We’re okay on first names here right? I’m Matt, PSU Law ’09 (We are!). Anyways, you and your wife first came across my radar some nine years ago not for any Buffalo association or prospects regarding their two professional teams but because of your Penn State associations. I’d played intramural floor hockey there with a team of classmates, a collection of hockey fans of the Pens, Flyers, Islanders, Rangers, Flames and yes, the Sabres. We’d occasionally talk about how Penn State had the ideal student body to support a D1 hockey team and now here you were a year or so after graduation, fresh from cashing out on a lucrative career facilitated by Pennsylvania’s lack of environmental regulations to provide that. Your philanthropy at the time seemed to be a godsend that occasionally but not often happened from Nittany Lion alums and seemed tailored to us specifically. There was to be a cash bomb to hire the best staff, recruit the best players and most of all, provide a state of the art arena, a student section with bleachers as steep as the fire code would allow, an arena tailored to enhance crowd noise and intimidate schools steeped in tradition like Michigan and Minnesota. The facilities were to be the best for training, practicing and teaching the players the game.
And you delivered. The arena that bares your name has one of the loudest atmospheres in the collegiate game. The coach is fantastic. The players are not merely consistently good but they consistently find their way to NHL rosters. They were a game away from the Frozen Four five years into their existence and this year merely two goals away from another tournament berth. The team has provided an excuse for reunions with my friends that may not have otherwise happened so for that cash bomb I will always be thankful.
I’ve been a Sabres fan as long as I can remember. The nuances have been discussed here before but I think having an absent dad, raised by my grandfather and mom, plus the affordability, easier commute and less debaucherous atmosphere contributed to me going to Sabres games much more as a kid. I had my first girlfriend in 1999, attended game four by myself, game five the next year with my grandfather in the last game we’d attend together. I attended game one against the flyers in 2006 with my college sweetheart, graduated college on three hours sleep from the delirium of Pominville’s winner. So many wonderful moments of my life are intertwined with that franchise, a proud one that for their first forty years only missed the playoffs three years in a row once. Family, friends and times now long gone that can be remembered fondly with that team.
A couple months after the Penn State announcement your name started to be floated around regarding the Sabres. This was welcome for numerous reasons but at the core it was that we’d become discouraged as to the state of the franchise and what its purpose was. Ownership and management had made very clear back in 2007 that success was not worth paying above a certain amount. They took the best team in the league and languished, a team without its leadership, without a reliable backup goalie, narrowly missing the playoffs two years in a row. Sure, they followed that up with a division winner but even that team was missing something. We weren’t being unreasonable, we just had a standard. In ten years they’d made the Stanley cup finals once, been 20 minutes away from it again, won a president’s trophy, made another conference final and been some 77 seconds away from another one. To then take their foot off the gas, to try to cobble a couple seasons together with a mishmash of spare parts and vets wasn’t acceptable. We needed an owner to whom success wasn’t merely the easiest way to turn a profit, it was the entire point.
I listened to your press conference in the car, on the lonely eight-plus hour drive back to Barre, Vermont. After the press conference I listened to WGR the rest of the way back. In early 2011 I extremely did not have my shit together, sleeping on a mattress on the floor above an insane fundamentalist Christian family, listening to games on my phone while sitting in a camping chair playing video games, digging my car out from a new snowstorm every two weeks, drinking a bottle of wine or two a night. But listening to you wax poetic about the Sabres role in your life, your love for the French Connection, the sole purpose of existence being a title, the deprioritizing of profits in favor of bringing in the best and the brightest, it brought tears to my eyes and chills up my spine. Here was this unfathomably rich couple and somehow their connection to the team was the same as mine! These weren’t cold, calculating venture capitalists, this were people with an emotional connection to the team. I trudged in the snow to watch you be introduced before the Ottawa game, trudged to that same bar to watch the vast majority of games the rest of the way, having honest to god tears watching them run the clock out against Philly and then win it in overtime. Gutting game 6 and 7 aside, hockey was back and we couldn’t wait for more.
The local press was a bit unfair to you at the start weren’t they? Some were deeply condescending to Kim, others had this bizarre obsession with somehow tying you to the Penn State scandal, trying to follow the hockey program money as if it would end up in Sandusky’s legal fund. It was gross and upsetting to me both as an alum and as a Sabres fan; you’d made this amazing gesture with your money, rescued my favorite team from the dead and now some pencil neck like Mike Harrington or sausage neck like Bucky Gleason felt like taking potshots? Fuck that.
