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It's not hard to be enthused about Sabres

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Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013 10:04 am

It was a typical Wednesday morning during Bills’ season for me, driving to Orchard Park for media day, listening to ESPN’s Colin Cowherd on Sirius.

Came the 10:30 Sports Center update, and the last item caught my attention.

Pat LaFontaine had been hired as the Sabres’ Director of Hockey Operations.

“Great move,” I thought, but it seemed to me Buffalo’s upper management was now even more crowded.

But, a half hour later, as the cliched “hastily-called press conference” was unfolding at the First Niagara Center, the next update noted that not only had LaFontaine been hired, but also that GM Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston had been fired with Ted Nolan being hired for the latter position.

My first thought was that it was one of the most extraordinary days in Sabres history. My second was about Christine Lisi.

The Olean native, whose married name is Popolizio, is one of four update anchors at ESPN Radio, and would have loved to deliver that particular bit of news. She now lives in Connecticut, but is a Bills and Sabres fan, through and through, chafing at the recent bottoming out of the NHL franchise.

BUT, MOST OF ALL, I pondered the brilliance of the move.

Sabres owner Terry Pegula, a friend for 35 years mostly because of  racquetball, finally got it right.

His decision to ax the arrogant Regier and the overmatched Rolston and replace them with LaFontaine and Nolan was a public relations coup.

And that for a franchise which, in recent years, has viewed PR as two meaningless letters.

If you doubt it, consider Regier’s ridiculous word choice when telling fans, before this season, the Sabres were in rebuilding mode and to expect more “suffering.”

LaFontaine, on Wednesday, had the media savvy to admit that he would never use such a characterization, but rather would opt for “patience.”

IN MY MIND, trying not to be a Pegula apologist, his two biggest flaws, in most cases, are viewed as strengths.

There’s no question about his love for the franchise and his willingness to generously spend from his fortune to make it the best it can be.

But Terry wouldn’t be a billionaire three times over without trusted advisers.

He loves hockey — the Sabres above all else — but is very aware of what he doesn’t know about the machinations and inner workings of the NHL.

He had to trust others who seemed to have that knowledge ... one of them being Regier.

And as the GM’s “skills” were debunked before his eyes, Terry was betrayed by his second “flaw” ... loyalty.

Even he admitted at Wednesday’s press conference that he was probably too slow to make the move.

I’D BE INTERESTED to know what trigged him to act after he bumped into LaFontaine at a concussion seminar in Florida less than two weeks ago.

Terry and I haven’t talked in a long time, so I have no knowledge of his thought process, but my guess is when fans started chanting “Fire Regier” at home games and showed up bearing signs expressing the same sentiment, that, and the number of empty seats, got his attention.

Plus, as the extent of the GM’s failure became a matter of record, Pegula began to be viewed as a stubborn boss ... the figurative captain of the Titanic, defiant even in the face of guaranteed disaster.

It’s not hard to imagine that Terry, beloved by his employees at East Resources before its landmark sale, was distressed at being seen as ultimately responsible for his team’s ongoing malaise.

WHAT’S CERTAIN is this.

The hiring of LaFontaine was inspired.

And the fact he turned down the original offer to be general manager speaks to his comfort with who he is.

LaFontaine told Pegula he wasn’t qualified to be GM, but felt he could hire the right man for that job.

And when he said “I can promise you the hard work and passion that’s here (in Buffalo), I’ll give that same effort in my new job,” it wasn’t mere rhetoric.

If LaFontaine makes mistakes, there will be errors of enthusiasm, not lack of effort.

He’s determined to learn — and quickly — what he doesn’t know.

In any case, as one of the most beloved athletes in Western New York history, he will benefit from every bit of patience needed ... and on merit.

Allegany’s Jennifer Frey, a former TH intern now with the Washington Post, covered him for the New York Times in his one season with the Rangers before concussions forced retirement.

She once told me, “Of all the people I’ve dealt with in sports, I’ve never met a nicer person than Pat LaFontaine.”

THEN THERE’S Nolan, whose tough-minded, “hardest working team in hockey” philosophy endeared him to Buffalo fans who never understood how the NHL Coach of the Year a season earlier was pushed from the Sabres by Regier’s insulting one-year contract offer.

And many felt he was black-balled by the league as Nolan waited nine years for his next NHL job and it’s been five seasons since he was fired following a two-year stint with the Islanders.

Is the game beginning to pass him by?

Will his tough, hard-nosed physical style resonate with the current Sabres?

Might continued losing alienate Buffalo fans’ loyalty to him?

Possibly, but the job is interim for now.

What’s certain is that Nolan has 62 games to prove to whoever becomes the new GM that he deserves to remain as coach.

And, no matter what, his team will play hard, even if it doesn’t win ... and, given the circumstances,  is enough for most Sabre fans. And any floaters on the Buffalo roster will quickly be gone.

From my perspective, I’m excited about the changes.

It’s embarrassing to admit that Regier’s continued employment left me wishing the Sabres would lose every game, in hopes that would elicit a firing ... or two.

Now it’s hard not to be enthused.

(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)

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