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By David Staba

You'd think a guy who makes as much money as National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman could afford to have that smirk surgically removed.

Bettman's air of superiority was never thicker than last week, when he deigned to journey into Buffalo and explain (using small words, so we simpletons could understand) to the area's hockey fans that if the Sabres wind up leaving town in the wake of the Adelphia meltdown, it's pretty much their fault.

Then again, Bettman's countenance while delivering his message from on high perfectly suited the situation. If sports franchises had official facial expressions to go along with their official supermarket chain, official soft drink and official cell-phone provider, the Sabres' would be the smirk.

We'll give you the tools to finish the job (smirk).

We lost $15 million last year (smirk). Did I say $15 million? I meant $20 million (smirk).

Michael Peca isn't worth being the 60th-highest paid player in the NHL (smirk).

We're not going to do a damn thing to improve the team, but ticket prices are going up (smirk).

Well before evidence of massive fraud involving Adelphia, the Rigas family had burned off much of the good will accorded them when they bought the Sabres through dishonesty and arrogance.

The smirking didn't just apply to the family hockey team.

We're going to build an office tower on the waterfront (smirk). If the state gives us most of the money to do it (smirk). It'll be 20 stories tall. No, 15 (smirk). And it'll have restaurants and stores at the base. Or maybe not (smirk).

While Western New York waited eagerly for the Rigas clan to make good on any of its promises, John and his boys were busily building a private golf course and financing daughter Ellen's vanity movie project with Adelphia money.

When it all came crashing down and the handcuffs went on, the multiple fraud charges shouldn't have come as any surprise. After all, the Rigases had been defrauding Sabres fans for years.

There was one reason Buffalo reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, the conference finals a year before and spent the late '90s as a perennial playoff contender. His name was Dominik Hasek.

Hasek gave the Sabres a puncher's chance against better-paid, more-talented foes. And like Peca, when he made it clear he didn't want to be here anymore, the Rigases cranked up their public-relations machine to vilify him.

Unfortunately, plenty of fans bought it. After all, if the Rigases say he's disloyal or greedy, it must be true.

The Rigas hockey fraud became obvious months before the first whispers of financial misdealings with Adelphia. With Hasek and Peca gone, the Sabres proved to be dull and identity-free. Even during the stretch run, you never got the feeling that they especially cared about getting to the playoffs.

And you almost couldn't blame them. The refusal of General Manager Darcy Regier to pick up an offensive threat at the trade deadline signaled the surrender of ownership and the front office.

The Sabres' descent epitomized the Adelphia scandal -- unfulfilled promises, outright lies and cooked books (though Adelphia's accountants hid losses while the Sabres inflated them, as we'll see if anyone ever gets a look at the actual figures).

For all the MBA programs and how-to management books in the world, there are essentially two ways of doing business.

You can promise, and deliver, honest value for honest pay and treat the people you deal with and who work for you the way you hope to be treated.

Or you can go around trying to screw everybody.

From most accounts, John Rigas built his empire the first way. The way most older, up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurs go about it. But he made three mistakes.

He fathered sons.

He sent them to Wharton and Harvard to learn the second management strategy.

Then he gave them the keys.

It's unrealistic to think the father didn't know what his spawn was up to, and he's too smart not to have suspected something wasn't quite right. But you can also see him giving Tim and Michael the benefit of the doubt when they told him everything was OK, that this was just the new way of doing business. An alleged $67 million unauthorized "loan" from the company and monthly payments of $1 million per month apparently eased his conscience.

We aren't likely to see too many smirks from the Rigas boys these days. But, as mentioned above, Bettman more than made up for them last week.

He can claim he didn't give Sabres fans an ultimatum -- buy more season tickets or else the hockey team gets it -- all he wants. But that's exactly what Bettman did.

He cited the lag in season ticket renewals. Another fraud. It's barely been a month since Hasek's Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. The regular season is nearly three months away. Yet he's shocked that fans haven't been running out to spend from $738 (at the low end) to $3,321 (for the priciest seats) on tickets to watch a crashingly mediocre team that may not be around for more than another season.

Bettman emphasized that all five ownership groups interested in buying the troubled franchise will keep the team in Buffalo. But even if one of them manages to put together the necessary capital (which is almost certain to require government assistance of some sort), that's no guarantee the Sabres will stay.

Should Paul Allen, Microsoft partner and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks, decide the Northwest needs a hockey team, he can write a check for the Sabres while the various consortiums of would-be owners are scrambling for loans and grants.

That would be the final screwing for a fan base far too accustomed to the procedure. And you can be certain of this much -- Bettman will be smirking when he announces it.


Niagara Falls Reporter July 30 2002