Friday, June 1, 2007

Let's Go Buffalo!

At about the time when I decided to I start writing a blog about Buffalo I stumbled upon a blogging section of The Buffalo News, and I still enjoy reading the comments from area readers.

I believe that their takes on any given subject reflects the “word on the street” and makes me feel more closely connected to my fellow Buffalonians (Buffaluvians, Buffalovites). It’s the same reason I always read the Letters to the Editor section. Once in a while I throw in my two cents, like what I did just before adding this to my blog.

What you’re about to read is what got me a little worked up because it is at the very crux of what is wrong with professional sports in North America. I pose this simple question: Would a business be considered failing if it doesn’t turn a profit? I say Yes. Not all agree with me.

Some sports fans could care less whether or not their team makes money so long as it gets the big name players and competes in the postseason. At that rate, the fan will have priced himself out of his seat and detached himself from the game that he loves. Insanity.

Well, my intro is longer than I wanted it to be so I’ll cut it short. Here is what Tim Graham wrote about the current state of the Buffalo Sabres. You’ll find my diatribe soon thereafter.

Cam's deal could hurt Sabres

While most Sabres fans are wringing their hands over what will become of their co-captain centers, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, and their leading goal scorer, Thomas Vanek, this summer in the free agent marketplace, Ryan Miller's stock looks like it will skyrocket.
Miller still has two years left on the contract he signed last summer, so he's not going anywhere yet. But if anybody needed further proof the All-Star goalie is underpaid, all they need to do is take a gander at what the Hurricanes gave Cam Ward today. Ward reportedly received Miller's contract, three years at $2 million, $2.5 million and $3.5 million.
Sure, Ward's name is on the Stanley Cup. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2006 postseason MVP. He certainly deserved more than the $684,000 he made this past season. The thing is, Miller has been the superior goalie, leading the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals his first two NHL seasons, while Ward turned in an erratic sophomore campaign and didn't return to the playoffs at all. And let's not forget this was a goalie who got pulled postseason in favor of Martin Gerber before regrouping in Carolina's Cup run.
Ward's numbers were mediocre this season. His 2.86 GAA ranked 31st in the league. His .897 save percentage ranked 34th. He had 30 wins in 60 games.
Miller, meanwhile, was 20th with his 2.73 GAA and 16th with his .911 save percentage. His 40 wins (in 63 games) were tied for third, and the two who finished first and second, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, played 78 and 76 games, respectively. Miller also was sensational in the playoffs. His nine wins (fourth), 2.22 GAA (seventh) and .922 save percentage (ninth) all rated among the best.
The sense here is that neither Miller nor his agent, Mike Liut, are the type to stage a holdout for a new contract. When Miller signed his deal, however, there was a general understanding from both sides that he was being underpaid for salary cap purposes and that the contract would be restructured before it was up.
The Sabres' financial constraints just got a little tighter.
---Tim Graham

My Response to Tim Graham:

Tim, you should be an agent. Using "superior" when referring to a youngster like Miller comes across as a tough pill to swallow. Granted, the kid had a great season, but you should save “superior” when referring to Hasek, Roy, and Tretiak when they were at the top of their respective games.

It would be a crime for Miller to leave the Sabres, or rather if the Sabres let him go, but hold your horses for a second. The National Hockey League just came back and gave the City of Buffalo a heck of a lot of fun for the past couple of seasons when they revamped their system, but the problem was this; they didn't do enough of the revamping.

Apologies to the Jeremy Roenick sympathizers out there, but the NHL brass and the NHL Players Association should have cut the salaries even further (like at least another 25% further) than they did during pro hockey’s year in exile.

A lockout and two fast and furious years later and where are we heading?

What’s going to end up happening is that the NHL and the NHLPA will face the same problems sooner rather than later. If our owner says that increasing our budget will require a deep playoff run to make the team fiscally sound, then the league is up a frozen creek sans a sharpened paddle.

Isn’t that how hockey skated onto its thin ice before? Yep.

So now what?

I love the quote a ways back where a reader scoffed at the idea about present day sports making money for the owners. That struck me as a sad but true commentary on hockey, where the players are more important than the game itself.

It’s not so much about the owners as businessmen, turned fans, turned captains of happily sinking ships. Now the players are businessmen who would forsake the sport, or rather the “almighty” NHL, in lieu of a few extra dollars because “their friends are doing it.”

