Years later, after they returned to their respective corners of the world, John Muckler and Ted Nolan agreed on something. In separate conversations, they agreed that they could have settled their differences in 1997 if they were forced into a room with a case of beer and a pizza and told to end their dispute.
But they were too strong in their convictions, too stubborn to budge and therefore incapable of seeing the big picture until it was too late. If they took a few deep breaths and stepped back, two men who drove one another crazy likely would have realized they also drove each other to be better, period.
Beer and pizza can work wonders. It has fixed more cars and replaced more roofs and planted more trees and paid more debts than anyone could imagine. And it would have gone a long way in Pat LaFontaine and Terry Pegula resolving their issues before their relationship suffered irreparable damage.
LaFontaine was the right man to oversee hockey operations. He was a willing face of the franchise who was comfortable and effective in public. He brought credibility to the organization. He knew the game and, more importantly, understood the game behind the game. Pegula made a smart decision when hiring him.
That did not change.
It didn’t mean St. Patty was perfect before he, um, resigned last weekend. There’s talk he was moody, raising genuine concerns about lingering side effects of concussions. It’s a sensitive issue, but Ted Black and others with ties to LaFontaine insisted he was fine. LaFontaine is a good guy, but everybody can be difficult at times.
Pegula also is a nice man. He has given far more than he has received since purchasing the Sabres, but he’s not perfect, either. He’s uncomfortable and ineffective in public. He’s naive in many ways. He’s been slow to learn that owning a business in the real world is nothing like owning a team in the sports world.
You could argue that LaFontaine and Pegula had clashes in style, but I would counter that their personalities largely complemented one another. It’s why they appeared to be a good match when the respected former captain and Hall of Fame player came aboard to clean up a major mess for the inexperienced owner.
It should have worked.
Since Saturday, it has appeared that one difference in opinion didn’t ruin their relationship so much as a series of spats that will someday look petty. Any couple that has been married for a long time has problems along the way. It doesn’t mean they blow up the relationship and get divorced. They stay together for the greater good.
LaFontaine and Pegula appeared to behave like children when they could have found common ground to continue their relationship. They should have buried themselves in a room, dropped their weapons, left their egos at the door and reopened the lines of communication for the greater good.
Just the two of them.
No interference from Black, Joe Battista, Ken Sawyer or the legion of others either threatened by LaFontaine or tied to the golden goose. They should have identified their concerns, addressed whatever problems existed, understood they could help one another and come to a reasonable solution.
If that meant LaFontaine had final approval on all hockey decisions, fine. He was hired to be the president of hockey operations. If that meant Tim Murray had final say on all player moves, fine. That’s what the general manager does. Pegula should be writing checks and cheering his team. That’s what the owner does.
Get in a room, figure it out, fix it and get back to us when you’re done. But don’t come out until it’s resolved.
Instead, the soap opera continues in the front office. Too many people in the organization carry themselves like teenage girls who worry about what’s being said, who’s getting credit and who likes them. The Sabres don’t need new players or a new coach. More than anything, they need family counseling.
It’s getting to a point where people are hankering for the blissful days of November and December, when all the Sabres did was score one goal and lose.
One agent called Tuesday morning to say that he was thinking about directing his free agents to Buffalo after it appeared the Sabres were getting their house in order. But now? He’s back to directing them anywhere but Buffalo. That’s only one agent. You can safely assume the others are thinking much the same.
Along came a copy of an email sent to me Tuesday showing Joe Battista identifying himself as vice president of hockey operations. His title is vice president of hockey related businesses. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s not hockey ops. The email made Battista sound like an insecure wannabe who needed to feel important.
Battista also Tweeted a picture of the Sabres emergency backup goaltender last Friday. “I signed our back-up G Ryan Vinz .. from our IT department! Ha!”
Wait, you signed Vinz? That should be Murray’s job. Ha!
The whole thing is strange. It’s a gong show.
LaFontaine may have had problems, but speaking on behalf of the organization was not one of them. Black has made so many silly statements that I’m starting to wonder if it’s a gift. Black has spent years covering up for mistakes in the organization. It has come at the expense of his reputation, a heavy price no matter the paycheck.
Murray’s puss during the news conference Sunday was endearing if only because he looked like he couldn’t be bothered with this baloney. Dude, I’m with you. But the Sabres don’t need the newbie head of their hockey department looking like a cranky character in some Saturday Night Live skit.
Just think, all this about Battista and Black and Murray when the real issue was between LaFontaine and Pegula. They needed a stint in the timeout chair before they could talk things over and come to their senses. They’re reasonable, intelligent and caring people. Maybe all they needed was a quiet room and a few beers and a slice.
Nolan and Muckler would agree.