The best curveball of Mark Jakubowski’s life actually came away from the baseball diamond. It was a pitch to Darcy Regier, and it changed Jakubowski’s career path from math teacher to NHL executive with his hometown team.
Jakubowski, who is in his 11th season with the Sabres and second as assistant general manager, never planned to spend a day working in professional sports. The Frontier High School graduate studied economics while playing baseball for the University of Rochester, and he was going to use his degree to get a teaching job.
As Jakubowski was attending classes in the early 2000s, the “Moneyball” concept exploded. Sports teams read about the successful analytics plan put in place by Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, and they wanted in. So did Jakubowski, who loved sports and numbers.
“I said why don’t I combine the business interests I had with the athletics and see if I could put it together?” the 32-year-old said. “I sent out a bunch of resumes to pretty well every professional team in the major four sports.
“I ended up getting an interview with the Minnesota Wild. They offered me a position.”
Jakubowski’s heart, however, was in Buffalo. Among his earliest memories is sitting on his father’s lap in Memorial Auditorium with his brother next to him, the three of them sharing the family’s two season tickets. He got a chance to intern with the Sabres during his junior year of college, helping the organization break down video for the 2004 NHL Draft. It was then that he got to know Regier, who was serving as the Sabres’ general manager.
“I called Darcy and said, ‘The Wild offered me a job, what do I do? I’d like to work for you,’” Jakubowski said. “Then he offered me a job. I don’t want to say it was a negotiation right off the hop, but I had two options. I knew Darcy and I was comfortable with him and the people here. Obviously, they gave me an opportunity to intern here, and I wanted to stay home and be part of the Sabres.”
The Sabres hired Jakubowski as a hockey department analyst in 2005. He arrived at the same time as the salary cap, and his fondness for numbers soon became a huge help to the Sabres. As Buffalo went to its second straight Eastern Conference final in 2006-07, the organization spent right to the cap. Money was so tight that rookie Drew Stafford practiced with Rochester and played in Buffalo just so the Sabres could save vital pennies on a day-to-day basis.
Jakubowski helped Regier make sure the Sabres remained under the cap limit with every trick allowed in the collective bargaining agreement.
“I got thrown right into the fire a little bit,” Jakubowski said, “but Darcy was the guy managing at the time and I was just helping.”
Regier obviously appreciated it, promoting Jakubowski to director of hockey administration for a year, followed by assistant to the general manager. In addition to analyzing the cap and the CBA, the Hamburg resident began helping with contracts. He provided stats and salaries for players comparable to the Sabres’ free agents, and by 2008 he was negotiating deals on his own.
“I’ve kind of gotten a couple breaks along the way,” he said.
Jakubowski’s biggest break came after a time of uncertainty. The Sabres fired Regier in November 2013 and replaced him with Tim Murray in January 2014.
“Anytime there’s a transition with someone’s boss, you’re obviously concerned, especially in this business,” Jakubowski said. “You start to wonder if you’ll make it through.”
He not only made it, he got a promotion. Murray named Jakubowski as his assistant general manager in August 2014.
“Bright guy, hard-working guy, smart guy,” Murray said. “I wanted help in contracts and CBA and that type of deal. After I got to know him a little bit, I felt he was a good man for the job.”
Jakubowski travels with the Sabres when Murray scouts games elsewhere. While Jakubowski knows the sport, he’s never played it.
“I’ve never played ice hockey and can’t skate,” Jakubowski said. “I remember Maxim Afinogenov at one of our holiday parties was carving me a bit there because I couldn’t skate.”
He could have carved Afinogenov on a baseball diamond, however. Jakubowski was named a Liberty League first-team pitcher during his senior year at Rochester. The reliever held hitters to a .246 batting average while leading the team with 34 strikeouts in 17 appearances.
He tossed a strike when he opted for hockey over teaching.
“This has been a real good ride, and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Jakubowski said. “I hope it continues. We’ll see how long this ride goes.”