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JOHN GURTLER can appreciate what Buffalo Sabres goaltender Tom Draper went through in the playoff series with the Boston Bruins.

Like Draper, Gurtler was getting his chance to prove himself during the series.

"I don't think there is any question that I'm trying to make my mark in the playoffs," said Gurtler before calling play-by-play of Friday's Game Seven. "My real audition time is right now."

Gurtler, who was the Sabres' public relations man, didn't get his new job under ideal circumstances. He kept quiet when the Sabres first benched Ted Darling and put him on a medical leave. But he pitched for the job after it became clear that the 22-year voice of the Sabres was being replaced a second time in December for the balance of the season.

It isn't easy replacing a legend. Fans still come up and ask Gurtler when Darling's coming back.

"They say, 'we sure enjoy you but gosh we miss Ted,' " explained Gurtler. "It is only natural for people who watched Ted for 22 years to say, 'who is this young kid?' The same thing happened when I replaced Rick Peckham -- who now is the voice of the Hartford Whalers -- in Rochester (for the Americans)."

Gurtler's toughest critics might not have been the fans. His analysts, Jim Lorentz and Mike Robitaille, weren't thrilled initially to work with him. Until Gurtler came aboard, Lorentz was doing play-by-play and Robitaille was the analyst.

"I don't think it is any secret that there was a personality conflict at the beginning between all of us," Gurtler said. "It was something very difficult to handle the first month. Obviously I wasn't welcomed with open arms by both. I think I had hurt Lorentz's feelings when I said I have the background and wanted to do the play-by-play. They had given him the opportunity. Mike was caught in the middle. It took a good six or seven games to chip the ice with Lorentz."

Gurtler wants to return next season if Darling can't resume his duties. "At this moment, they haven't said what direction they want to go next year."

Sources say Gurtler has his supporters and detractors inside the organization and he isn't a sure thing to return next year. Among several other possibilities: Peckham and possibly Lorentz.

Gurtler has improved in his few months on the job and has shown the potential to get even better. He has a great voice, follows the play well, knows the sport and appears comfortable working with two analysts who have very different styles.

He'll have to work on drawing out more comments from his partners, who tend to speak in cliches and don't explain enough strategy. It wouldn't hurt if Gurtler had more opinions himself. Just because you are a play-by-play man doesn't mean you can't give some analysis.

Gurtler showed he has a good feel for the game Wednesday when he suggested before the opening face-off that the Sabres' Colin Patterson, Wayne Presley and Dave Hannan could play an important role. Each scored a goal in a 9-3 Sabres victory.

He agrees with Paul Wieland -- who directs the TV coverage -- that he was too excited during the first two games of the Bruins series and reverted to doing too much radio play-by-play.

His playoff butterflies could be expected. Until he joined the Sabres booth, Gurtler hadn't called a hockey game in six years.

A native of Denver, Gurtler called radio games for the Amerks and the Colorado Flames of the Central League and also worked as a sports anchor in Grand Junction, Colo.

He played hockey and football as a youngster and earned a football scholarship at Western State College in Colorado. "I played for three days," said Gurtler. "I discovered there were other opportunities."

They included skiing and Shakespeare. A speech communications major, Gurtler acted in college and had a role in "Twelfth Night."

With his voice, broadcasting was a natural. It hasn't been an easy road to NHL play-by-play for Gurtler but as any Shakespearean scholar knows: "All's well that ends well."

The Sabres were the victims of a rare hat trick during their series with the Bruins. Channel 2, Channel 4 and Channel 7 all declined to send a reporter and a photographer to Boston to cover the Sabres' first three road games.

Both Channel 2 and Channel 7 sent reporters to Game Seven.

It is the first time that all three local stations haven't followed the Sabres on the road during the playoffs, a sign of the increasing financial strain on all of them. It also is a national trend.

Channel 2 was the first station in town to stop traveling with local sports teams.

Sources say News Director Steve VanVliet originally told Channel 7 sports staffers that they would cover the Sabres games in Boston if there was a Game Five but later reversed that decision. The Sabres won Game Five, 2-0, in Boston and Channel 7 led its local newscast with the story over Operation Rescue.

Channel 4's decision to pass on the Sabres' playoff games reportedly was made for financial reasons.

"Most of our resources, including money and manpower, have been put into Operation Rescue," said News Director Tony Ballew. "That's a major commitment and that's where it has to go."

He added that four to six photographers were assigned to Operation Rescue and he couldn't afford to send any of them out of town.
WGR-AM's Art Wander comes from the Oliver Stone school of sportscasting. He apparently believes that there is a National Hockey League conspiracy against the Sabres. His latest evidence: referee Ron Hoggarth's failure to give Boston's Steve Leach a penalty for high-sticking the Sabres' Dale Hawerchuk last Saturday and drawing blood.

Wander's conspiracy rantings are so ludicrous that they undermine any of the credibility he has. Surely, Wander has to realize that NHL officials aren't smart enough to plot any conspiracy.

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