The Buffalo Sabres television schedule is just about guaranteed to do one thing early this season -- force fans to find the team's new radio home at WHTT-FM (104.1).
In an attempt to get more fans down to Marine Midland Arena in October and November, seven of the 12 games that the Empire Sports Network won't be carrying this season will be played at home in the season's first six weeks.
Those will be radio-only games on WHTT, the FM outlet where Sabres president Larry Quinn placed the games because it has a younger audience and a wider listening range than WGR-AM. Quinn also was furious with WGR over its critical coverage of him and the team.
Quinn's imprint on the television and radio plans won't be immune to fan criticism, either.
Few would argue with the decision to simulcast the games on radio and television since it means everyone will hear excitable play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret and informative, low-key analyst Jim Lorentz. Danny Gare, who was the radio analyst last season, is the TV pregame and intermission host.
Empire will carry a "FAN TV: Sabres Pregame Edition" for weekday editions and Mike DeGeorge will do updates from the new "Empire Sports Report" on weekday games.
Mike Robitaille returns with Brian Blessing as the co-host of "Hockey Hotline." Quinn almost surely wishes that the opinionated Robitaille could be shown the door but "Hotline" is controlled by Empire.
The decision to lighten the number of home games in October and November was Quinn's. He said it is a business decision.
"We want to give fans an incentive early in the season to go to the games," said Quinn. "Later in the year, we sell the games out."
He adds that it isn't exactly like the team is blacking out home games as the Bills do legally when they aren't sold out 72 hours in advance.
He notes the home opener against Dallas Oct. 7 is one of nine games Empire is carrying in the first month of the season and there also is an Oct. 28 game being carried by ESPN to give local viewers 10 televised games in October.
Quinn concedes that there is a school of thought that television exposure actually heightens interest in a team early in the season, but he adds there is no evidence of its impact either way.
He certainly wants more exposure in Canada, which doesn't receive Empire on its cable systems.
A year ago, the Sabres solved that problem by paying Channel 4 to carry 10 games. WIVB-TV is carried by Canadian systems. The deal wasn't renewed.
"We feel our product deserves to get rights fees, not pay them," said Quinn.
Since Channel 29, Channel 2, Channel 4 and Channel 7 declined to pay the Sabres last season, the most likely home for the Sabres is the new Channel 49, a WB Network affiliate which used to be owned by the team.
Unfortunately, WNYO (which stands for Western New York and Ontario) isn't yet on Canadian cable systems and probably won't be until Jan. 1, if then. If Channel 49 gets Canadian carriage, expect 10 games to be simulcast with Empire on the station in the second half of the season.
While the Sabres got little national attention last season during their surprising Northeast Division title season, ESPN has committed to carrying at least one game into this market and Fox is planning to carry two games in March. That means at least 73 of the Sabres games will be carried. A year ago, 78 were carried and only two home games weren't available on some outlet.
Quinn denies there ever was a plan to reduce the TV schedule to 30 games, saying he proposed to Empire in June that it carry all of the team's games. He added that Empire's contract calls for it to carry at least 50 games.
The team's new contract with WHTT regrettably resulted in the Sabres' preseason games being ignored by radio. Quinn concedes that he would have preferred to have those games carried but added that the lateness of the deal with WHTT resulted in the Sabres being shut out.
"They had committed to a schedule," said Quinn. "Carrying the preseason games didn't make sense to them. Maybe it will be possible next year."
"It made sense to us not to do the preseason because there was no feed and the Sabres provide us with the feed," said Mercury Broadcasting president Charles Banta.
On the positive side, Quinn notes that WHTT plans to carry a postgame show that could last as long as 90 minutes, hosted by Gare and Darren McKee. McKee, former sports director and co-host of the 97 Rock morning show, is the new radio host and producer.
One of the things that annoyed Quinn about the deal with WGR -- besides Chuck Dickerson's rants against him -- was that the post-game show could be over before fans left their parking spaces.
While most hockey eyes will be on Empire, there certainly is enough hockey on other outlets. Here's a quick look at the primary outlets:
ESPN and ESPN 2
ESPN's 26-game schedule, which starts with tonight's game between Florida and Philadelphia, has five games featuring the Flyers and New York Rangers and four games involving the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, Colorado, Chicago and Florida. Starting in January, ESPN will carry games on seven straight Sunday nights. The Oct. 28 game with Colorado is the Sabres' only scheduled appearance.
ESPN 2 carries 15 Colorado games and 14 Detroit games in its 76-game schedule. Among the Wings games: the Oct. 8 home opener when the Stanley Cup banner is raised.
The Sabres' game Feb. 6 with Pittsburgh is on the ESPN 2 schedule but won't be seen here because it also will be carried by Empire.
ESPN 2 also carries "NHL 2Night," a hockey highlights program at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
After carrying 100 games in the regular season, ESPN and ESPN 2 will carry 50 playoff games.
It's schedule opens Friday with a game between Vancouver and Anaheim from Tokyo (also carried by ESPN 2) but almost all the rest of the schedule consists of Saturday doubleheaders at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The Sabres' lone appearance on the tentative schedule, March 7 against Montreal, also will be televised by Empire. Reporter Ken Daniels has left CBC to do play-by-play for the Detroit Red Wings, but otherwise the announcing teams are intact. Bob Cole, Harry Neale and Scott Russell are doing the game in Tokyo. Ron MacLean remains the host of CBC, Greg Millen is back as analyst and Don Cherry is back with MacLean on Coach's Corner. CBC's first Saturday telecast, Toronto at the New York Islanders, will be worked by Chris Cuthbert, John Garrett and Scott Oake.
Fox (Channel 29)
It doesn't begin carrying games until the Jan. 18 All-Star game. After that, it has scheduled games on 11 Saturdays, five more than a year ago. It will regionalize six games weekly, up from four. The additional games will require Fox to add two new announcing teams but obviously it has time before it has to hire anyone.