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WHAT DOES THE captain's "C" really stand for in the Buffalo Sabres' scheme of things.

Does it mean C-ya later? Does a player wear it over his heart so whoever is out to get him can set his sight on a neat little target? Does it come with a one-way ticket to parts unknown, date and destination to be filled in

These thoughts come to mind, having watched the Sabres run yet another captain out of town. This time, it was Mike Foligno. Before that, it was Lindy Ruff. In a different but not dissimilar way, it was Gilbert Perreault.

According to the official version of this deal, Foligno was traded because: a) "something needed to be done;" and b) "somebody had to do something." That kind of statement is about as informative as a Sabres injury report and is typical of the organization. The non-answer. We have a problem here. We want it to go away . . . quickly. The less said, the better. Don't quote us, just trust us.

Generally, that's true of most sports organizations. They preach the need for character and righteousness from their players, but the line stops at the dressing room door. Outside it, it's business, and businessmen do what businessmen have to do no matter how ugly it is or who gets hurt. Loyalty isn't just asked for, it's demanded. But if you're a player, don't try to cash in that chip when you get to the door.

The media is seen in the same light. From inside, it's always a case of positive or negative. With us or against us. Never a question of true or false, right or wrong. Ask a question about Buffalo's position on Hamilton, get an answer that says "don't quote me." That's what makes it so hard to deal with this club.

But some things need to be said. For one, the idea Foligno was through as a player is garbage. His play in recent weeks proved that. He was playing better than a lot of players who are still here. At the time he left, he was contributing more than Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue and Alexander Mogilny put together. Clearly, he no longer had the ability to be great, and he could not match the talent of any of the three. But at the time, he was outplaying them all.

He wasn't through as a captain, either. While he probably should have resigned the position and concentrated only on playing for himself, his leadership was still the best the team had. Maybe it no longer was enough. Presumably, the coaching staff thought it needed more. That's the coaches' right. But if there was leadership ready to overtake Foligno, why not identify it and bring it forward? It's not a new idea. The Sabres turned to Danny Gare when they wanted to replace a perfectly capable Jim Schoenfeld. Fans howled about that. So did the media. But it was done because Punch Imlach felt it was the right thing to do. He made a move and stood by it, openly, because he thought he was right. And he said so.

I think Lindy Ruff would have accepted that. Mike Foligno might have, too.

Instead, this was another behind-the-scenes job, one explained in whispers and innuendo. Truth -- and Foligno -- were the casualties here. A good bet is he was traded because he couldn't get along with Rick Dudley, or Dudley with him. But we'll never know for sure. We can only surmise.

If that's the case, it's an unfortunate one. That means all of Foligno's good work of the past didn't matter anymore. All those off-ice appearances, all those midnight calls helping players not strong enough to stand alone, all those years of preaching a bad team could win if it just worked a little harder (instead of simply stating there wasn't enough talent in a bankrupt organization to win) didn't count. The effort in the lean years didn't count for anything, either. It was down to personalities now, conflict between a player and a coach. Foligno lost.

Mind you, Dudley's not totally at fault here, either. Foligno is as headstrong and single-minded as the coach. He wasn't the perfect player or the perfect captain. But here were two men who couldn't see eye to eye on the team and Foligno's role within it. We are to believe Foligno wanted to play on a top line with lots of ice time and that Dudley had other plans. Fine, if it's true. Do you trade a guy for that? If so, why is John Tucker still here?

We don't know what problem was laid at Gerry Meehan's door, but this time the general manager sided with his coach. He had no choice. Meehan had sided with the players against former coach Ted Sator and fired him. If it weren't to look like the players were running the show again, he couldn't possibly back Foligno now. Dudley won, Foligno lost.

Of course, it was easier this time to fire the player. Foligno's stats were poor (nine points in 31 games), and even if he did manage a turnaround (with more ice time and better linemates), he wasn't long for this team. At age 31, his career here was behind him.

But Foligno deserved a little more than that. He wasn't just a great player whose name is sprinkled among the team's top 10 in just about every offensive category. He was, perhaps, the most caring captain this team ever had. He was a contributor in this community and he was a pillar for the franchise in the years when the Sabres were so bad -- both the team and the organization. They didn't even deserve the support he brought them.

In the next few weeks, there will be all kinds of spin put on the Foligno story. There will be whispers Foligno really was selfish and used his long-standing position with the team to try to go over Dudley and directly to Meehan. There will be talk he led a group of players in the room who resisted Dudley's approach as to how the game should be played, who gets how much ice time and when. There may be questions raised as to whether or not Foligno really did care about the team as much as he said.

Because no one speaks for the record, truth and fiction will be impossible to sort out, but they've almost become secondary now.

The more important question now is, who will lead this team? And why would anyone want to?
Former Sabres center Brent Petersen is having to live down the reputation as a goon assistant coach. Petersen, now an assistant with Rick Ley for the Hartford Whalers, was involved in the ugly bench altercation between the Bruins and Whalers in Boston last week. Peterson is said to have thrown a few punches in the direction of Bruins team physician Dr. Bert Zarins.

Petersen took offense to reports in the Boston Globe that he hit the doctor first.

"He was swinging at me and I was just trying to defend myself," Petersen said. Bruins coach Mike Milbury got five games and winger Lyndon Byers 10 after Byers stepped off the bench. The Bruins claim Byers fell off the bench, but he "fell" just as the officials were escorting Ed Kastelic past him. Kastelic started the melee when he hit Bruins center Craig Janney.

Edmonton's Mark Messier missed another game with knee problems. He has missed 11 games this season, and the Oilers are 1-10 without him and 11-4 when he plays. Doctors say Messier may have to wear a bigger brace to stabilize the knee.

"The only thinking I'm fighting is playing with a torn ligament," he said. "You have to be able to move or it defeats the whole purpose."

Asked if he thought he was running the risk of a more serious injury, Messier said, "I guess, but you still have to answer to yourself. I'd like to play another 10 years, so it's something that maybe crosses your mind, but I just don't think that's the way you win (by resting). If I were worrying about my contract (he has been attempting to renegotiate from $1 million to $2 million a year), I wouldn't have come back from an eight-week injury in four weeks. That's why we won five Cups, because I and a lot of guys feel that way about this team."
Chicago Blackhawks coach and General Manager Mike Keenan reportedly is looking to trade for a top player. He's interested in either Brent or Ron Sutter, or Hartford's Pat Verbeek. Keenan also is said to be watching if Buffalo's Hogue or perhaps Montreal's Mike Keane goes on the block. Hogue is the only one who doesn't fit the mold of the above, but everyone likes his talent.

Keenan is on record as saying the Hawks are one good player from being favorites for the Cup.

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