Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Get out of my head Tim!

TIM SCHMITT: Sabres-Amerks split makes Quinn, Donner look foolish

By Tim Schmitt
Greater Niagara Newspapers

Before Friday, I was sad. Sad that two franchises as interwoven as the Sabres and Amerks couldn’t settle their differences. Sad that two or maybe three egos were finding a way to foul up what’s been a special relationship for almost three decades.

Sad that sister cities with few other ties would be further estranged.

But after leaning on a rail in the south end of Blue Cross Arena on Friday, enjoying a couple beverages and watching the Amerks duke it out with the Toronto Marlies, I’ve pushed beyond sad.

Absolutely ticked is more like it.

Nail this down to one simple sentence — both Larry Quinn and Steve Donner are incompetent. If you haven’t noticed, Quinn’s second term near the top of the Sabres food chain has included a number of peculiar decisions, including a since-reversed policy to avoid negotiations until after the fact. He appears to be the mastermind behind a recent power play that either tried to stiff-arm Donner into selling the Amerks or forced a new set of rules on the franchise.

That’s the way Quinn works. Think about most of the decisions he’s had a hand in. Buffalo fans didn’t want a new logo. Quinn didn’t care.
Buffalo fans wanted the team to soften its stance on dealing with Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Quinn didn’t care.

And Buffalo fans want to travel an hour to see their farm team.

Quinn obviously doesn’t care.

But let’s not give Donner any sort of free pass here. Not even close. He’s taken one of the most successful minor-league franchises in history and cannonballed it into red ink.

When I watched the Amerks drop a 5-2 decision to Toronto on Friday, the crowd was announced at 8,702. I stood in a line about a half-dozen deep to get a Blue Light at the end of the first period. Parking wasn’t easy to find.

And this guy can’t make money?

Donner’s most recent application for a $100K loan on the heels of the half-million he already owes the city of Rochester shows what a keen business sense he has. Rochester has the third-highest attendance in minor league hockey. The city is big enough that corporate sponsorships are attainable. And the history of the franchise, and its proximity to the big club, should make marketing a snap.

Yet Donner has the Amerks more than a million bucks in debt and keeps claiming that the Sabres’ desire to stock a roster with young prospects has hurt his ability to sell tickets.

Interesting. I hit the I-90 at 6:15 p.m. with the intentions of seeing Marek Zagrapan, a former first rounder who’s confounded me. Zagrapan scored after a nifty give-and-go, making me wonder why he can’t do it more consistently.

I’ve been making such pilgrimages every season, dating back a couple decades when I remember watching Rob Ray score an overtime playoff goal. But I won’t be going to Blue Cross next season, no matter how many veterans Donner signs.

A copy of the complaint filed by one of Donner’s co-owners had some interesting claims:

n Donner failed to reimburse a trainer $800 for needed supplies that were purchased out-of-pocket. Classy.

n Donner went to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in March, saying the team wouldn’t play there any longer without a more favorable lease. But he neglected to inform any of the team’s board members that he was about to make the statement. In fact, the complaint says Donner didn’t even inform the board that the team was $80,000 behind on payments to the American Hockey League, and at one point Donner met with AHL officials to avoid “involuntary suspension or termination.”

n Donner refused to listen to minority owner Randall Latona’s request to cut the salary of the team’s top salesperson and of general manager Jody Gage, who both make more than $100,000. The salesperson works part-time for Donner’s other ventures, including Rochester’s soccer and lacrosse teams, and is paid from those entities as well, the complaint said. Gage, meanwhile, is unnecessary, since the team gets its players from Buffalo and Florida.

n And my personal favorite — Donner forced the Amerks to carry an account receivable of about $100,000 because his other ventures were short of cash.

Is Donner Rochester-ese for Rigas?

No matter who’s responsible, here’s what it comes down to — again. A few people have power. Those people do not have your and my interests at heart. Those people have little oversight.

And those people will hold cities hostage as long as they deem fit.

As I walked through a corridor at Blue Cross Arena, I saw signed Amerks jerseys of Paul Gaustad, Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville. I asked people what they thought of the Sabres, and to a person, they said they felt like the NHL club was partly their team.

Maybe they will someday feel the same about the Florida Panthers. I doubt it. Soon, the connection will be gone. A few men could’ve changed that.

But egos, power and vengeance seem to outweigh loyalty and civic pride every time.

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.

1 comment:

Drew Celestino said...

Wow... That was an excellent read. It is truly shameful that such a long-standing collaboration has ended due to such gross incompetence from both ends.