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NOTHING BUT THE CUP WILL SATISFY SABRES
MOSS AND MUCKLER'S MASTER PLAN PROJECTED A CHAMPIONSHIP IN 2000

Doug Moss wasn't here for long but, looking back, perhaps he deserved a pat on the back rather than a kick on the backside for his work as president of the Sabres.

Moss often was perceived as an overbearing sort trying to force his big-city ideas on Buffalo. People here thought he was too much shirt-and-tie, not enough shot and a beer.

Most fans didn't realize when he was fired in 1996 after a power struggle with Larry Quinn that Moss actually was a man of the people. He spent many a night roaming Memorial Auditorium in the last season there, sitting in the oranges for a period or two with 9-to-5ers who had grown tired of watching the Sabres underachieve year after year.

Fans told him they would rather see 10 guys like Rob Ray leave their souls on the ice than watch gifted talents like Alexander Mogilny straddle the blue line for half the game. What's the difference? Skill or no skill, the Sabres were getting bounced from the first round of the playoffs almost every year, anyway.

Moss admits he made mistakes during his tenure, but give him credit for this: He listened.

"I really believed that the team that played in Buffalo had to work just as hard or harder than the people who paid for the tickets," said Moss, now the chief executive officer of the International Hockey League. "We weren't going anywhere. We could see we needed a major overhaul."

It wasn't long before he gave former general manager John Muckler the directive to tear apart the team and start rebuilding. Changing uniforms was part of the face lift, but mainly because wearing black was better suited for a team that wanted to get bigger and tougher. The Sabres pleaded for patience and promised they would contend for the Stanley Cup.

The 1999-2000 season, the one that starts Saturday in Detroit, is the one Moss was thinking of during those dreary nights in the Aud, so it actually came a year early. The Sabres didn't know then that Dominik Hasek would retire next summer, but they anticipated the rebuilding project would be completed this year while the Dominator was still near his prime.

"We really believed in the plan," Moss said. "We would go through the lineup and John would be plugging in the names -- (Jay) McKee, (Vaclav) Varada, (Curtis) Brown, (Wayne) Primeau, (Erik) Rasmussen. All those kids are in, and that's really great to see. But you also have to remember that it wasn't just me. There were a lot of people involved. And give (general manager) Darcy Regier and (coach) Lindy Ruff their due. They have done a tremendous job."

The Sabres, of course, went to the Cup finals last season. They went to the Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons. Only three players who were with the Sabres for the lockout-shortened 1995 season -- Ray, Hasek and Brian Holzinger -- are still around.

There were some difficult times over the years, with coach Ted Nolan's departure, the inner-office feuds that threatened the team's future and the death of owners Seymour and Northrup Knox. But the Sabres survived. When it seemed the world was falling apart around them, they grew stronger on the ice. Their young talent developed. They learned from their losses.

Nearly five years later, the project is complete. The Sabres are built.

"There's no more rebuilding," winger Dixon Ward said. "There's no more excuse that we have one of the youngest teams in hockey. It's all out the window. Nobody wants to hear that anymore. We're ready."

You got the sense the Sabres were ready last season, when captain Michael Peca refused to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy after beating Toronto for the Eastern Conference title. It seems fitting that Peca, symbolic for what's right with the Sabres today, was traded for Mogilny, symbolic for what was wrong with them half a decade ago.

The Sabres never agreed with the notion they met their goal by reaching the Stanley Cup finals before falling in six games to the Dallas Stars. The object was to win the darned thing, and that has not changed this season. Every team in the league says it wants to win the Cup, but only a few have a legitimate chance.

Buffalo is one of them.

"It's our No. 1 priority," Peca said. "Everything else gets pushed to the side."

The Sabres have the goaltending in Hasek, who has won five of the last six Vezina Trophies. They have four solid lines that play hard on most nights, and a 40-goal scorer in Miroslav Satan. They have one of the NHL's premier two-way players in Peca. They have perhaps the best defensive corps in hockey. They have playoff experience. They seemingly have everything, including lofty expectations.

