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FRONT-OFFICE DISTRACTION IS PART OF A DAY'S WORK FOR SABRES

The Buffalo Sabres just can't seem to enjoy good times.

The Sabres, who have spent the past 1 1/2 years dealing with off-ice distractions, have been given another one lately with the imminent change of the team's ownership structure. Minority owner John Rigas is scheduled to take control of the Sabres in the near future.

The talk of change at the top comes at a time when the Sabres have won their last two games. Their goalie, Dominik Hasek, is on an impressive shutout streak. And the defending Stanley Cup champions -- the Detroit Red Wings -- come to Marine Midland Arena at 7 tonight (Empire, Radio 104.1 & 710) for their only visit of the season.

The reaction of the players to a possible sale is similar to that of any employee of any company that has a change in ownership. They have been reduced to interested bystanders with perhaps no say in what happens over the short term.

"I don't think it has anything to do with us," Dixon Ward said. "We don't know anything about it. It has no direct bearing on us as a group of guys. Whatever they do upstairs, it doesn't affect us."

The Sabres have grown accustomed to playing with distractions as trades, coaching changes, contract disputes, medical claims and scoreboard crashes have taken attention away from the team's play over the last 14 months.

"It (negotiations concerning the team) has been happening now for a couple of months," Randy Burridge said. "Once everything is done, I'm sure everyone will be a lot happier. Then everyone can stop talking about it."

Darryl Shannon added, "We have to win. We had to win before, and we have to win now, so it doesn't affect us."

However, a change in majority owners gives the players reason to stop and think about the situation over a longer term. New ownership might lead to a different financial commitment. The Sabres might be more -- or less -- willing to keep up with the salary escalation that has affected all NHL teams in recent years. New ownership also could change the personnel in the hockey department. The Buffalo players, like everyone else, will have to wait for answers in those areas.

"Is this a negative? I don't know if this is a negative," Ward said about the sale. "I don't see any mudslinging going on (among the various owners of the team). This happens all the time in every business in the world. I don't see it as a bad thing. We can't comment on it too much because details aren't known to us. So we just go about our business."

A side effect of the sale is that the Knox family won't have its name on top of the organizational chart for the first time since the franchise was founded 28 years ago this month. That makes former player and current assistant coach Mike Ramsey sentimental.

"Personally from my standpoint, when I came here (in 1980) the Knoxes were the owners," he said. "They treated me real well. It's a sad thing, I guess -- changing of the times -- but that's the nature of the game. It happens in all sports, so it doesn't really surprise me."

On the ice, the Sabres would like to keep their current hot streak going for a while longer. Buffalo blanked both the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers over the weekend, recovering nicely from their terrible play during a two-game road trip last week.

"After those two road games, we certainly had to focus in on what we had to do," Burridge said. "It didn't seem like anyone wanted the puck. It didn't seem like anyone even wanted to be out there. These last two games, we've put in an effort and obviously Dom has come up big for us. We've been more ready to play. We're not standing around."

Hasek has not allowed a goal in 128 minutes, 45 seconds. He has four shutouts in last his nine games. The Sabres' goal is to have Hasek's hot streak help the team string more than two wins in a row for the first time this season.

"We're starting to realize that just because you put a couple of wins together, that's not the season," Burridge said. "You have to continue the hard work and the good practices, which we've been having lately. We have to focus on the little things."

Little things mean a lot against a team like the Red Wings, who last spring won their first Stanley Cup since 1955. They are right around the top of the overall standing again this season, and they have such players as Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom to lead them.

"Obviously they are very high-powered offensively," Ward said. "We have to prepare ourselves to play. We have to take it one step at a time and regain something.

"The last couple of games we've made little steps toward that. We haven't accomplished anything yet. You can't say we're back on track. It's just two games. Sunday was a great effort. We played a very smart hockey game, and we didn't make many mistakes. The fact is, we prepare for one day at a time, and whoever is in here we have to be ready."
Miroslav Satan missed Monday's workout with a sore ankle. X-rays were negative, and the winger is expected to play tonight. . . . The Sabres had their annual family Christmas party Monday afternoon. . . . Red Wings' coach Scotty Bowman will be honored before tonight's game for his work with People Inc., a local non-profit agency that provides services for individuals with disabilities and other special needs. Bowman and his wife, Suella, are the honorary chairpersons for the organization's fund drive, and they will accept a check from the Sabres, the NHL and Key Bank. . . . About 2,500 tickets remain for tonight's game. Only single seats are available for Friday's meeting with the New York Rangers.