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Merchants SCOOOORRRRRRRE! Sabres mania is being used to market everything from ice cream to cars to suits

Buffalo Sabres fans poured into the new Borders bookstore in Orchard Park on Friday, eager to take pictures and get autographs from Rick Jeanneret and Jim Lorentz, the team's broadcasters.

It was precisely the response Gerry Buchheit had hoped for when the developer brought in the duo for the grand opening at Quaker Crossing, a shopping center off Milestrip Road.

"It just brings everyone in to find where Quaker Crossing is, and to get out here," he said. "It sure worked."

The scene at Borders, where fans took numbers to line up to meet the guys who call the games, is emblematic of how rampant Sabres fever has become. And it shows why so many local businesses are eager to connect with the team and its players, or even its TV crew.

The team has come a long way from the sparse crowds and losing seasons of a few years ago. Now the Sabres are riding a wave of sellouts and high playoff expectations, just the type of positive vibe advertisers savor.

Businesses interviewed wouldn't reveal terms of their deals but say they are benefiting from greater brand awareness and community goodwill generated by their Sabres tie-ins.

Napoli's, a menswear store in East Amherst, was interested in signing up a spokesman for its TV ads and found a match in Daniel Briere, the Sabres' co-captain.

"We wanted him to have a little accent," said Anthony Napoli, who owns the business with Joseph Napoli. "We wanted him to be a good-looking guy."

It didn't hurt that Anthony was a big hockey fan, or that Briere was already familiar with what the store sold.

"Everybody knows him," Napoli said. "Everybody knows the name and even the voice when he speaks."

The ads, Napoli said, have helped Napoli's develop more of an identity and give customers another reason to talk about the store.

Briere also endorses Vitamin Water and talks up Northtown Lexus in radio spots with his wife.

David DiPasquale, general manager of Northtown Lexus, said the player was a good fit with Lexus' values.

"Danny Briere is a nice, under-the-radar type of human being, and he's with a great organization," he said.

The dealership held a promotion in which customers who bought a vehicle during February were invited to bring a guest to a small wine-tasting to meet Briere and his family.

Northtown Automotive's relationship with the Sabres started a few years ago, when the auto group wanted to show its commitment to both the Sabres and the Bills, said Craig Schreiber, an owner of the auto group.

Last fall, Northtown offered a free pair of Bills or Sabres tickets to anyone who bought a new or used vehicle from a Northtown dealership from mid-September until the end of November.

Northtown bought more than $100,000 worth of Sabres tickets and ran out of them, said Larry Schreiber, another co-owner. The auto group was able to work with the Sabres to obtain more tickets to complete the promotion.

The lure of free Sabres tickets probably didn't prompt someone to rush out and buy a car, Larry Schreiber said. But it might have helped Northtown draw in someone who was preparing to buy a car anyway, he said.

"What we got out of it was, it may just have been the edge," he said.

DeLacy Ford in Elma has also played up Sabres connections, led by its spokesman, Jason Pominville. DeLacy's Web site shows the player picking up his new Ford Expedition at the dealership.

James DeLacy Sr. said his dealership had never before used a pro athlete as a representative to this extent.

"He's a very nice young man," DeLacy said. "I feel like he's done us a lot of good."

DeLacy said he believes working with Pominville has created more awareness of his business. He said a radio station survey found that 89 percent of the respondents were familiar with the dealership location.

Perry's Ice Cream in Akron, a Sabres sponsor going back to coach Lindy Ruff's playing days, sells a Sabres-themed flavor called "Top Shelf Sundae," with the team name and logo on the carton. The flavor's name was inspired by a goal call used by Jeanneret, who also appears in Perry's radio spots.

"It's actually one of our top 10 flavors right now, which is hard to do," said Diane Austin, vice president of marketing.

The special flavor gives Perry's another local tie-in, she said, and a portion of the proceeds from the flavor's sales go to the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.

John Cimperman, a sports marketing expert, isn't surprised so many businesses are making connections with the Sabres.

"It's the loyalty that the fans have displayed for the team in the arena and in the TV ratings," said Cimperman, a principal in Cenergy Communications in East Aurora.

Cimperman said pro sports are great for building brand awareness, but can be even more valuable in "activation," or persuading people -- fans, in this case -- to patronize the sponsors. Cenergy's research shows that NASCAR fans are three times more likely to buy a sponsor's product than a nonsponsor's product.

"It's a matter of driving fans to a retail location," he said.

Demand for Sabres medallions offered by The Buffalo News quickly overwhelmed the supply when the newspaper launched the promotion. A total of 24 medallions featuring players or logos are being sold through area retailers.

The News is catching up, preparing to publish order forms that will allow fans to buy medallions they missed, albums, or the full set, said Cindy Sterner, promotion and public affairs manager.

What do the Sabres make of all this attention?

"It's a dream," said John Livsey, vice president of sales and business development.

Just a couple of years ago, the league lost a season to a lockout. "Most of our [sponsor] base stuck with us, and we're grateful for that," Livsey said.

Livsey credits the front office and the team with creating a winning team, but he said the club still needs to prove to sponsors that they will benefit from tying in.

"You still have to be able to perform and show these companies it's good business," he said.

Meanwhile, fans are snapping up Sabres merchandise, and retailers from sporting goods stores to supermarkets are stacking their racks. New Era Cap Co. is selling official Sabres playoff caps, and has a banner on its headquarters counting down the number of wins to clinch a Stanley Cup championship.

Back at Borders in Orchard Park, Jeanneret and Lorentz credit the team when asked about the added attention coming their way, like at the book signing.

Wherever Jeanneret goes, fans are eager to talk hockey with him. "That's wonderful," he said. "That's great. That's a direct reflection on a team, on a very good team, and it's good for the community."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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