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ACCOUNTABILITY NEEDS TO REACH THE GM'S OFFICE

Tom Golisano, the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres, made his fortune by building Paychex into the second-largest payroll accounting firm in the United States. So it seemed fitting that accountability was the major theme of Wednesday's media gathering in HSBC Arena.

Granted, for awhile it felt like we were living 1997 all over again, like in the movie "Groundhog Day." Larry Quinn introduced Darcy Regier as his general manager. Regier presented Lindy Ruff as the team's choice for head coach. I think I overheard a rumor about President Clinton having an affair with some intern named Monica.

But take heart. This isn't to be confused with the status quo. Quinn, the managing partner, spoke of a "cultural shift" in Buffalo hockey. Regier said the franchise was headed in a new direction. He promised we were entering into a period of "stability with accountability," whatever that means.

Quinn said everyone will be held accountable in the new Sabres organization, and they will be rewarded if they get results. He said he is sick of the community having low expectations for its hockey team and he wants the bar raised higher. He said he expects the Sabres to make the playoffs next season. He more or less guaranteed it.

Making the playoffs isn't a very ambitious goal, but at least he's giving us something to hold them to. If they miss the playoffs for a third straight year, there'll be hell to pay. The first one held to account will be the coach.

Ruff says that's fine with him. He could have walked away and found another NHL coaching job. Either he really loves Buffalo or he believes Golisano will provide the, uh, tools to win here. He even accepted a cut in his base pay to coach for a seventh season.

If the Sabres make a playoff run, Ruff will earn some nice incentives. If they miss the playoffs -- or if they get off to another horrendous start -- chances are he'll be looking for another job. "I'm a gambler," he said.

Golisano and Quinn are gambling, too. They can spin it any way they like, but they're gambling on the status quo. They're betting that a coach and GM who have fallen out of favor with the public will get back to the playoffs and win back a community of disaffected fans.

They're betting that the Sabres are a young team on the upswing, and that their late-season surge will carry over into the next regular season and spark the imagination of a skeptical ticket-buying public.

Good luck to them. But I don't buy it, and the average fan won't, either. Not for a long while. People who didn't show up when the franchise's very existence was in peril aren't going to come because the GM, a man they revile, says there's a new direction.

Accountability is a nice idea, but this town's hockey fans are wary. Talk is cheap. You want to talk accountability? Show them the money. If the Sabres expect the public to buy in, they need to prove it by making significant changes to the roster.

The fans didn't abandon this team simply because of an ownership mess. They turned away because the team disgusted them, because Regier put together a roster of fragile finesse players who didn't make the sacrifices necessary to win when it mattered. Players who weren't accountable.

Regier admitted the Sabres need more leaders, tough-minded guys who do what it takes to win on the road. He said he's determined to bring in more of those players. He said the payroll will be $30 million, which means there's money to spend.

Quinn said there were times last season when he hated watching the team play, but he felt things began to change with the trade for Daniel Briere. In fact, Regier conceded that the Briere deal might have saved his job. He also revealed that he will be talking with Quinn about reworking his contract, which has four years to run.

According to Quinn, all the members of the Sabres' new management team have incentive-laden contracts. They should do the same with Regier's deal. Reward him if the team succeeds, but get rid of him if it continues to stumble.

This is Regier's team, after all. If it doesn't meet these newly heightened expectations, he's the one who should ultimately be held accountable.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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