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Donald Audette returns to HSBC Arena tonight, an Atlanta Thrashers crest on his chest and Darcy Regier's footprint still visible on his back.

Audette, the National Hockey League's fifth-leading scorer this year, left Buffalo in December 1998 after a strange and fruitless series of negotiations. It all began with the Sabres offering $1.4 million for one year, just enough to put Audette above the league average and keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Audette and his agent, Gilles Lupien, countered with an offer of $1.2 million, which would have put him below the league average and opened the door to free agency under the collective bargaining agreement.

The two sides eventually separated themselves from the free agency issue. The Sabres put on the table an offer worth $5.7 million over three years that had more strings than a marionette. The last two years of the deal were to be at the club's option, which to Audette meant they were virtually worthless. He would never see the other $4.5 million after receiving $1.2 million the initial year.

"For sure we wouldn't take those two options," Audette said by telephone earlier this week.

The stalemate dragged on. Audette demanded a trade. Then he waited. And waited. Until, on Dec. 18, Regier sent him to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a second-round draft pick. What impact Audette may have had during Buffalo's Stanley Cup finals series with the Dallas Stars is the stuff barroom chats are made of, although one might surmise he would have outplayed the draft pick redeemable that June.

"I left on a little sour note," Audette said. "I spent (nine) years in the organization, gave my whole body to it. Or at least the bottom half," he added, in reference to three major knee surgeries.

"I think my demands were not excessive," Audette said. "They were in the market. I still don't regret anything I did. In the end it came down to principle as much as anything else. I think they could have been more fair in the end."

Audette was coming off a 24-goal season. He had 28 the season before. He was integral to the team's power play. Go ahead, make the case that he was a defensive liability. How does that undermine his value on a team stricken with countless offensive liabilities? Isn't it telling that, as Audette broke out of a slump late in the 1997-98 season, coach Lindy Ruff remarked, "He means everything. We're waiting for someone to come out and be the hot guy coming down the stretch and into the playoffs."

Audette responded with five goals and 15 points as the Sabres advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. He would never play for the team again.

The Audette Experience has become the norm for those who sit on the other side of the table from Regier and chief negotiator Kevin Billet. Not everyone holds out and/or asks for a trade. But they all are fractured by the process and then expected, as professionals, to pledge allegiance to an organization that gives it grudgingly.

There's an underlying current of dread that ripples among Sabres facing negotiations at the end of a season. Might Michael Peca have worried himself into an off-year last season? Might Miroslav Satan be doing it this time around? Should Rhett Warrener not be worried that the team might give him the captaincy followed by October and November off?

"Guys talk," Audette said. "Guys say, why should they work their butts off for that organization if they don't want to treat us good. They use the CBA to their advantage now. Every guy with a good season is just going to get his 10 percent raise. You can't keep telling guys to go to arbitration."

The Sabres front office, including John and Tim Rigas, presented their side of the financial story to the media Wednesday. They said salaries for this season will exceed regular-season ticket revenues by about $11.5 million and that consolidated figures for the team, the arena and the Empire Sports Network point to a total loss in excess of $19 million.

Yet they also said Empire will make a profit of $3 million to $5 million and that Adelphia pays the club $10 million to $12 million for cable television rights. That $13 million in revenue alone wipes out the deficit between player salaries and regular-season ticket revenues.

Other revenues include national television rights, merchandising sales, parking, concessions and the sale of playoff tickets. And the consolidated losses of Empire, the Sabres and the arena still exceed $19 million? Maybe it's time to set limits on expense accounts.

There's no questioning the Sabres are a financially challenged small-market team. It's Regier's job to be financially responsible in his dealings with players. At the same time, there has to be an element of fairness emanating from his side of the table.

Low-balling Audette after nine seasons in the organization doesn't resonate well in the dressing room. Waiting until Peca denounces the organization before putting a reasonable offer on the table leaves players shaking their heads.

"Everybody used to say players don't have respect for their teams like they used to," Audette said. "But you can say the same about the teams."

Here's what Regier had to say about Audette's contract situation back in 1998:

"If we lock him in for next season for $2 million then he's made $3.2 million over two years. That's $1.6 (million on average) and would make him the highest-paid forward on this hockey club, including Michael Peca."

And the wheel goes round and round.

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