Ted Black has been in Buffalo for almost two years. With every day that passes, he gets a better sense of what the Sabres mean to the community. Whether it’s conversations in youth rinks, texts and emails from ticket holders or seeing 19,000 people watch the team’s minor-leaguers, Black is appreciative of the connection between Buffalo and the Sabres.
“We’re blessed that we have a very strong relationship with our fans,” the team president said Tuesday.
The relationship has allowed the Sabres to escape the lockout relatively unscathed.
Most hockey fans were bitter during the past four months as the labor dispute between the NHL and its players’ association deprived them of their sport. They threatened boycotts and abandonments from Nova Scotia to California. The Sabres, though, seem to have gotten a free pass.
“Not once did I hear somebody say, ‘I don’t care about you or the Sabres anymore,’ ” Black said in First Niagara Center. “It’s funny because sometimes you hear people say, ‘I’m really mad at the owners but I love that Terry Pegula.’ I think the broad-brush statements that I’m mad at the league or I’m mad at hockey, when you drill down a little bit, I don’t know that anyone has that personal animosity directed at our owners.”
Indeed, one common sentiment during the lockout was that Pegula and the Sabres were against the work stoppage. That’s false. They voted for the lockout in September, and they continued to back it in December when negotiations got ugly.
“I don’t want anyone to think that we didn’t vote in favor of it. We did,” said Black, who refused to back a widely held belief that a handful of hard-line owners controlled everything. “I’m not going to comment on that. I can only speak to our situation, and that was our support of the commissioner was unwavering.
“We’re a member club, and sometimes we need to do what we think is in the best interest of the entire league, even though it might not be in our self-interest. ... We’re a member of a league, one of 30 clubs, and we voted in favor of the lockout. We’re very equally glad that it’s over, and we’re going to join whoever else joins us in voting to end the lockout.”
The vote should come today. The NHL’s board of governors, including Black, will meet in New York to ratify a 10-year collective bargaining agreement. The NHL Players’ Association is expected to close its vote Saturday. If the CBA votes to pass, which is all but certain, training camp will likely open Sunday and games are expected to begin Jan. 19.
“We’re really looking forward to being back on the ice,” Black said. “Fans’ patience can be tested to the limits and sometimes broken, and we hope that that hasn’t happened here in Buffalo. The relationship we have with our fans is the most important thing in our business. Certainly, the fans are entitled to an apology from everyone involved in this. On behalf of the Pegulas and the Sabres, we do apologize that the fans have to go through this.
“The thing that I’m most excited about is that this will potentially be a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, and we don’t have to go through this stuff for a long time.”
The Sabres were still waiting Tuesday night to hear when their season will begin. The schedule, which is expected to feature 48 intraconference games, could be released today but possibly not until Thursday. The Sabres’ original calendar called for them to host the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 19.
“Everything is a moving target, but it looks like right now that might not be the first home game for us,” Black said. “It may be the following day, Sunday. But again, it’s caveat emptor at this point because I don’t have anything firm, but I would like that information in the fans’ hands to the extent that they need to make plans.”
The Sabres need to make more arrangements. Once they learn their schedule, they have to print tickets, mail them to 15,500 season-ticket holders, contact mini-pack holders to create new bundles and sell the remaining ducats to the public.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to get tickets in people’s hands ASAP,” Black said. “We may even have to do that piecemeal, get them the first few games and get them the rest later.”
There will not be a “welcome back” discount. Prices for the season were set last year. The Sabres will determine their variable pricing structure when the schedule is released. The original calendar featured one Platinum game (Dec. 26 versus Washington), 10 Golds, 15 Silvers, nine Bronzes and six Value games.
About the only thing that’s certain is there will be games.
“We’re back in business,” Black said. “It’s been nine months since we’ve had a game. Walking through the arena and it being warmer than normal, you’re like, ‘This just doesn’t feel right.’ It’s a nice cold feeling in here today.
“I miss seeing the fans. I miss the camaraderie of the community that takes place here. I miss handing out programs and getting to say thank you to fans to their face when they come in the building.
“Fans of the sport feel very disrespected. I hope fans of the Sabres know that we always respect them, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make this the best organization in sports.”