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Everyone cashing in on Sabres Unauthorized items are sold illegally

As Buffalo Sabres fever continues to grip Western New York, lots of businesses are showing their support for the boys in blue and gold with Sabres-related promotions and merchandise.

Unfortunately, many of the team tie-ins are illegal.

Unauthorized, jersey-shaped cookies bearing players' names and ladies thong underwear emblazoned with the likeness of play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret are among the items the Sabres front office and the National Hockey League have cracked down on in the past week.

And a local sleep disorder clinic in Williamsville was ordered to take down a billboard reading: "One team. One Goal. No more sleepless nights."

"A lot of the time, their hearts are in the right place. They just take it too far," said Daniel J. DiPofi, Sabres chief operating officer. "But even if it's an innocent mistake, it's still trademark infringement."

Michael Gold, NHL Enterprises associate counsel, agrees.

"We don't want to be the 'fun police,' but we have to protect our intellectual properties and commercial interests," Gold said.

Wegmans Markets, which sells licensed Sabres products in its stores and is authorized to use the Sabres logo on some baked goods, was one of the businesses that got a warning this week. The grocer was told to stop selling cutout cookies in the shape of jerseys decorated with players' names and numbers.

Ann McCarthy, Wegmans spokeswoman, said the fast-selling cookies, which did not bear the Sabres name or logo, were the brainchild of a creative baker who never intended to violate trademark rules.

"It was clearly unintentional, just a desire to give customers what they were asking for," McCarthy said. "As soon as Sabres officials expressed their objections to the cookies, we removed them, and they thanked us for doing so."

The NHL had a stronger-toned conversation with Internet seller cafepress.com regarding a line of thong underwear imprinted with several different Sabres-related images and messages. One of the unauthorized undergarments bore a photo of announcer Rick Jeanneret with the misspelled message, "Rick Jeanerette Brought Sexy Back."

"I'm a good-looking guy, so I understand why they did it, but they spelled my name wrong and used my picture without my permission," Jeanneret joked.

Jeanneret, who has a licensed line of caps and apparel bearing his popular sayings, said his products include "many things, but no thongs."

The Web site has halted sales of the Jeanneret underpants, as well as a version bearing the classic Sabres logo and another dedicated to goalie Ryan Miller.

Gold said NHL trademark violations, intentional or innocent, are a fact of life in markets with ultra-popular teams like the Sabres, and they increase during the playoffs. Unlicensed apparel items are the most common violations, prompting the league to send undercover investigators to scout out unauthorized garments.

Those inspections of stores, roadside stands and Internet sites have resulted in the confiscation of about 4,500 illegal Sabres items in recent weeks, according to Gold.

While the crackdowns protect the NHL's licensing rights, as well as those who pay for the right to sell licensed products, Gold said they also protect hockey fans.

"We want our fans to know they are buying an official, lasting souvenir, not a knockoff version that's poorly made and of no value," Gold added.

He said a way to spot fake merchandise is to look for the official NHL hang tag stamped with a holographic image.

Another tip-off is spelling. The league has confiscated more than a few Sabres items labeled "Sabers."

The potential market for counterfeit goods in Buffalo is fueled by what is nothing short of Sabres merchandise mania.

According to the NHL, sales for Sabres-related products have shot up 900 percent from April 2006, fueled by a combination of the team's on-ice success, popularity and new uniforms. Sales for the period are pegged at close to $80 million.

The Sabres also scored big when it came to jersey sales on NHL.com, with Sabres players capturing six of the Top 10 spots. While Pittsburgh phenom Sidney Crosby ranked No. 1, Ryan Miller, Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville grabbed the next six slots in the April sales tally.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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