After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2012 you didn’t hesitate during a slow start in the lockout season to fire an icon in Lindy Ruff. This was fine, many of us thought the modern game had passed him by (despite his success with the modern game 05-07 and 09-11) and with the mid-aughts core slowly aging out of their prime it was time for a full reset. We were all on board with this; it showed you were paying attention as much as the fans, were frustrated along with the fans and unlike the fans, had the power to make clear that the fans deserved better. We knew things might get ugly. We were still with you.
When Ralph Wilson died five years back I actually thought it was unfair and unappreciative for fans and media to run to you and urge/question whether you would buy them. After all, you were a hockey guy. You’d kept the hockey team here, pumped it full of cash, given the sign off to chase the best and most expensive coaches and free agents, and here were all these Bills-first pissants whining about the Bills leaving. While I’m certainly a Bills fan, my thought was Ralph was the one who left this open-ended and if Rogers was going to swoop in, pay a nominal penalty and move the team out in 2022, lying about viability and stadium requirements while setting things in motion in Toronto, so be it. I wrote about life without the Bills, about downgrading to something with lower stakes like a CFL franchise, picturing summer Friday nights with open air tailgates and a big rivalry with Hamilton. After fifteen years of failure it seemed frankly a little quaint.
The point was you didn’t have to buy them, nothing you’d ever said led anyone to believe you would buy them, and besides your interest in the NFL seemed passive anyways. That said, I was ecstatic when you came out of nowhere with your offer and blew Toronto and some television blowhard away. Both teams were safe and that was because of your finances. Despite the last place Sabres finish the previous year there was a plan. They grabbed the best offensive prospect in Sam Reinhart and word was there were two kids coming out the following year that could change the trajectory of whoever was lucky enough to draft them. I was sold.
It’s been five years. I guess the only thing that’s up in the air now is to ask which one is it? Were you lying to us in 2011, or did your priorities, your expectations, your goals for this club change? It’s either one or the other. Whichever one it is begs the simple follow up question, why?
Last season was the most disappointing season in franchise history, at least comparing expectations to results. The team had shown growth under Bylsma, albeit slow growth hampered with a few big whiffs by the general manager. You had your core but development was too slow. This highly touted Nashville assistant and former star was to get things on track. What happened was the team fell off the cliff; the season was dead by Halloween, they finished worst in the league yet again. It was baldly obvious that this coach was not the answer- you can’t improve in skill and get worse. The time for losing was over and while Dahlin was a hell of a silver lining, at some point wins have to be expected. To me and many fans, the 17-18 performance could not have shown more clearly that Phil Housley’s vision was not cut out for this league, at least as a head coach. Your reaction was to do nothing.
During this time you’ve been quite busy. You tag along on college pro days, you follow the Bills GM and coaches around to meetings, you acquire massive swaths of property throughout Buffalo for presumably a modern NFL stadium. You pop up in the New York Times on owner transcripts, fretting about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling Anquan Boldin by the wrong name, complaining about sponsorship issues with the hockey team (which had been at the bottom of the league for several years by this point). You’re there in the locker room in Miami when they break the playoff drought with the third coach of your short tenure. It would appear that you’re obviously smitten with the level of influence financially and otherwise that comes with being part of the NFL owners club. It would appear that you’ve realized it is this the real ticket to gaining more property and business influence in Western New York and otherwise. Of course, when we all met you eight years ago we didn’t think that real estate, business development or influence were your goals. We didn’t just assume that- you told us explicitly, in probably the clearest press conference you’ve ever given in your life. So did you lie? Or did you just change?
It’s hard to describe the damage that these Sabres seasons have done to the fanbase, to the discourse, to the actual love of hockey in the region. Last year for the first time I canceled my hockey package, before Thanksgiving; the prospect of spending three hours feeling sad or angry didn’t appeal to me, not in a world such as today’s with children being kept in modern concentration camps, mothers, fathers ripped out of hospitals, courtrooms, car accidents and shipped to countries they’ve never set foot in. Mass shootings of students, movie buffs, concert goers, night club attendees, churchgoers. A world that we know will be worse for our children than it is for us and will likely be worse for our grandkids than it is for our kids. This year I canceled it just after Valentine’s Day.
Something that was once nearly as much of my identity as my loved ones (what I wouldn’t have done to have had gamecenter as an option as a 1L in 2006-07) was for the first time not worth my time. Did you notice any of this a year ago? Did you follow the season? Did you see the empty seats, hear the silent, discouraged crowd? Did you hear about the collapse of the secondary market, people unwilling to pay $10 to take in that team? How many listless performances did you watch? I ask because you sold yourself as a die-hard Sabres fan, a lifelong Sabres fan, a fan desperate to bring a Stanley Cup nay, multiple Stanley Cups. Certainly you had to have watched, had to have solicited viewpoints not just from your employees but from the fans, from the media. Surely you must have listened to WGR once in a while, read The Buffalo News recapping yet another dreary night on Washington Street. Surely you must have heard from your accountants about the failure of the World Juniors, been surprised since that had been such a boon for the economy and fanbase back in 2010. Surely you must have heard about season ticket figures. Surely you knew one year ago that things were dire.
