Today’s press conference with Tom Golisano, Larry Quinn and Dan Dipofi highlighted why the Golisano regime has driven many Sabres fans to new heights of frustrations. Tom Golisano opened the press conference with a rambling defense of the Sabres’ accomplishments during his ownership. To be certain there are many things that Golisano should and does take great pride in. As some may be aware, Golisano “saved” the Sabres. A fact that some are often very quick to point out…. often. Larry Quinn termed Golisano one of the great entrepreneurs in America and of that there is absolutely no doubt. Golisano purchased the bankrupt Sabres for pennies on the dollar and gave them instant financial credibility and most importantly credit. Golisano took a franchise that was on its death bed and revived it, breathed new life into it. As Quinn and Golisano pointed out today, Golisano took a risky investment, added value to it, ran it smartly from a financial perspective and is now reaping the rewards from the sale to Terry Pegula. Sabres fans understand that, they have thanked Golisano for it many times and it would be nice if we could remember the “white knight” (as Gary Bettman called him) as just that, the man who saved the franchise and handed it off to another owner completely dedicated to keeping the team in Buffalo. But Golisano’s legacy is muddied by failures, secrecy and fan frustration.
Remember that while Golisano saved the franchise, there would be no franchise if not for the fans and the Knox family. It is the passion of hockey fans in Western New York and Southern Ontario who create the possibility for the existence of the team. It’s the fans spending their hard earned money on overpriced merchandise and tickets that mask a clever price gouging scheme that can out price a fan’s ability to see the more attractive teams in the NHL. Golisano mentioned the fans’ passion and support but while people will point out there are some who don’t get enough credit for what happened during the Golisano era it’s worth noting that the top of that list should start with Sabres fans who are far more hockey savvy, loyal and dedicated than most fan bases in the NHL. And while we’re handing out thank you’s and pats on the back, it was kind of sad to hear the Knoxes mentioned only once. So thank you for that Dan Dipofi.
Was there closure today? No. Golisano’s rambling list of team accomplishments at times was on the money. Back to back conference final appearances is something few teams ever do and something he should justly be proud of. Golisano made several mentions that handing the players their president trophies was the proudest moment of his ownership. Of course he wasn’t so proud that he could retain the two key players who drove that team but more on that shortly. While a president’s trophy is nice, it is meaningless. So are division titles. So is win percentage. Golisano seemed overly defensive during the press conference, too quick to pull out absurd facts that hockey fans know don’t mean anything. Golisano wasn’t a hockey fan before he purchased the Sabres and today he really came off as someone who can appreciate the game but doesn’t seem to get it. He was bottom lining things, reading numbers and charts. Things he’s made over a billion dollars doing, and doing better than most people in the world (no exaggeration). But it’s not what a hockey person does. Tim Connolly will bring us sixty points. Great but he has led us nowhere. Mike Peca may not have gotten points but the man led a team. There are intangibles that fans laugh at and intangibles that actually mean something. And it’s that category of intangibles that hockey people get and non-hockey people don’t. It’s why winning percentage, division titles, etc. just don’t mean all that much.
When Drury and Briere were brought up the Sabres’ ruling triumvirate were visibly uncomfortable and defensive. Golisano defended not signing Drury and Briere as a value judgment. Golisano even went on to claim the Sabres made the right decision based on a statiscal analysis between the production of Briere and Drury the past three seasons and Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek. Of course this defense completely ignores the fact that the team that was led by Drury and Briere accomplished many of the things Golisano claimed as the team’s top accomplishments and delivered Golisano’s proudest moment in team history. Larry Quinn was quick to leap to Golisano’s defense citing that player transactions are two way streets. Indeed they are Mr. Quinn. No argument. Unfortunately both Briere and Drury indicated in 2007 they had agreed to stay and even agreed to terms with the Sabres. Drury said his agreement came early in the season and the Sabres never called him back. Briere told a similar story. Rumors have circulated that Golisano himself voided the deals and this gave rise to the infamous “he’s been handcuffed” defense of Darcy Regier’s incompetence over the seasons. When asked about the fans’ perception that Golisano took a President’s trophy team and basically ran them into the ground Golisano sarcastically replied “Gee, did I do that?”. When pressed Golisano claimed he made no decisions, he gave no direction to the team other than “running at or near break even”. When asked further if that mean it was Quinn and Regier who made bad hockey decisions Golisano claimed he didn’t say that and once more made the value judgment decision. If Golisano wasn’t canceling contracts wouldn’t that place the blame squarely on Regier and Quinn? And completely destroy the Regier is handcuffed defense?
So perhaps its fitting to make a value judgment on the Golisano era. The Sabres are better off without him. During his tenure the Sabres seem to recapture some of the duplicitious, secretive, poisoness atmosphere that existed in the late 1990′s as the Knoxes were getting out and feuds erupted off ice between Muckler, Nolan, Hasek, et. al. Under Golisano players who were absolutely crucial to the team’s success were cut loose while the team played victim and did their best to cast the players as the bad guys. In their place younger, cheaper players were kept and the team was shaped into a great impression of the 1980′s era teams (they also had their share of meaningless regular season titles and win percentage). The Sabres got lucky to some degree after the lockout. They had a roster that was pathetic before the lockout but tailored for it after thanks to a coach who was four steps ahead of the entire league. Then it was just pissed away over value judgments from poor hockey minds. This is something Golisano never seemed to appreciate. Sports isn’t about the bottom line. Regier has proven that assembling skill doesn’t work, it’s not how to build a hockey team. A hockey team needs hockey players and Golisano’s group didn’t seem to appreciate hockey players. They took the fans’ passion for the team as a constant knowing they could pretty much do what they wanted and we fans would still show up. We can’t help ourselves, we love this team. We breathe this team. We’re part of the team. We don’t brag and whine about driving two hundred times to see a game. True fans live to do things like that, we barely take note of it.
I wish today could have ended with a collective handshake and a “good luck to you”. But ownership’s actions and arrogance over the years just leave a bitter taste in the mouth. It’s time to turn the page. Terry Pegula seems to have all the traits Golisano lacks. He’s giving the fan base hope again. The Sabres and their fans are trading up. So thank you for that Tom Golisano. But it’s time for you to go.