"For us to improve on our season, we have to win the Stanley Cup," winger Geoff Sanderson said. "We set the standards, and we have to live up to them again this year. It's a lot of fun being realistic and saying we have a great chance to win the Stanley Cup.

"I can remember years before telling reporters that our goal was to win the Stanley Cup, knowing in the back of my mind and the back of his mind that I was full of . . . because we didn't have a chance. It's a good feeling to say that being realistic. You're proud saying something like that and meaning it."

Ruff seems to have a strong hand, especially considering the ultimate trump card in Hasek, but some luck is required before he collects his winnings. The Sabres need to stay healthy. Team chemistry, perhaps the most delicate element of this group, is always important. The players who had their best seasons a year ago need to play even better.

The Edmonton Oilers are the only team since 1970 that lost in the Cup finals one year and won it the next. They did it in 1984. Washington went to the Cup two years ago and didn't even make the playoffs last season. The Sabres have been to the conference finals two years running. Every time they play, it will be considered a big game for the opposition.

"We know it's going to be an extremely tough year," Ruff said. "Every team out there will be trying to knock us off our little pedestal. The track record for teams that go to the Stanley Cup finals or the conference finals isn't that good for repeating. With parity at an all-time premium, it doesn't matter when you get to the playoffs whether you're first or eighth because any team can knock out anybody."

The Sabres found out enough about that last season, when they finished seventh in the conference and rolled through the first three rounds with extraordinary ease despite missing Hasek for two games with groin problems.

For years, people have been talking about the proverbial window of opportunity, marking how long the Sabres could take advantage of Hasek's domination of the league. The Dominator plans to retire after the season, meaning the window is just about closed.

"Now is the time," winger Michal Grosek said. "You have the best goalie in the world, and you don't know who the goalie is going to be next year. You don't get too many opportunities with the best goalie, so now is the time."

Hasek had career bests in goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.937) last season.

His nine shutouts were second only to the 13 he had in 1998-99, when he won his second straight MVP award. He had offseason surgery, but he is still the best goalie in the league.

His last game will end the most productive career of any player in team history. He is the best goaltender of our time. He's among the best goalies of all-time. But he has never won the Cup.

"We want to win all four rounds," Hasek said. "First, we have to get into the playoffs and there are no guarantees. There are maybe two or three teams in the league that you can say will be in the playoffs. We know it's not so easy.

"We have a more experienced team," he said. "We won a couple rounds in the playoffs two years ago. Last year, we went a little farther. Many players should be at the top of their games. We can go farther. For me, it's the last chance. It's very simple."

One dilemma Western New York has wrestled with over the last decade is whether it's better for its sports teams to come inches from the top and fall or to never get there at all. Buffalo had a remarkable run over the last decade and the region learned plenty about growing stronger in defeat.

The 1990s started with a kick that sailed wide right in the first of four straight Super Bowl losses for the Bills and ended with Brett Hull's left skate in the crease to end the Cup finals for the Sabres.

It's sad in many ways, but it seems a championship in a major sport would somehow legitimize this region and help its tenants forget about their problems for a while. Those titles won by the Bandits and Bisons were fine, but they just aren't enough.

The people here want to experience winning the big one just once, so when they're vacationing in Florida they can puff out their chests and say, "Yeah, we're from Buffalo. No, the snow isn't that bad. Yes, watching the Bills lose those Super Bowls was tough. But you know what? The Sabres won the Stanley Cup last year."

That's all. One championship.

And they could die in peace.

"You know, the people there, they just deserve a Stanley Cup," Moss said. "John Muckler and I talked about it all the time. We just imagined what it would be like in that town when we won. It was never 'If.' It was always 'When.' "

"When" is coming up fast. If the Sabres don't win it all this season, "when" could be a long time coming.

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