To those of us who love the sport and have dreamt about lacing up the skates and hearing our names on the public address at the Aud (yes, the Aud. I go back to that), it hurts.

It also hurts the next generation of hockey fans. Remember what it was like to sit in the Orange Section’s nose bleed seats back in the day? It made no difference if you could touch the cigarette butts that were hanging from the rafters, every seat in the Aud was a good one. You were right on top of the ice. Fans were ravenous. And so were the peanut vendors.

When big money was introduced to hockey it brought with it the need for even bigger money and, slowly but surely, the game began to change. Now the City of Buffalo has a jewel downtown that plays host to a number of community events as well as the hometown’s NHL franchise.

But at what cost?

Put the dollars and cents aside for a moment and think about the last game you went to at the HSBC Arena. Fans like my father who spent their hard earned dough to bring a family of five to catch Gil Perreault could afford to do so back then. And when we went to the arena they served just as much as a learning tool about the rules and the dynamics of the game.

Take that same family of five now. How much would money that many tickets set a fella back these days? Relatively speaking, it’s just not the same. He might, might be able to do that once or twice a season—maybe. And that’s if the boss gave him some tickets.

What you’ve got now is a large portion of the fans filling the seats based on their economic ability to be there rather than based on their actual level of interest in the competition. Not that that’s a bad thing (for the owners anyway).

But in all actuality it is kind of a bad thing. Here’s why.

Cheering is almost looked down upon at the HSBC now, save for the playoffs when people who really want to view the games shell out the dough to get in, the cheers are mostly reactionary to the goals and big hits.

But what about the seemingly meaningless game in the middle of the season against the league’s lousiest team when only 9,000 fans show up to the HSBC. That’s the game when that family of five might be able to afford the tickets.

That’s where the next generation of fans learns about the importance of clearing the zone on a penalty kill or the value of hustle along the boards—the importance of which may have unfortunately been lost on a few of our players this postseason.

With the big money and its subsequent mismanagement by the greedy owners and players over the years, we’ve seen North American hockey become a degraded product that is featured on the Outdoor Life Network (now Versus), and the owners wonder why.

We know what’s wrong with the sport. It’s not the goalies having oversized equipment and roaming around behind the net. It’s not that the nets are too small. It’s not the uniforms are too big and loose. It’s not that at all.

You don’t have to change the game to bring fans back to hockey or to open franchises in new cities. Don’t change the game, change the way the game does business. You almost had it right a couple of years ago.

The problem is that the owners pulled the legs out from its support base by removing the diehard, sports loving fan who couldn’t wait to buy a ticket to see the game in person, and they put the emphasis on filling the luxury boxes with businessmen who carry a passing interest in the hockey.

And why did they do it? Money. At first to line their pockets, but later to do the same for the players. The same players who were getting paid more than their owners could afford.

Some of them could care less about the cities for whom they represent. To them it’s just another jersey, another color of socks, a new roll of tape for the axe. Bring the game back to the hungry players and the hungry fans. Make hockey like it used to be. When snot nosed kids tried the cagey veterans, when the goalies ruled their creases, and when a family of five could pass along the tradition.

Then we won’t have to worry about whether or not the club makes enough to pay its bills and stay in town for the next generation of fans. We’ll even be able to buy a jersey with a player’s name on it because we know he’ll be around for a little while.

It’s a simple fix and it’s not asking too much from either side. It’s not like the owner of a fast food restaurant slashing his employees’ minimum wages checks in half. The players will still make extremely comfortable wages. The owners will make plenty of money. The fans won’t spend an arm and a leg to get to the arena. The seats will be packed. And what’s the result? The business of hockey will be profitable and it will grow.

As for my Dad, he still goes to the games. In fact, he’s at all of them with a smile on his face. He works there as an usher. He might tell you that he loves his job, but he’s there because he loves the game. His name is Jerry. Say “Hi” to him. Oh, and treat him well. He taught me everything I know about hockey.


Scott Jaworski said...

"But what about the seemingly meaningless game in the middle of the season against the league’s lousiest team when only 9,000 fans show up to the HSBC. That’s the game when that family of five might be able to afford the tickets."
Only one problem with that comment. The games with only 9,000 fans no longer exist. If you want tickets you better buy them months in advance or be ready to give up your right arm.

bradinthesand said...

I'll have t use my left because the right arm went to the Bills years ago...back when i was a "big" bills fan.