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Robert O. Swados, who helped bring the Sabres to Buffalo, is dead at 93

Robert O. Swados, a prominent local attorney better known as a founding father who helped bring the Sabres to Buffalo and remained active with the team throughout its first 42 years, has died, team officials and friends confirmed Friday.

Mr. Swados was found dead in his Kenmore assisted-living home Friday morning, after having eaten Thanksgiving dinner with friends Thursday. He was 93.

“He was the elder statesman for the Sabres,” said Seymour H. Knox IV, son and nephew of the team’s first owners. “He certainly will be remembered for his hard work in helping my dad and uncle bring the Sabres to Buffalo.

“On a day-to-day basis, he was involved in all the decisions, whether it was building the arena or bringing Pat LaFontaine to Buffalo,” Knox added. “And he had a lot of insight into what was going on in the league.”

Mr. Swados wore a lot of hats in his 93 years. He was a Harvard University Law School graduate, a successful corporate and tax attorney, a co-founder of Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre, an author, a former New York State probation commissioner, vice chairman and counsel of the Buffalo Sabres, secretary of the National Hockey League’s board of governors and the league’s special counsel from 1976 to 1993.

At the time of his death, Mr. Swados remained chairman of the Sabres Hall of Fame Committee, a post he has held since the committee’s inception in the 1980s. He was inducted into that hall in the 1990s.

“Bob Swados was one of the founding members of the Buffalo Sabres ownership group 42 years ago,” Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula said in a statement from the team. “He was an integral part of the Knox brothers’ successful acquisition of the franchise and was an important member of the front office for over 30 years. He was still involved with the organization, serving as the president of the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Swados family.”

Oddly, it was Mr. Swados’ work in trying to bring a Continental League baseball franchise to Buffalo in 1960 that caught the eye of the Knox brothers, Seymour H. III and Northrup, as they tried to land an NHL team in the mid-1960s. Although that effort failed, the Knoxes, with Mr. Swados as their attorney, finally were awarded a team in December 1969.

Starting with the spin of the wheel that brought Gilbert Perreault to Buffalo in 1970, Mr. Swados was a key figure in the history of the Sabres for three decades.

Mr. Swados graduated cum laude from the University of Buffalo in 1938 before earning his law degree cum laude three years later from Harvard Law School. He later served on the front lines with the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II.

After being admitted to the bar in 1942, Mr. Swados started his career four years later with what later would become the Cohen Swados law firm, carving out a career that focused on corporate, tax, television and professional sports cases.

His firm, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1997, dissolved four years later. The Phillips Lytle law firm then named Swados “of counsel” in its Buffalo office.

In 2006, Swados wrote a somewhat controversial book, “Counsel in the Crease,” which offered strong opinions – largely spirited defenses – of figures including the Knox brothers, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, former Sabres owner John Rigas and former coach/general manager Scotty Bowman.

This was an inside look at the first 35 years of the Sabres, from a man who occupied a perch inside many of the rinks and meeting rooms where Sabres history was created.

“The author is pro-Buffalo, pro-Sabres, pro-Knox group, a man who spills his blue and gold blood all over these pages,” a Buffalo News review of the book stated. “He takes the reader into the board rooms, into the locker rooms, into negotiations, everywhere but in the faceoff circles and the corners of the rink.”

Swados’s opinions, though, weren’t popular with everyone. Some top Sabres and NHL officials grumbled about what they claimed were inaccuracies or the author’s lack of inside knowledge about some incidents.

But the book included plenty of colorful anecdotes from Sabres history.

Like the one about the Sabres having “stolen” the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, skating into Dallas on June 8, 1999 and surprising the Dallas Stars in overtime. The referee had called a disproportionate number of penalties on the Sabres, at one point sending seven straight Buffalo players to the penalty box.

Swados wrote that when he reached for a congratulatory handshake from top NHL brass afterwards, all he got was stony silence.

“Well, I guess justice triumphed over adversity,” Swados quipped to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, according to the book.

Without cracking a smile, Bettman responded like a stern judge: “Adversity justified.”

Never shy about sharing his opinions or revealing some inside information, Mr. Swados wasn’t popular with everyone, especially during the ownership upheaval involving the Sabres after the Knox brothers sold the team.

“He could be cantankerous, but he was the kind of guy you wanted fighting for you and your team,” one longtime friend said Friday.

Among the survivors are his daughter, Elizabeth Swados – a highly successful author, musician, director and composer with multiple Tony Award nominations and Obie Awards – and a good friend, Audre Bunis.

A graveside service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in Forest Lawn. A memorial service will be scheduled later.