There are locker rooms where the logo means something, where players smile and take pride in putting on their Buffalo Sabres gear. Kevyn Adams sees it.
Adams, the former Sabres assistant coach, longtime NHL player and Western New Yorker, is president of the Buffalo Junior Sabres Youth Hockey Organization. The Junior Sabres just held tryouts for their preteen squads.
The kids who made it were handed the familiar blue and gold with a charging bison between crossed swords. They were positively beaming.
"They put on a hat after with the Sabres logo on it, and it's incredible," Adams said. "These kids have such a pride in putting that jersey on."
It shows in the results.
Three Junior Sabres teams have qualified for the USA Hockey national championships, which begin Thursday. The 16-and-under team is headed to Philadelphia. The 15-only team will go to Plymouth, Mich. The 14U team is off to Charlotte, N.C.
The 12-and-under team also won the state championship after reaching the semifinals of the prestigious peewee tournament in Quebec, but there are no U.S. nationals for that age group.
"That's a pretty good showing, obviously, having three teams go to national championships," Adams said. "It's great for Buffalo and something that I think everybody should be proud of."
It was also the goal when the Junior Sabres expanded their youth program in 2014, tying together Buffalo's passion for hockey and the HarborCenter facilities built by Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
"What you're starting to see now is really the work that's been put in dating back to when this all started," Adams said, "that approach that we looked at to say, 'How do we really do something special? What does that mean? How do we lay it out?'"
They did it partly by mixing Sabres alumni with established youth coaches. The Junior Sabres have 10 boys teams ranging from 9-and-under to 20U. The list of head coaches and assistants includes Patrick Kaleta, Craig Rivet, Matt Ellis and Adams.
Combining the logo with name recognition has enticed top players in each age group to seek out the Junior Sabres.
"Those guys obviously have great résumés and are great coaches, but what you're also getting with the other ones is experienced coaches that truly understand and have a passion for this," Adams said. "That is truly the backbone of the organization."
With HarborCenter and the Pegula-owned Academy of Hockey, the Junior Sabres offer a curriculum that includes on-ice training, off-ice conditioning and video for all age groups.
"You're kind of putting that holistic view into what makes a special hockey player," Adams said. "Obviously, the players get better, the teams get better."
With three teams playing for national titles (the tournaments can be tracked at Nationals.USAhockey.com), the Junior Sabres are on par with legendary youth clubs such as Shattuck-St. Mary's of Minnesota and Little Caesars of Detroit.
"What you're seeing, too, within all these teams is the kids push each other," Adams said. "You have top players together that truly love it, truly want it, with great coaching and the pride of the jersey and being proud of being a Buffalo Junior Sabre and that logo."
It's rough for the Sabres that they're paying Christian Ehrhoff $857,143 every year through 2027-28. It would have been rough on their salary cap if they hadn't bought him out.
The compliance buyout in June 2014 was mutually beneficial, though it is obviously better for Ehrhoff. The defenseman hasn't had to endure the on-ice debacles, and he keeps getting paid for the next decade despite announcing his retirement last weekend.
For the Sabres, the cap-recapture penalty would have been a hindrance as the team attempts to build around Jack Eichel. If Ehrhoff had retired while still playing on that contract, the Sabres would have been stuck with an extra $3 million against their cap for the next three seasons.
The league instituted the cap-recapture penalty with the 2013 collective bargaining agreement. It punishes teams that circumvented the spirit of the salary cap with long, front-loaded contracts. Ehrhoff's deal signed in 2011 was one of those.
The defenseman's 10-year, $40 million contract featured a $10 million salary the first year and $8 million for the second. After four years at $4 million, the salary dropped to $3 million in the seventh season and $1 million per year for the final three through 2020-21.
The cap-recapture penalty came into effect if a player retired before the contract ended. It subtracted the salary from the cap hit to determine the "cap advantage" secured by the team. In Ehrhoff's first season, for example, the Sabres' advantage was $6 million; they paid him $10 million but his average annual salary (cap hit) was $4 million.
The cap-recapture penalty kept a running total of the net advantage. If Ehrhoff's contract was still in place and he retired now, the cap advantage would have been $9 million. Three years remain on the deal, and the league would have averaged the cap advantage onto the leftover seasons.
So for each of the next three years, the Sabres (as the signing team) would have had dead cap space of $3 million. With Eichel's contract jumping to $10 million next season and additional talent desperately needed, maybe those biweekly paychecks to Ehrhoff for another decade aren't the worst thing. They aren't the best, either.