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There's a ping-pong table down the hall from the Buffalo Sabres dressing room, a gift to the team from Rhett Warrener in the name of camaraderie and cohesiveness. Two more suitable words cannot be ascribed to the purpose since both begin with the letter "C," which should be Warrener's to wear once the Michael Peca affair finally meets its resolution.

The first impulse was to say enough already, give Warrener the "C," yesterday being preferable to today. The art of negotiation dictates a more restrained approach.

While Peca has requested the Sabres relieve him of captaincy and deliver him unto a franchise financially appreciative of his glorious intangibles, business sense intervenes. The Sabres cannot repossess the "C" and maintain the illusion of potential reconciliation with Captain Currency. It is to their benefit that a thread of possibility remains intact, imaginary though it might be.

Opposing general manager: "We're not upping the offer. Everyone knows he's never going to play for you again."

Darcy Regier: "We don't know that. If we knew that, wouldn't we have repossessed the "C'? He's still our captain. We want him back. Do better."

So "C" remains a letter in Sabre limbo until the deal is done or the deadline arrives, at which point Regier's poker face loses all effectiveness. By March 13, the Sabres best have a new captain, with Warrener having proven himself most worthy of the inheritance.

He is a defenseman in the Mike Ramsey mold, lacking Ramsey's gift of blocking shots but possessing a surly edge that Rammer rarely emitted. Warrener is on the verge of succeeding Rob Ray as the team's conscience. He leaves no score unsettled and has become a veritable bodyguard for Dominik Hasek, whose play has improved immensely since Warrener assumed the role of traffic cop. That others have since followed his lead is further confirmation of how highly he's regarded within the team.

The word in the locker room is that Warrener's not afraid to speak up, which is an inside joke, because the truth is he never shuts up. His locker room persona is far different from his public one, which is reserved and dignified. He can be short and snippy with the media because he's intolerant of questions that invite him to seize an excuse.

The Sabres were in tatters before the All-Star break. The loss they suffered in Tampa was their fifth in sixth games. Had not the time come to part ways with Peca and bring in reinforcements?

Warrener bristled and shot a darting look. Had not the Sabres already proven they could win with the status quo? Was there anything ailing the team that couldn't be rectified by a timely goal, an extra stride on the backcheck? It was a response that unveiled a thought process ideally suited to the captaincy.

Warrener's a 25-year-old native of Shaunavon, Saskatchewan. Regier plucked him away from the Florida Panthers in March of '99, fortifying the Sabres for a playoff run that carried to the Stanley Cup finals. He played an integral part in the drive, then returned the following season to lead the team in plus-minus rating. He's having another strong year and has been elevated to fine collector in the team's kangaroo court, another indication of his standing within the dressing room.

As for the ping-pong table, it's an idea that backfired. Warrener thought the team could use a diversion during the idle moments surrounding practices and games. Other teams throughout the league have tables in their arenas. Warrener has one in his basement. He figured if he brought one to HSBC, he would humble unsuspecting teammates who lacked the benefit of practice.

What he didn't realize is that ping-pong is big in Europe, that teammates such as Hasek, Miroslav Satan and Vaclav Varada have played it much of their lives. Whoops.

But it's the gesture that carries the weight. Buffalo's team unity has been unwavering in Peca's absence. To bring him back at this point could do more harm than good to dressing room chemistry. The team never talks about Captain Currency. The players have moved on.

Warrener is their unanointed leader now. He embodies everything a team could want in a captain. Clear up the Peca mess and give Warrener the "C." He'll wear it well.

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