SBD/November 14, 2013/Franchises

Sabres Hope Bringing LaFontaine, Nolan Back Into Fold Will Return Credibility To Team

LaFontaine stressed that turning around the franchise will take some time
The Sabres' "surprising decision" to name Pat LaFontaine to the newly created position of President of Hockey Operations and fire GM Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston sets the team "on a new course," according to James Fink of BUFFALO BUSINESS FIRST. Sabres Owner Terry Pegula said of LaFontaine, "Pat is going to add a lot of energy to the organization." Fink reports there "was not a single tipping point that led" to the decision to fire Regier and Rolston, but Pegula "felt a change was needed." The team’s "listless play, angry fan base and growing dissatisfaction were factors in the decision." For both LaFontaine and interim coach Ted Nolan, their return to the Sabres organization is "more than just a sentimental homecoming." Individually, both said that one of their "primary goals is to restore credibility and creating a 'heart-and-soul' work ethic into the locker room." LaFontaine: "People have to understand this isn’t going to turn around over night. I think patience is going to be important. The fans have to understand we are going to get there (win a Stanley Cup), but I can’t tell you when." LaFontaine is "beginning to search for a full-time general manager, a list he said is short" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/14). In Buffalo, Mike Harrington notes what LaFontaine is doing is "reviving faith in a front office that had lost all of the belief of its fans." He and Pegula recently went to dinner and conversation "turned to the struggling Sabres." The two "ended up continuing the chat on Pegula’s boat." LaFontaine, who had been working at the league office since the start of the season, said of Pegula, "He was the one who said, 'Well, you just started a job' but he started to get into where he thought I could help the team." Harrington notes Pegula was "dead serious, even wanting to know if LaFontaine wanted to be the general manager." Pegula: "One thing led to another and it was like, 'Wow, this guy is pretty impressive'" (BUFFALO NEWS, 11/14).

FAITH IN FAMILIAR FACES: In Buffalo, Bucky Gleason notes LaFontaine and Nolan were "two of the most popular figures in franchise history" and they will serve as a "bridge that connects the organization to a better time in the past, a bridge that takes us back to the pre-Regier days." Their job now is "rebuilding the bridges that Regier burned in the 16-plus years" that he served as GM. Gleason: "We’ll see if he gets the right people around him, but at least you believe he can." That is a "monumental upgrade for this organization" and gives the "impression that ownership is serious about winning" (BUFFALO NEWS, 11/14). The GLOBE & MAIL's David Shoalts writes, "Pegula certainly needs to learn from the mistakes he made since buying the Sabres 2 1/2 years ago. Maybe he has." It is a "good sign that he hired LaFontaine," and "another nice touch was bringing back Ted Nolan, enormously popular with the players and fans when he coached the Sabres" from '95-97 (GLOBE & MAIL, 11/14). ESPN.com's Scott Burnside noted the task ahead of Nolan and LaFontaine "is monumental," but there is "something somehow comforting about this tandem" (ESPN.com, 11/14). Former Sabres LW Andrew Peters said LaFontaine brings "instant credibility" to the franchise. Peters: "From a PR standpoint, this move is unreal. From a hockey standpoint, who is going to say no to wanting to do any kind of business in terms of hockey here in Buffalo when you're dealing with a guy like Pat LaFontaine?" (DEMOCRATANDCHRONICLE.com, 11/13). In Buffalo, John Vogl writes the Sabres "needed something more than words to lift spirits and restore hope." The duo has "long been beloved by fans for being passionate and hardworking, two traits that had disappeared" at First Niagara Center. Nolan said, "Hopefully, I can bring some credibility back into this organization." LaFontaine: "If fans know there’s leadership and direction, and they know there’s good people in place and they start to see it happening on the ice and they see the product, they’re going to support it" (BUFFALO NEWS, 11/14).

CHANGE IS A GOOD THING: CBSSPORTS.com's Brian Stubits wrote a change from Regier was "more than needed." The Sabres were not only "looking terrible" on the ice, but fans "would have been nearing the stage of an open revolt if apathy hadn't set in." The First Niagara Center "had begun resembling a church" (CBSSPORTS.com, 11/13). THE HOCKEY NEWS' Rory Boylen wrote the Sabres "needed a change." They had "become a clown franchise this season." The changes made yesterday "won’t bump the Sabres any closer to the playoffs, but they will provide a refreshing jolt for the fan base and send a new message to the roster." And they were changes that also "gave the team options to move ahead with the brain trust of its choosing." The Sabres "had become stale." It is "not that Regier was doing a poor job of starting the rebuild -- it’s just that the Sabres desperately needed a new outlook, a new hope." They needed "a new confidence in management" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 11/13). FS1’s Dan O’Toole said, “The Buffalo Sabres didn’t rock the boat Wednesday. They filled the boat with rocks, sank it and built a brand new boat all together” (“Fox Sports Live,” FS1, 11/13).

FOLLOWING A MODEL OF SUCCESS: In Toronto, Damien Cox wrote it is "almost as though the Sabres looked at the spectacular success" the Avalanche have had this season with former stars Joe Sakic (Exec VP/Hockey Operations) and Patrick Roy (coach) and "decided to copy it almost to the letter." Like Sakic, LaFontaine has "no experience running an NHL team," as he "lasted six weeks in a front office role" with the Islanders in '06. The "first question, naturally, will be whether LaFontaine or Nolan can stick around long enough to actual install a long-term plan" (THESTAR.com, 11/13). USA TODAY's Kevin Allen writes under the header, "Sad-Sack Sabres Take Page From Avalanche." LaFontaine is "a mirror image" of Sakic. Both are "level-headed, well-reasoned, aggressive in their planning and careful in their execution." Pegula's move "was shrewd because the LaFontaine-Nolan tandem could fix the last-place team's problems over time." But the "immediate impact will be to re-energize a fan base that had become angry or disillusioned over the Sabres' collapse." The Avalanche's model of "hiring former stars to trigger a resurgence is hardly a novel approach," and it "doesn't always work." But what is "happening in Colorado is enough to give Buffalo hope" (USA TODAY, 11/14).

BEWARE OF OWNER: THE HOCKEY  NEWS' Ken Campbell wrote ever since Pegula "showed up with his bags of money, the Sabres have gone downhill at breakneck speed." Pegula has been "the worst thing to happen to the Buffalo Sabres on the ice in years." However, "off the ice, Pegula has been nothing but a godsend, both for the Sabres and hockey in general." The bad comes from the fact that Pegula "is basically a fan and he has a fan’s mentality." He is a "fantasy owner with the means to fulfill his fantasies," and that "can be dangerous" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 11/13).
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