Changing the Culture of Buffalo Sports

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The Buffalo Sabres and Bills are a lot more like the Chicago Blackhawks, the William “Dollar Bill” Wirtz era Chicago Blackhawks, then fans would care to admit. Pro sports is all about culture. A culture of winning breeds winning. It makes not only the franchise lucrative but it also becomes an attractive place to be a part of for front office executives, player free agents, and draft picks. In February 2004 ESPN named the Chicago Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports, and much of it can be traced back to Bill Wirtz. It wasn’t until his passing, and his son, Rocky, took over the Blackhawks that fortunes began to change. Not only did Rocky begin to change or eliminate in some cases his father’s long standing policies he also went about to “change the culture” surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.

Rocky changed how the front office does business. He started bringing in the right people. From business to hockey executives that knew the game. Shrewd public relations maneuvers he brought in former Blackhawks greats that had been previously left out of the organization. Hull. Tony Esposito. Mikita. Denis Savard was brought in at one point as interim head coach. The poor standings of preceding years enabled them to draft, but the revamped hockey department enabled them to draft wisely. The culture changed, and over the next ten seasons from the start of Rocky’s involvement the organization netted 3 Stanley Cup championships, became an attractive destination for free agents and front office executives, and most importantly changed the culture from what he originally inherited.

Now the Buffalo Sabres and Bills are certainly not as fiscally frugal as "Dollar” Bill had been in Chicago, and Sabres games specifically have always been televised, but there is enough similarity in terms of culture to draw comparisons. Through two different ownership groups in two different professional leagues in the past 17 years neither has done anything to address the culture of the team. (It is even worse concept now given they are part of a One Buffalo umbrella.) The result has been a turnstile of front office executives and coaches who, quite frankly, couldn’t find employment elsewhere in those specific positions. For the coaches many of them were, are, career assistants attempting to get their foot in the door for resume fodder. The same can be said for the general managers of both teams as well. Don’t like the Blackhawks comparison? Then contrast this with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs remain “a work in progress,” but the bottom line is they also revamped their front office executive staff. They took a season to evaluate the roster, and while they remain a longshot to win the championship this year the hard work of weeding last year has enabled them to bare minimum make the playoffs. The culture in Toronto has drastically changed in the last 18 months. Ask why Lou Lamoriello, Brendan Shanahan, and Mike Babcock would choose Toronto over Buffalo? Yes, it’s all about the dollar signs offered, but it is also where they feel culturally they can have the most success. What are the perceived barriers to do what they want to do? If there are enough of them most top executives will let the opportunity pass. No good front office executive will be without offers. They play the field. (I'm sure that pro-sports aspect is foreign to the Pegulas who are probably accustomed to opening their wallet and having people come running. It doesn't work that way in professional sports). There was a time Theo Epstein was just Theo Epstein with no experience. Years later, after a successful run now in two major league cities his brand is at the highest it will ever be. He changed the culture in two cities that hadn’t run championships in 86 and 108 years respectively.

The Pegulas have done a lot in an attempt to revitalize downtown Buffalo. There is no question about that. They’ve done a lot in an attempt to change the culture starting with, and hopefully not limited to, the One Buffalo concept, but until they attempt to start changing the culture within the front office of their sports franchises they will continue muddle through mediocrity. The first step is to find that guy. It could be a Theo Epstein-type, a diamond in the rough, but the word of caution there is diamonds don’t grow on trees. The more logical method is to try and land more of brand name, and to have them name his price. The Pegulas are not adverse to spending money, but in recent years they’ve spent money on some very suspect free agents (see Matt Moulson, see also Ville Leino) like it was going out of style. Or on locking down draft picks (see also Cody Hodgson) who would never been given a similar deal from other clubs. Instead of “punching another hole in the ground” to pay free agents how about diverting that money toward the front office? How about getting the right people in the executive offices to start a serious culture change? Every season there is a delay is another season wasted and pushes the “rebuilding process” another year down the line. The next thing you know one franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in 6 seasons and the other in 17. It really is not even that much of a surprise when you factor in that neither organization, through multiple ownership groups, has yet to identify the actual problem.

The Bills and Sabres can be playoff teams, they can be the Blackhawks or Maple Leafs, or they can continue to cycle in the same track as they have been for years and continually be on the outside looking in. How soon it will be until the Carolina Hurricanes make the playoffs and Buffalo Sports holds the dubious distinction of the longest playoff drought in two major sports leagues is entirely up to the Pegulas. The longer they wait the longer the drought will continue.

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