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By David Staba

"Go Sabres!" the signs read in Memorial Auditorium and on bumper stickers around Western New York. "And Take the Bills With You!"

That was back in the mid-1980s, when Buffalo's hockey team annually got whacked in the first round of the playoffs, if it managed to get there at all, and the football team produced game-long blooper films in front of tens of thousands of empty seats at Rich Stadium.

The Braves of the National Basketball Association were still a not-so-distant memory, the closings of steel mills and other major employers remained a near-monthly news staple and the possibility of the area going from three major-league teams to none wasn't out of the question.

Most of those sign-brandishing fans were kidding, of course. But last week, the Rigas family's inevitable surrender of the Sabres to National Hockey League control brought little laughter.

In the years since those sporting Dark Ages, brand-new facilities kept the Sabres and Bills rooted in the region of their birth, thanks to a flood of money from local governments and the state. And contrary to the worries of conspiracy theorists, the football team isn't taking its new uniforms anywhere any time soon.

Greed and mismanagement (some of which may yet prove indictment-worthy), though, have raised the specter of one of the NHL's state-of-the-art cash factories sitting empty and dark for most of the year.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will guarantee the Sabres staying put for at least one season, and will only negotiate with owners who will keep the team in Buffalo. Which sounds real nice.

But good intentions alone won't keep the Sabres here. It's going to be months before anyone is even sure what it will take to buy the team and pay off its supposed $150 million debt to Adelphia (and figure out how much of that figure is real, and how much resulted from the company's Enronesque accounting).

Then there's the matter of finding someone (or enough someones) to pony up the bread. Buffalo Destroyers owner Mark Hamister has been the most commonly mentioned name to lead a group of investors, with another consortium stretching from Buffalo to Syracuse also mulling a bid.

One thing you can be pretty sure of -- whoever tries to buy the team will be making plenty of trips to Albany, lobbying for more taxpayer money to help ease the Sabres' debt load and make sure the millions in subsidies already given to the Sabres doesn't go to waste. In any other business but professional sports, that's called throwing good money after bad.

One guy who doesn't need anybody else's money, Microsoft partner Paul Allen, is already eying Adelphia's Los Angeles cable company. Since Allen already owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers, the Sabres would give the billionaire teams in three of the four major sports leagues in North America. Keeping the Sabres in Buffalo makes sense for the NHL for any number of reasons -- regional rivalries and tradition, to name two -- but business, as the Rigas family has once again taught Western New York, is business.

In the meantime, Bettman and Sabres general manager Darcy Regier urged fans to pretend everything's OK and buy season tickets, asking them to spend thousands of dollars on what could be a lame-duck franchise more concerned with hiring movers than winning hockey games.

Which raises another intriguing question -- why does Regier still have a job? As the team's top executive, if he didn't know about the financial chicanery going on between Adelphia, the Rigas family and the Sabres, then he's an idiot. If he did, then he's either an accomplice or completely bereft of a moral compass. To top it off, he had the audacity to lecture area fans on their need to become "educated" on the complexities of life in a small market (even though the team's claims of annual seven-figure losses now look as credible as a promise from John, Tim or Michael Rigas) even as the depth of Adelphia's deception became public.

At least the mystery of Regier's continued tenure is an easy one to answer. At the moment, there's no one to show him the door.

Over the past nine months, Niagara Falls boxer Tommy Huff has had scheduled fights fall through for just about every conceivable reason -- opponents failing physicals, suffering injuries or just plain deciding not to show up.

Blame a breakdown in international communications for the cancellation of the super-middleweight's slated bout last Friday in Mississauga, Ont.

Before his fight that wasn't on the undercard of the Joe Mesi-Keith McKnight stomping at the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena, Huff underwent the required battery of medical tests for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and HIV. All came back negative. According to the New York State Athletic Commission, those results cleared him to fight for the next 90 days.

In New York, that is.

But negative results clear a fighter in Ontario for only 30 days. Huff underwent a fresh round of blood work two weeks ago, and the hepatitis tests again came back negative. But since the clinic that drew the blood has a backlog of HIV tests, those results didn't come back in time for last Friday's card at the Hershey Center.

No negative result, no fight.

Allan Tremblay of Orion Sports Management, which signed Huff a week earlier to a five-year, 20-fight deal, described the latest snafu as "somewhat self-inflicted," since Huff was informed of the need for new tests, but said it wouldn't impact the deal in any way.

"Your heart just bleeds for the kid," said Tremblay, whose company promoted Huff's first two professional bouts. "Nobody feels worse than Tommy."

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at

Niagara Falls Reporter June 25 2002