So did you lie? Or did you just change?
After hitting on Dahlin and getting Skinner I don’t think it was unreasonable for anyone to demand a competitive team. While I thought I may have skewed close to unreasonable- I wanted meaningful March hockey and 5 points or less from the playoffs- it seemed everyone was at least demanding improvement-marked improvement- from such a disappointment. After the opener I was prepared to cut my subscription in the first month of the season but a funny thing started happening- they looked competent.
It’s hard to describe the win streak aside from just so needed. It was the month before my wedding, they demolished Ottawa during my stag and despite a loss the next day didn’t lose until my parents were at our place putting together gift bags the night before heading to the venue. Once again I was screaming, jumping off my couch, wearing my jerseys and gear out to the bars, blasting DJ Kool when it came on in my car. Were they back?
When it ended they were in first place and honestly anything but a total collapse would result not just in meaningful March hockey but a playoff berth for the first time since you came into the picture all those years ago. They’d have their first fifty goal scorer since I was a kid. They may not have the depth to roll through the playoffs, they may be unpolished and a little young but a message was going to be sent to Boston, Montreal and most of all Toronto that the Sabres were going to need to be considered moving forward. When we moved at the start of 2019 I had early April pegged for my first trip home centered around a party in the plaza, showing my wife over four years after we met just why I was celebrating those losses the first weeks of our courtship, taking in playoff hockey not as a student or as a flailing entry level employee desperately trying to find his way, but as a happy newlywed whose career had finally carved a path of modest comfort. The Sabres had always been there and I was going to be there for them.
Not only did this not happen, everyone involved in managing the team and everyone in charge of overseeing that management did nothing. As the team clung to their playoff spot, the shortcomings and holes obvious, your General Manager did nothing. When he made call-ups, your coach- whose wife’s doomed senate campaign you eagerly opened your checkbook for- refused to play them outright or played them with his boat anchors. As they sunk in the standings these same two men refused to take action. The things their very job descriptions call for- building a roster and implementing winning strategy- did not take place. By the time a trade was made they were fading from contention and the coach never modified any of his philosophies even as his players proved they needed to be changed.
Did you ever dive into the facts and figures of this season? Did you ever watch and notice how the coach played his worst players immediately after scoring goals? Did you then notice that they had a problem with immediately surrendering goals after scoring, killing their momentum? Did you notice he had the same tendency to do this in the closing minutes of periods and games and that it elicited similar problems? Did you follow the fact that when he was called up Pilut immediately looked like the second best defenseman on the roster? Did you notice the coach greeted that revelation with ping ponging him between the ice and press box, eventually adding Rochester into the mix? Did you notice goalies were decided based on results, not performance? Did you notice the dismay of the fans? Did you feel frustration when the coach would bring out the same tired platitudes about effort, about chances? Did you hear your GM talk about this season as a success merely because it was better than the previous season? Did you watch as your new star went from a shoo-in for fifty to not even reaching forty? Have you noticed your GM has failed to sign that star long-term? Certainly a die-hard, lifelong fan would feel dismay, anger at the coach and GM standing idly by as the season drifts off the road and then off the cliff. All the ones I know sure did.
So did you lie? Or did you just change?
Last week, you granted a rare interview. Symbolically Arizona could have been a trillion miles from Buffalo where the hockey team was going through yet another listless performance in what would end up being a two-win March. You were asked about your team, this team you have loved since you were a young man, this team you supposedly went to see with your wife the day after your wedding. This team for which nothing but a Stanley Cup was once the goal but who had not sniffed the playoffs in seven years. Certainly this was unacceptable. No one expected you to fire folks over the television but certainly you empathized and shared the frustration of your fellow fans?
Instead, you lauded Housley’s playing days, days that ended before one generation of fans entered school and before the newest generation of fans was even born. You called him a young coach which I assume referred to his coaching career and not his actual age. You said the team was young, that they would grow despite the fact that the team isn’t that young anymore. You deferred to your GM, the same one who refused to call for help when the ship was sinking, alluded to the coach being safe, saying things needed to change but you “didn’t know what.” You made vague statements about Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s and the New England Patriots that alluded to the importance of continuity. For the first time you sounded like what you are, an aloof owner whose team is simply not a priority. You were busy, busy talking up a new football stadium and gearing up for the fights that will bring. You wanted to tag along with Brandon Beane, talk shop, you seemed like the hockey team was literally the last thing you wanted to discuss. It was a long way from “where’s Perreault?”
