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LOOKING BACK ON THE FOG DAYS OF SUMMER
SABRES THE TALK OF THE LEAGUE AFTER TUMULTUOUS OFFSEASON

So, you say you've been abroad since last hockey season ended and you were wondering how your favorite team, the Buffalo Sabres, spent its summer vacation?

Maybe you'd better sit down. Pour yourself a drink, if you're so inclined. And get a box of tissues.

Make that two boxes.

A review of the Sabres' 1997 offseason is, at worst, a horror story, and at best, the most tumultuous four-month period in the 27-year history of the franchise.

When last we saw our heroes in a real game, they were getting eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs, capping one of the most enjoyable seasons in Sabres history. A team that was a consensus pick to miss the playoffs shocked the NHL by winning its division, finishing sixth in the league in points and playing an exciting brand of hockey. All in a new arena that opened to rave reviews.

Since the season ended, however, the Sabres did the following (bear with us, here):

Fired general manager John Muckler, the NHL's executive of the year.

Spent the next four weeks looking for a replacement before hiring Darcy Regier.

Alternately complimented and snubbed beloved coach Ted Nolan as he dangled in limbo for seven weeks.

Watched Nolan, goalie Dominik Hasek and forward Michael Peca sweep four of the NHL's top awards.

Heard Hasek blast Nolan.

Offered Nolan a one-year contract and then un-offered it.

Watched defensive leader Garry Galley sign with Los Angeles.

Picked Lindy Ruff as new coach.

Heard tough-guy Matthew Barnaby say he'd like to wrap Hasek around the goalposts.

Added icing to the offseason cake by sending captain Pat LaFontaine to the Rangers for zero warm bodies.

The Sabres, in short, have been the talk of the NHL . . . for all the wrong reasons.

"When I talk to people around the league, the first question I keep getting is, 'What is going on in Buffalo?'," said Harry Neale, former NHL coach, current Amherst resident and commentator for Hockey Night in Canada.

"It's obvious they've taken some steps backward," said John Davidson, analyst for ESPN and Madison Square Garden.

Hockey experts say they were surprised the Sabres lost both Muckler and Nolan, since both were highly respected league wide for the jobs they did in Buffalo.

"I have to qualify my comments by saying I'm looking from the outside in," Neale said, "but I can't imagine both Muckler and Nolan, at least one of the two of them, not being back here.

"Nolan did a great job," Neale said. "And when a general manager gets the dreaded news from management that they want him to significantly cut the payroll, and while he's at it, improve the product, that's the kind of thing that sends a GM screaming into his office. Yet John Muckler did it."

"It's a flat-out miracle," said Davidson. "I mean, to rebuild with young talent, cut payroll and then win almost right away. It just doesn't happen.

"Your management and your coaching staff really have to be working together," Davidson said. "Through some form of lost leadership that didn't happen. . . . I think there was such an internal strife, that maybe it's better to start over with a clean slate.

"It's just too bad that the Sabres couldn't back it up 18 months, rewind the tape, and then play out those 18 months over again."

Now they will start over, from a management standpoint, with Regier and Ruff.

"They've got a couple of good people in Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff," Davidson said. "Regier is well respected. And you cannot find a better person than Lindy Ruff."

For anyone who might have missed it, here were the major developments for the Sabres in the offseason:

May 14: Sabres fire Muckler. Sabres President Larry Quinn says, "We felt we had to improve the communication within our organization." Basically, Muckler's failed relationship with both Nolan and Quinn, rather than his player personnel decisions, cost him his job.

At the Muckler announcement, Quinn says, "Nolan is a hockey coach and a darned good one."

However, the ensuing weeks do not bode well for Nolan. The Sabres initially say he will not be allowed to speak with other teams until his contract expires June 30. Then Quinn says he gives Nolan permission to speak to one club, San Jose.

Meanwhile, Quinn interviews numerous candidates for GM and one for coach. Terry O'Reilly reveals he had been contacted three times by the Sabres in discussions dating to February. In a television interview, Quinn says "I'm not sure how good a coach he is," in reference to Nolan.

May 19: The Sabres announce Northrup Knox will succeed his late brother, Seymour III, as the club's chairman of the board. This keeps control of the franchise in the Knox family. It also keeps control out of the hands of John Rigas, the member of the ownership group with the deepest pockets.

June 11: Regier is hired as the new GM. Regier, 40, built a solid reputation around the league as a member of the Islanders' organization for most of the previous 12 years. He was the right-hand man of respected former Isles GM, Bill Torrey.

June 19: Hasek becomes the first Sabre to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He's the first goalie to win it in 35 years. He also wins the Vezina Trophy as top goalie. Peca wins the Selke Trophy as top defensive forward. Nolan wins the Adams Award as coach of the year and says, "I'd like to think I could take this team to the next level."

June 23: Hasek blasts Nolan, saying he doesn't respect him and doesn't want him back as coach. "I cannot respect him. That's my problem. I don't want to play for someone I don't respect," Hasek says.

June 25: The Sabres take the extraordinary step of holding a press conference to announce they are offering Nolan a one-year contract. In explaining why the coach of the year was not offered more job security, Regier says he and Nolan "need time to build a relationship." Minutes after the announcement, Nolan says he will reject the offer.

June 27: In a bizarre and stunning example of the rift among the team's ownership group, a rally of 200 fans in support of Nolan includes Jean Knox, a shareholder in the team and wife of the franchise's late founder, along with Connie Knox, wife of team executive Seymour Knox IV.

"If Seymour was alive, he absolutely would have signed Ted by now," says Jean Knox, who is sporting an eagle feather given to her by Nolan when her husband died in May 1996. She also says John Rigas, one of the principal owners of the team, supports the rally for Nolan. Rigas confirms it.

June 30: Regier flies to Nolan's home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and withdraws the team's one-year offer. Nolan says Rigas called him and said he disagreed with the decision.

July 4: Galley signs a free-agent contract with the L.A. Kings, putting a significant dent in the Sabres' defensive corps.

July 21: Ruff receives a multi-year contract to be the new head coach. The 37-year-old former Sabres captain comes to the team with solid credentials, having served the previous four seasons as assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.

Aug. 20: Barnaby says he plans to take a run at Hasek during a scrimmage at the start of training camp. "I'm still disgusted at the way it was handled by Dominik," Barnaby says, in reference to the goalie's remarks about Nolan. Several weeks later, Barnaby says he has changed his mind and will not run at Hasek.

Sept. 4: LaFontaine tells the Sabres he intends to make a comeback after being cleared to play by two doctors. The Sabres say they want the evaluations of those doctors reviewed by the doctors that advised against the resumption of his career.

Sept. 19: The Sabres report that the doctors who advised against LaFontaine resuming his career have held their ground after review of his latest tests. A trade of LaFontaine appears imminent.

Sept. 29: After leaving him dangling for three weeks, the Sabres finally trade LaFontaine to the Rangers for future draft choices.

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