Of all the mysteries involving the Buffalo Sabres in recent years, this one makes the least sense. It could be a while before anyone finds the logic in Pat LaFontaine abruptly parting ways with the Buffalo Sabres a mere 3½ months after he showed up on a white horse and sharing a saddle with Ted Nolan.
It’s important to know that “parting ways” was written for a reason. The Sabres were spinning the idea that he resigned, as if he up and quit on them like he did the New York Islanders, so he could return to his former job with the NHL. Sorry, but like many things the Sabres say, I’m reluctant to believe them.
LaFontaine loved his gig with the Sabres. It was his dream job. He said so numerous times during his 109-day stay after assuming command. He was intent on getting the right pieces in place. He felt like he was home. His family was prepared to build a life here. He was obsessed with making it work in Buffalo, for Buffalo.
Why would he lie?
Well, I’m guessing that he wasn’t lying. And that left me to wonder Saturday that there was more to this doozy, that he actually was fired after losing a power struggle with people in the front office. No matter, clearly his relationship with Terry Pegula & Co. quickly imploded before he walked, or was pushed, out the door.
LaFontaine wasn’t returning phone calls Saturday. It should be interesting to hear his side when he emerges from the shadows. The NHL obviously still believes in him. He’ll be returning to league headquarters. The Sabres, for better or worse, will continue through more tumultuous times ahead.
Just know that what exactly happened will never be completely clear. The rumor mill will be churning at high speed in the days and weeks ahead, clouding our thoughts and leading to more speculation about how it went down. Various versions of the truth will come out depending on different points of view.
Theories circulating Saturday ranged from Pegula’s cronies ganging up on LaFontaine and getting in the owner’s ear to LaFontaine feeling overwhelmed and buckling under stress from the job. One source said Pegula was furious with LaFontaine while another said he was in tears over his departure.
It did not appear, however, that LaFontaine and new General Manager Tim Murray disagreed over whether Nolan should be retained. LaFontaine believed all along that Nolan was the right man for the job. Murray was working on a contract extension with the interim coach. We’ll see if the job is right for Nolan.
Honestly, I’m not sure what, or whom, to believe anymore. The persistent turmoil that was evident before LaFontaine arrived appeared to be tapering off. The Sabres appeared to have a good, strong leader. By all accounts, LaFontaine brought intelligence, class and integrity the organization desperately needed.
And now this?
Nothing comes easy to the Sabres, who under LaFontaine were making progress in terms of restoring whatever credibility they had left. Murray was aggressive when trading away Ryan Miller and Steve Ott and appeared to get a respectable haul from St. Louis. Nolan was solidifying his place behind the bench.
And the Sabres won three straight games for the first time all season, including a solid victory over the San Jose Sharks without Miller and Ott and, apparently, LaFontaine. He was absent from team functions for most of last week. The organization told reporters he was under the weather, but now we know that wasn’t true. He was under fire.
Looking back, perhaps that’s one reason Nolan looked depressed in recent days. Maybe he was just bummed out about Miller. He probably knew something was amiss with LaFontaine and worried about everything falling apart – again.
Who’s running the show now? Is it Ted Black, who seemed content with overseeing daily operations while LaFontaine handled hockey matters? Is it Murray, who was here for about 15 minutes before getting caught in a firestorm? Does this mean Ken Sawyer, all but muted with LaFontaine in charge, has a voice again?
And what does the future hold for Craig Patrick? He left his job with Columbus to become an adviser to LaFontaine, who is no longer around to hear his advice.
Pardon me for having too many questions and not enough answers, but that’s what happens when trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.
Right when it looks like the Sabres are going in the right direction, the organization makes a U-turn. Right when it looks like the front office found serenity, chaos returns.
If you think the Sabres appear to be a dysfunctional franchise, imagine what people are thinking outside of Buffalo. Seriously, why would anyone want to play here?
Pegula talked about winning championships when he purchased the team, but instead watched his team spend more money and win less. He fired a coach he should have kept, kept a general manager he should have fired. Finally, he made a wholesale change that included LaFontaine at the top of the hockey department.
It’s strange now, but LaFontaine was hired to make sense of this mess.