- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Less than four years ago, the Buffalo Sabres took the favored Dallas Stars to triple overtime in Game6 before losing the Stanley Cup finals. They averaged 17,955 fans at home 97 percent of capacity. Led by Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek and captain Michael Peca, the Sabres were the only team that reached a conference final two years in a row, and with a roster chock full of 20-somethings, their future seemed limitless.
Those days seem light years away today. At 19-31-8, the Sabres, who play host to the Washington Capitals tonight, have the NHL's second-worst record. Their 142 goals are the second fewest. Sabres captain Stu Barnes, who averaged 21 goals the previous six years, finally scored his 10th goal Friday to end a 20-game drought. And along with the on-ice collapse has come an attendance dropoff to an average of 13,422 at HSBC Arena.
"When we went to the finals you're thinking, 'We're going to have a strong team for a long time' and that the organization is sound," said 14th-year right wing Rob Ray, whose 886 games rank fourth in Sabres history. "Now everything has crumpled underneath us, and there's nothing that we as players can do about it."
Everything as in the possible disappearance of the franchise after 33 years in Buffalo. With former owner John Rigas and his sons under indictment for fraud, the Sabres are in bankruptcy and being run by the league. A purchase attempt by local businessman Mark Hamister fell short last month. So sixth-year coach Lindy Ruff isn't getting too ebullient about reports that Rochester multimillionaire Thomas Golisano has reached a preliminary agreement to buy the franchise. If Golisano's deal doesn't happen, the Sabres could fold. No NHL team has disappeared since Cleveland merged with Minnesota in 1978.
"This has been the hardest year of my career by far," Ruff said. "But you've got to take some bad with the good, and we've had plenty of good. Everyone got real excited [about Hamister]. He was in our room after a few games. He was at several functions trying to drum up support. This time, I'm just going to wait and see."
Ruff was shocked that Rigas "a nice man," to quote the affable Barnes was apparently deceiving them about his finances.
"I feel a little betrayed by past ownership," said Ruff, who also played 10 seasons in Buffalo. "When you go into bankruptcy, obviously the first question from the players is 'Are we getting paid?' I let them know that there was nothing to worry about in the short-term and that they should just focus on hockey. But the ownership situation can't help but be a distraction. When it looked like we were getting new ownership, we went on a pretty good run [7-1-2 for much of January], but when that fell through, we kind of dropped off [with an eight-game losing streak]."
Despite losing three of his top six defensemen to injuries, Ruff has kept the Sabres focused enough to have gone 4-3-1-1 since the eight-game slide that all but ensured Buffalo will miss the playoffs for a second straight spring for the first time in 15 years. But that doesn't mean the players are ignoring the franchise's uncertain future.
"Reality sunk in with us a long time ago," Ray said. "There's a lot of joking about buying and selling houses and how no one's going to want [Sabres players] in a dispersal draft. If you make fun of it, it makes it easier to deal with. What has changed is that the people at home are realizing that there's a very good chance that the Sabres won't be there next year.
"Buffalo's a hard-working, blue-collar town. The Bills are unquestionably No.1, but the Sabres are pretty important in getting the town through the real long winters. People always thought that someone would come in and save the team, but the longer we go without an owner, with the interest level down and a lockout [after the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the Players Association] probably coming in [2004], there's more of an understanding of what could happen."

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