There can no longer be any debate that these are the darkest days in the history of the franchise. The roster is stocked with exponentially more talent than it was five years ago but their performance has not improved. No one associated with the team has had the temerity to say that this is not acceptable. That in itself is unfathomable based on the franchise’s first forty seasons or based on the path taken in 2013. This is a zombie franchise far more under your watch than it ever was under the watch of hucksters like Golisano or criminals like the Rigas family. Frankly, you seem over their failures as much as fans who have checked out. You have more positive things to do than worry about your hockey team! You can talk up Josh Allen, your coach everyone seems to love, the new signings. You can talk about property development and growth in the canalside area.
Meanwhile your hockey management team seems to have picked up the “culture” and “process” buzzwords in a vain attempt to spin the massive failure of the past two seasons as things just going according to plan. The hockey-first fans don’t buy it of course as they aren’t rubes like the football-first crowd but that matters little, right?
I’m not sure you realized when you presented yourself as a die-hard, lifelong fan how many people actually met that description. I’m not sure you realized how many Buffalonians, spread all over the continent, settled in on their couches three times a week, six months a year to watch the hockey team. I’m not sure you realized how many fans devour stats and performance metrics of your team, how many can easily discover that excuses provided by the coach failed to hold water. I’m not sure you understood what was happening in the city in November, what was happening over Thanksgiving weekend as a region and a fanbase dared to dream the darkness was over. I know you don’t understand how it felt the weeks and months after that, as the team and those leading it plunged themselves and us along with them right back into the abyss, the light gone again. As the season ends that light disappears permanently for another group of fans who say “no more,” leaving fewer of us to attempt to muster another season of hope, recycling memories long gone and not knowing if those memories are strong enough to make it through another winter, a car battery on its last legs. The legions who will sign on to be disappointed, embarrassed, patronized will dwindle yet again, leaving fewer of us to muster yet another season, pilot lights barely flickering, ready to be extinguished before the first snowfall.
Did you lie? Or did you just change?
You are the worst case scenario. You are so far removed from what you presented to the world in early 2011 that anyone predicting this back then would have been dismissed immediately as not just a pessimist, but an idiot. I defended the manner through which you obtained your riches to my more woke friends because to me you were no different than a close friend I disagreed with over taxes or guns. You were a Sabres fan goddammit and so long as you were working to bring a cup to Buffalo then I couldn’t give a shit as to how you made your money. I warned people five years ago that you didn’t owe the city anything more, you didn’t need to open your pocketbook for the football team because Ralph made the bed and after all you weren’t even a football guy! As people fretted over the hiring of poor coaches I told my friends something like “you don’t get to be that successful without knowing to kick people out when they aren’t doing their job.” Turns out I was the idiot.
Your reign has created an atmosphere where something as exciting and big as the Frozen Four is coming to your arena and no one cares to go. It’s not merely their love for the team that is suffering, it is their love for the sport. If you are concerned about continuity in coaching, if you are concerned with your reputation in the league, let me assure you that every minute that passes with Phil Housley in charge of that team only makes it worse. You know what’s worse than firing people willy-nilly every 18 months? Keeping the worst coach in franchise history because you’re afraid of your image. That’s what cowards do and that’s what people who ultimately do not care about the success of their franchise do. You have taken a franchise that for people of a certain age holds far more of a connection and brings up far more fond memories than the football team and you have effectively watched it slowly die. You’re nothing more than a 19th century British MP watching the Great Famine unfold and brushing it off because after all, there’s stadium blueprints and a football draft coming up.
I watched No Goal in ninth grade at the house of a friend who would nearly 20 years later be my best man. After the shock- and being unaware of the conflagration whipping up over the goal call- I hopped on my bike to go home. I remember saying to myself that it was okay, they’ll just win it all next year. I said something similar to myself in 2000, in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011. Failure is a part of every aspect of life and sports are of course no different; being a Buffalo fan has always made that clear. I’ve only grown stronger in my appreciation for my fellow fans and those who we share these experiences with.
What has also become clear as I’ve grown from a 15 year old to a 35 year old is that powerful people lie. They lie to get what they want, they lie to avoid questions or scrutiny, they lie because they can. I’m not sure if you lied because the Sabres were your way in, I’m not sure if you lied because you felt it would ease the scrutiny from media, I’m not sure if you lied because you just wanted to be the hero. But I know this: