the Sabres here in Buffalo.

A generation ago a man named Paul Snyder took the big bucks and the easy way out and sold the Buffalo Braves, and the team ended up moving. To this day he is scorned and reviled. Golisano will not want to see his legacy tarnished in the same way.

No games in Hamilton. Copps Coliseum is a shabby, dated venue devoid of premium amenities so vital to today’s pro sports teams. Ticket prices? To make it work they would have to charge prices which would make our platinum tickets look like family night. Would people there attend? Maybe once, as a curiosity. But make no mistake, Hamiltonians do not like the Sabres, and generally look at Buffalo as the bane of their hockey existence. Last year the Sabres played a preseason game up there, and even their favorite son Adam Mair got booed out of the building.

■ Where would the Sabres go? Other than Hamilton, Kansas City and its new Sprint Center comes to mind. Las Vegas is chomping for a pro sports team. Winnipeg and Quebec City richly deserve a return to the NHL, but their dreams are little more than pretty Web sites and online petitions. If any of these cities land the NHL, it will not be at Buffalo’s expense.

As the Sabres head towards their 40th anniversary, their future in Buffalo seems assured for the next 40 years. As for a Stanley Cup as part of that future? Well, that’s a whole other story.


Bill Clinton in the building! The Prez attended the Tampa Bay Lightning game last week at HSBC Arena and sat in the owner’s box. The Sabres beat Tampa, and Clinton’s Sabres record now goes to 2-1.

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