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WELCOME BACK TO THE WORLD OF TEAM CONTROVERSY

OK, so the goalie, who just happens to be the National Hockey League's most valuable player, got booed, big time.

Big deal.

So the banner went up, seemingly untouched by human hands. Did you expect anything less?

Yes, Tuesday night's crowd was disturbingly small despite the fact tickets were seriously discounted and freebies were easy to come by. Hey, these things happen.

Look, I'm not even bothered by the fact that no one mentioned the old coach or general manager in the season recap video. No one bothered to introduce the new coach to the people in the building and no one -- not from ownership or management -- had the courage to even come near public view for the ceremonial dropping of the first puck and to welcome fans back for a brand new season. Oversights, to be sure.

But there were two things Sabres fans had a right to expect on a day that should have been one long and enjoyable celebration.

That the team would play a good game.

That management would put controversy to rest and allow everyone to concentrate on hockey.

Not a chance.

The Sabres stunk. From the opening shift to the final horn, their effort was poor bordering on pitiful. The fans booed Dominik Hasek from start to finish, but he was hardly the worst performer. Even head coach Lindy Ruff said the team's effort was unacceptable and that the team didn't come to work and refused to pay the price to win.

Worse, chairman of the board Northrup Knox chose this day to stir the pot. After 10 months of being almost invisible, he took on the media, revisited the Ted Nolan issue and put the knife to Pat LaFontaine.

The ramifications of that were as ugly as they were instantaneous.

The Empire Sports Network aired an interview with Nolan, who, seemingly stung by the treatment he's received since not being rehired, said he was a good coach. He then took it a step further and said he was better than Ruff. Yikes!

Then Don Meehan, LaFontaine's agent, reacted even more strongly. Meehan was in the building Tuesday and said since LaFontaine was not available to defend himself from Knox's stated charges that he and LaFontaine ducked arbitration and requested a trade, Meehan would do it for him. Essentially, Meehan said Knox's comment was a lie and that it was the Sabres who asked him to ask LaFontaine to request the trade.

Meehan said Sabres general manager Darcy Regier made that request and Kevin Billet, the team's senior vice president for legal and business affairs, was in the room when the request was made.

"They asked me if Pat would request a trade, and we flatly refused," Meehan said. "Pat's first wish was to play here. We also never refused medical arbitration, and we had no fear (of that)," Meehan added. "And why should we? Pat's been cleared by three very prominent doctors in the United States. I think it's totally unfair and untrue to suggest that we rejected medical arbitration or that we requested a trade. I think if you asked Darcy Regier and Kevin Billet, they would tell you exactly what I'm telling you now."

What a mess.

On a day and night that, with a few hiccups, should have been one of the most anticipated and celebrated in franchise history, the owner opens up old wounds, the departed react in no uncertain terms, and the fans -- at least the ones who paid for their tickets -- nearly booed the league MVP and the team off the ice. Management has to hide out in its own building and a team that right now is fragile and trying very hard to come back together, played a clunker of a game.

There seems to be no end to this franchise's ability to make a bad situation worse. Tuesday, the mood should have been festive and optimistic. Instead ownership chose to create a major distraction and blame the media for everything.

These people just don't get it.

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