Sabres suffer credibility problem - The Buffalo News
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Sabres suffer credibility problem

The Sabres may be ready to move forward without Pat LaFontaine, but are you prepared to move along with them? I would imagine a growing number of fans still need a few answers before investing any more time, money and energy in a franchise that continues to insult their intelligence.

Let’s get to the point: Ted Black saying there was no discord between Pat LaFontaine and the front office was absurd. Obviously, there were major problems at the top. Rather than acknowledge their existence, Black made a lame, embarrassing attempt to con the public into thinking it was an amicable divorce.

Does he really think people are that stupid?

The rhetoric was laughable when stacked against mounting evidence of an irreparable rift between LaFontaine and owner Terry Pegula. Next we’ll hear Black suggest a few ice cubes sank the Titanic and firecrackers ended World War II. It appears we’re back to the same old routine with Pegula and his flunkies in fantasyland.

If everything were hunky-dory, LaFontaine would still be in Buffalo. If he wanted to return to a lesser job in league offices for personal reasons, as Black said, he would have held a news conference and explained as much. Anyone with a conscience would have understood that family comes first, no questions asked, no big deal.

And LaFontaine would have been celebrated for a job well done. He hired the right coach in Ted Nolan and an aggressive general manager in Tim Murray. Together, they were on their way to restoring credibility. Pegula would have thanked him for his work, wished him well and sent him on his way.

Really, it doesn’t get much easier.

Instead, LaFontaine is holed up heaven knows where with tape over his mouth. He’s not returning phone calls. A source close to him said he was devastated over the weekend but feeling better Monday. LaFontaine was passionate about building a winner in Buffalo. If he were at peace with leaving, he would be up front and positive.

I’m positive. I’m positive Black is either lying about the front office or grossly out of touch with his own organization. People are losing faith in him and Pegula by the day. They haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. If that’s the leadership the Sabres are getting from the top, what does it say about everyone else?

For what it’s worth, Black’s attitude with me has been fine. However, people inside portray him as a pompous and egotistical man who overextends his authority and leans on his legal background when making simple arguments. And that leads me to a point about whether LaFontaine resigned or was fired.

Technically, he resigned. But let’s not allow legalese to trump common sense. A source said there was language in LaFontaine’s contract stating he was required to resign in order to collect money included in a buyout. The clause, designed to protect employers from disgruntled former employees, has become the norm in sports.

LaFontaine didn’t quit on this team. He was pushed out the door, kicking and screaming. It wouldn’t surprise me if a confidentiality agreement prohibited him from speaking against the company. That would explain his silence about leaving a dream job with an organization he loved and a city that adored him.

Around and around we go.

Where it leads, nobody knows.

It’s enough to make you dizzy.

Nolan looked dazed and confused while talking about the situation Sunday. He was on the verge of tears. Why would he be hurting if his friend was content with his own departure? Nolan looked like he was trying to temper his emotions, if not contain his rage, after his heart was ripped out.

His was hardly the face of a man who believed LaFontaine had a fair shake. Nolan talked about what happened “to a very dear friend.” The keyword: To. It made LaFontaine sound like a victim. It’s not something Nolan would have said if LaFontaine left on his own volition. He would have said he was happy for his friend.

I’m not here to pick sides. People are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions based on what they’ve already heard. I’m sure some only care about wins and losses. There will be no shortage of apologists making excuses for the Sabres and blaming LaFontaine. And it’s possible that he is partly responsible.

Several conversations in recent days pointed toward LaFontaine getting into a dispute with a secretary. Others said it was blown out of proportion. Another had LaFontaine making unpopular non-hockey decisions and saying they were made by Pegula. Another suggested it came down to nothing more than bruised egos.

Murray may have played an inadvertent role. He said Sunday that other general managers advised him, when he took the job, to stay in communication with his owner. That made sense, but there was talk that he had circumvented LaFontaine. You would think their contracts specified a chain of command.

Pegula, on the day he introduced LaFontaine, talked about giving him room and time to make mistakes. Pegula has been reluctant to fire anybody, including some who should have been gone on his first day. LaFontaine’s exit set off alarms because it was so abrupt and inconsistent with Pegula’s past practices.

Then again, LaFontaine becoming the problem would be inconsistent with his reputation as a people person. The Sabres thought he was the solution. Perhaps his patience wore thin with incompetent people. He was a shrewd competitor as a player and likely was the same as an executive.

It certainly wasn’t grounds for firing him.

Sorry, I keep forgetting. He resigned.

My theory: A combination of variables drove a wedge between LaFontaine and Pegula. They included cronies who grew accustomed to the size of their paychecks and felt threatened by his management style. He stopped trusting them, and they stopped trusting him. Their relationship reached a point of no return, he was told to stay out of the office and he received a healthy settlement to resign and remain quiet.

Who was involved and to what degree? Good question. There’s no way of drawing a clear picture of a complex issue with so many outright lies, half-truths, personal agendas, loose facts and people insulating ownership. It made for a toxic situation no matter how many times Black claimed all was well with the marriage.

Regardless, the whole thing is sad.

No matter who was right or wrong, no matter if he resigned or was fired, it doesn’t change the fact that LaFontaine had the right vision. He was attempting to get the pieces in place when he hired Nolan and Murray. It would have been nice if the three hockey men could have worked together.

It will be interesting to see whether Nolan accepts his contract offer. Nobody should be surprised if he stays. It’s the right fit. He’s a good coach on a young team that needs him. Taking the job would fall in line with his personality. I could see him plowing through the carnage just to prove, for no other reason, that LaFontaine was right.

Fans don’t need to be on board with Pegula, Black and the rest of the crew upstairs. They can march forward with Murray and Nolan, two no-nonsense men who are caught in the middle of this nonsense. If they get things turned around, the public will be smart enough to know LaFontaine was on the proper path.

Until then, you can decide whether they’re worth your time, energy and money.


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