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IN A CASE OF monumental bad timing, the Russians came to Buffalo Wednesday night. This time, who cared?

The Soviets are the Evil Empire no longer. Maybe we could have gotten ourselves worked up if it had been a hockey team from Iraq.

As it turned out, the Soviet visit just got in the way of far more serious matters for the locals.

The important hockey news of the day is the Sabres players are trying to get Rick Dudley fired.

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from Tuesday night's disgrace in Detroit. That very morning, an interview with Gerry Meehan by sports reporter Bob DiCesare appeared in The News. For the first time, it was made known a coaching change was possible for the Sabres if the team didn't get into higher gear. Meehan clearly criticized Dudley's approach.

Given this discomforting news, what was the reaction of the Sabre players?

They performed like dogs against the Red Wings . . . absolute dogs.

I'm sure, to a man, the Sabres would deny they have gone into the tank; that when Dudley needed a life preserver, they threw him a two-ton boulder. They're very good at explanations, at giving the spiel.

If sound-bite malarkey were victories, the Sabres would be Stanley Cup champions.

The problem is, the Sabres talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk.

The question is, "why?" Why would they want to sink Dudley? What's not to like about Duds, who has shielded them and desperately wants to push them into being a consistent winner?

Part of the answer may be force of habit. The Sabres' roster is pocked with coach-killers. It is part of the team's negative tradition in recent years.

Remember back when they sleep-walked through another game in Detroit during the Scotty Bowman era? Bowman finally pulled the goalie late in the game and never replaced him. He embarrassed them by forcing them to play the rest of the game without anyone tending goal.

They responded by quitting on Bowman for the rest of his coaching stay.

The players had a case against Bowman, and another one against his successor, Ted Sator, but with Dudley it is different. A year ago on this date, the Sabres' record was 19 victories, four ties and nine losses for 42 points. This morning, they have 27 points, are three games under .500 and have won only four of 13 games on home ice.

If Buffalo lost through incompetence game after game, it would be one thing, but the Sabres play enough first-rate hockey -- i.e., gritty road victories in Montreal and Philadelphia -- to merit a stern indictment of their work ethic.

Did Dudley suddenly become a bad coach? I think not.

Granted, he has a piece of the responsibility for the unhappy first half of the season. His constant tinkering prevents the stability that is needed on offense. Maybe he should forget about all those jail breaks and refine the attack down to three lines.

Whatever the reason, Dudley also has not been successful in coaching Pierre Turgeon. Dale Hawerchuk's unfruitful first half suggests he may be in the same category.

Meehan's comment about not having "a team focus or team goal, it's easy to drift off into selfishness and lack of commitment" was an unveiled reference to that.

Yet Meehan himself doesn't come off untouched in this unpleasant situation.

Dudley asked for an infusion of more honest workmen on his team and it hasn't happened. The huge trade involving Hawerchuk and Phil Housley still has to be defined. But some of Meehan's other moves have been questionable, indeed.

He acquired defenseman Jay Wells from Philadelphia in exchange for Kevin Maguire and a second-round draft choice. Judging from Wells' play this year, the draft choice would have been of more value.

The most serious mark against Meehan will come if Dudley is fired.

In the summer of '89, when it came time to gas Sator and hire a new coach, the two men Meehan interviewed were Dudley and Bob Johnson, the highly respected former Calgary coach and then czar of U.S. amateur hockey.

Johnson, who had bargaining leverage, wanted serious money and considerable power. Meehan hired Dudley, who came much cheaper and presented no threat to the general manager's power.

It's a sad story. A year ago, Dudley appeared to be forming another Lunch Pail AC. Instead, he is ending up a victim of the Featherbed AC.

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