Fans in Western New York are crazy about the Sabres and fill HBSC Arena to the max, but will that change if Lindy Ruff and the Sabres continue to struggle? (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
I was perusing the Team Reports for an upcoming issue of The Hockey News (the old-school paper version, that is) when I was struck by a sense of optimism in many quarters of the NHL.
Our themed category was Market Buzz and while there are notable pockets of pessimism, skies are blue, waters are still and acne has cleared in a surprising number of locales. And, no, Gary Bettman didn’t author the team stories.
In places such as Chicago, Anaheim, Atlanta, Columbus, Boston, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington (and all of Canada, of course) there is a belief among our correspondents that excitement is high in the markets they cover, never mind this is prime time for MLB playoffs, the NFL season is in full swing and the global economy is in a free-fall.
However, a couple lines in one of the stories triggered alarm bells for me. Call it my DEW (Distant Early Warning) sensor going off, but I have a modicum of concern for a team in hockey’s heartland: the Buffalo Sabres.
“Buffalo just doesn’t seem as psycho about the Sabres,” writes our contributor John Vogl. “Football is king again and has recaptured everyone’s imagination. It appears hockey season may not start in full until January.”
Naturally, this needs to be put into perspective. The Sabres are still thriving. Ticket sales remain high – they figure to continue to sell out – and their merchandise is still red hot. Short-term, all is fine.
It’s the long-term picture that worries me. Buffalo is a small, fragile market with serious economic issues, which stand to be exacerbated by the stock market tumble. In places such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, the local baseball and/or football teams can flourish and still leave huge dollars left over for the NHL club.
That’s not the case in Buffalo. With the Bills off to a 4-0 start and the Sabres coming off a highly disappointing non-playoff season, the balance of spending power is now back in the football team’s field. If the Sabres stumble again this season, how quickly will the entertainment dollars evaporate?
Before this off-season, owner Tom Golisano took a hardline, bottom-line approach with his hockey venture, eschewing long-term, big-buck demands from several headliners. It cost the club Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell, not to mention goodwill among the paying customers.
That philosophy has shifted somewhat – signings of Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville are Exhibit A and B – but what if it’s too little, too late? Or what if the Sabres can’t elevate themselves and begin to bleed money? How much patience will Golisano have?
Remember, this is a team he purchased from bankruptcy just five years ago. I hope a perfect economic hockey storm isn’t brewing in Western New York, but a puffy cloud or two is starting to form in that brilliant blue sky.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
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