The Buffalo Sabres have strived to build a family atmosphere within the organization. Ownership and management have bonded with players under Terry Pegula's stewardship, with the parties joining as one at events, dinners and public gatherings the past 18 months. The communal feeling will continue today and Friday as Sabres players and brass head to Southern Ontario for a goodwill tour.
Soon, though, the sides may be forced to ignore each other.
The NHL and NHL Players' Association are worlds apart on a new collective bargaining agreement, and a lockout looms with the expiration of the current deal Sept. 15. The owners have vowed to shut down the league, and the work stoppage would not only close the Zamboni doors, it would bar teams from any communication with their players.
"I'll cross that Peace Bridge when I get there," Sabres President Ted Black said Wednesday. "I'm glad that they're joining us over there for this event, and I hope they enjoy it half as much as I know I will. As for what happens to that relationship in two weeks, we'll see."
For now, management, players and alumni will ride across the border together to reconnect with the Sabres' fans in Canada. The team estimates about 10 percent of its season ticket-holders live in Southern Ontario, but visits to The True North have dwindled through the years. The Sabres haven't held training camp in St. Catharines, Ont., since 2003, and increased border-crossing regulations can make short visits difficult.
"Engaging Southern Ontario, the Niagara Frontier is really, really important to us for the future of the Buffalo Sabres," Black said by telephone. "In years past we went there to try and sell tickets. Here, we just want to sell ourselves on enlisting new fans and connecting with the fans that maybe haven't seen us over there physically for a while."
Black will join forward Ville Leino, team Hall of Famer Danny Gare, retired defenseman Jay McKee, broadcaster Harry Neale and others for several stops in Fort Erie and St. Catharines.
The tour starts at 8 a.m. today with the group serving coffee at the Tim Horton's location at 1167 Garrison Road in Fort Erie. There will also be visits to two schools and meetings with the Greater Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce and St. Catharines business association today. On Friday, the Sabres will stop at Brock University, a hospital in St. Catharines and conduct an on-ice clinic in the Garden City.
Black also reiterated his commitment to getting the Sabres on basic television in Southern Ontario. Canadian fans were formerly able to watch the team over the air on Channels 2, 4, 7, 29 and 49, but it's been more than 15 years since the Sabres were a TV staple north of the border because of the contracts with cable providers MSG and Empire Sports Network.
"I really want to get us on a basic package over there so that more people have access to the games," said Black, echoing statements that were also made during B. Thomas Golisano's ownership. "It's one of those things that border teams like Buffalo and Detroit in particular have always tried to do it, and it becomes very, very difficult. But this is the one thing that I'm just not going to take no for an answer. We're going to find a way to get it done, however long it takes."
In other news:
. Talks are continuing with restricted free agent center Tyler Ennis, according to a source, who said the CBA uncertainty is not creating a rush in negotiations.
. Sabres mini-packs went on sale Wednesday despite the uncertainty of any games being played. Fans can create a ticket package of five to 40 games and receive a 10 percent discount off box office prices.
Other benefits include no service charge and the ability to buy playoff tickets before they go on sale to the general public. Mini-packs can be purchased at Sabres.com.
. The Sabres are installing new seats in the retractable seating sections between 109 and 113. They also plan to remodel the Sabres Store this month.