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POWER PLAYS OFF THE ICE SPLINTER FRANCHISE

Two weeks into the start of one of the most important seasons in franchise history, the Buffalo Sabres are in near total disarray.

On the ice the team has won just one of its first five games; it's been outscored, 18-6; and it's christened the new Marine Midland Arena with two dismal performances.

Off the ice, things are just as gloomy.

According to several sources, the in-house struggle for control of the organization is now at a fever pitch.

On one side is team president Doug Moss, general manager John Muckler and their supporters. On the opposite side are Marine Midland Arena president Larry Quinn and people who work for him. Relations between the two camps are not good and appear to be getting worse. At a separate but even more intense level is the feud between Muckler and coach Ted Nolan, the impact of which is being felt everywhere.

"Every day you hear stories about something going on upstairs," said one player who asked to remain anonymous. "You come to work each day wondering if something is going on and then you're waiting for something to happen (a change in the front office or coaching ranks). I don't want to make excuses, but you can't help being distracted by it."

All of this comes at a time when ownership is in a state of flux and Adelphia Communications Corp. owner John Rigas appears to be positioning himself to take control. It has the team on the ice confused, the front office divided and the ownership at odds about which way to turn.

The problems have not escaped Rigas' attention.

"These are serious matters," Rigas said by phone from his Adelphia Communications office in Coudersport, Pa. "We can't fail Buffalo and the fans. We have problems and some hard decisions have to be made. I'm not going to let it go away.

"We are very aware of our problems," he said.

In the hockey department, it remains a battle between Muckler and Nolan. Muckler denies there is a rift between the two men, but Nolan doesn't and the team is clearly distracted by it.

Sources close to that situation maintain Nolan feels he is being set up to fail, that everything from the schedule and travel plans to player personnel decisions are made with an eye toward giving the second-year coach nothing to work with.

They argue that the die was cast last summer when, after a series of closed-door disputes, Muckler refused to give Nolan a contract extension. From that point on, the sources say, management has done everything in its power to either force Nolan to quit or put him in a position so that he will have to be fired. They claim Nolan also feels he is not respected as a coach and his input in hockey matters is not wanted.

However, Muckler's supporters have a different version of events.

Sources close to the general manager argue that he feels the coach has been insensitive to management's requests to be more of a team player. They claim Nolan has been unyielding in accepting any kind of suggestion, particularly in the matter of assistant coaches and the role of Rochester Americans head coach John Tortorella. They also argue that Nolan is a coach who seems to need an enemy to be successful and that he's pitted himself against management in a combative style not unlike former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin used against team owner George Steinbrenner.

There is also a faction in the management group that thinks Nolan has worked to subvert the traditional chain of command, that he is not an NHL-caliber coach and that he has no confidence in the team's younger players, most of whom were acquired by Muckler.

The argument has spread into the ownership ranks, where both men have supporters and detractors.

Outside the hockey department, Moss and Quinn are at odds. Stories abound about a lack of cooperation between the two sides. Some are as major as friction concerning non-hockey sales matters like the NBA exhibition game and Big Four basketball games. Some are as petty as not returning phone calls.

Moss has enjoyed support from some members of the Knox family and vice chairman and counsel Robert O. Swados, and has done a good job in delivering a perception of change and a new-look franchise that may well move forward. But he appears to be in some disfavor in the Rigas camp.

Some of that may well be the result of a lack of communication. Rigas and the Adelphia people run their company like a family business, emphasizing hands-on management and daily personal contact. Sources close to Rigas maintain the team's principal investor is not happy with some of Moss' business decisions, but he is especially unhappy with some of Moss' hiring and the friction between Moss and Quinn and between Muckler and Nolan.

Quinn, meanwhile, seems to have impressed all parties with his work in getting the Marine Midland Arena up and operating. He has a working relationship with Moss, but the two are not close. Several sources in the Rigas camp insist that Quinn will someday either replace Moss as president of the MMA and the Sabres or he will move on. Quinn is rumored to have been approached by the Toronto Maple Leafs regarding building a replacement building for Maple Leaf Gardens. He denies it.

Meanwhile, the ownership remains in a state of flux. According to several sources, lawyers for the Rigas group and Knox and Swados have accepted a financial analysis of the value of the franchise (including the team and its share of the arena) from the New York accounting firm of Coopers and Lybrand. Estimates of the value range from a low of about $77 million to a high of $85 million, but all sides agree the analysis is accurate. The groups are now settling in for some hard negotiations that should end up with the Rigas camp taking over as principal owner. Timetables vary, but if talks go quickly -- and no other buyer emerges -- Rigas could take over in 30 to 60 days.

Assuming Rigas gets control, changes are likely.

Quinn has a year left on his contract. Muckler also has a year left and Moss a little more than a year. Nolan is in the last year of a two-year deal. Nolan has the least security, but no one is on an extra-large ticket and Adelphia could easily absorb any firing or buyout arrangement.

In the interim, however, the club is adrift and a lot of good work appears to be going by the boards as the product founders on the ice and ownership has been ineffective in dealing with the problems.

"A lot of people have done their absolute best in a difficult situation, but it's all starting to come apart," one source said. "Unless ownership steps in and resolves the problems things are just going to get worse."

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