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By Miguel Rodriguez

Former Niagara University hockey coach Blaise MacDonald is a native of Billerica, Mass. Yet, he's excited about the retooling done by the Buffalo Sabres this summer.

MacDonald, now coaching at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell of the New England-based Hockey East Association, became a Sabres fan during his five seasons at Niagara. The former Lewiston resident's three sons -- Cameron, 7, Joseph, 4, and Jake, 2 -- are being raised as Sabres fans and aren't afraid to flaunt their loyalty to the organization in an area known for being passionate about all of New England's major sports teams.

"They're going to be an exciting team," said MacDonald, who admitted wearing Montreal Canadiens gear is a more grievous offense to Boston Bruins fans than Sabres colors. "I think the organization is doing a great job of trying to be as good as it can be through free agency, trades. And what more can you ask for?"

A Stanley Cup. But chances of that happening in 2004 are slim. Yet the Sabres do have a much better chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The reason -- names like Chris Drury, Andy Delmore and Derek Roy. Those are the talented players added to a roster that featured more serviceable players than difference-makers the past two seasons.

Offseason news centering on players instead of management is the most important change for an organization that was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last summer, fall and winter.

That's when the future of NHL hockey in Western New York was on life support because of the business transgressions of former Sabres and Adelphia kingpin John Rigas and his sons, Timothy and Michael. Then some rich men proclaimed their desire to purchase the team, but only one of them, Mark Hamister, actually earned the title of owner-to-be in November. About two months later, Hamister lost that title because he (and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership) failed to convince local and state taxpayers to fund the purchase.

The on-ice product also was mediocre because of insufficient funds.

"We were spending a lot of time on financial and bankruptcy issues," said Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, who proved his worth to the organization by keeping it in operation during the ordeal. "I think before we declared for Chapter 11, we were just trying to figure out how to make ends meet financially. We were just trying to manage and keep people employed and do the best in what was a difficult situation."

The situation is better now, because the Sabres have a sense of direction under new owner B. Thomas Golisano.

Golisano, a self-made billionaire, earned a honeymoon period by saving Western New York's NHL franchise, but has not exploited that luxury because it does not make economic sense.

Golisano understands that the only way he can truly be the savior of NHL hockey in this economically depressed region is by giving fans a reason to spend their hard-earned entertainment dollars on a team that has been mostly pitiful since the trades of future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek and former captain Michael Peca. Golisano has done that by overseeing the franchise's best marketing campaign in years, trying to win back fans through actions instead of using a catch phrase. Remember the success the Partnership and then-ownerless Sabres had with "It's our team, let's keep it that way"?

In addition to rolling back season ticket prices to the levels of the 2001-02 season, the organization also is offering more affordable season ticket options. Fans can purchase season tickets for as low as $400. The Sabres also are making 100-level seats behind the goals available for $1,160.

The Sabres, in an attempt to become a regional team, will play a regular season game Nov. 12 in Rochester, and their preseason schedule includes stops in Southern Ontario (St. Catharines and Kitchener), Rochester and Binghamton. The Sabres open training camp Sept. 11 in St. Catharines.

Most importantly, the Sabres are following the marketing recipe utilized by Buffalo Bills General Manager and President Tom Donahoe: attract the fans by proving the team wants to win.

That strategy appears to be working. The number of new season ticket-holders has increased 200 percent from what it was at this time last summer, according to Sabres Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jim Leahy.

"Our whole concept here is, let's find a way to reconnect," he said. "To be up substantially at this time is good. We've got a long way to go, but we've got promising signs."

Leahy did not have the exact total for all season tickets, because the team still is waiting for the renewal period to expire later this month.

While Golisano only increased the on-ice payroll from $25 million to $30 million, Regier has used the additional pocket change wisely, improving the team by acquiring talent at blue-light special prices.

The process officially began in March, when Regier was given the OK by Golisano, who wasn't officially owner at the time, to acquire energetic center Daniel Briere at the trade deadline for underachieving Chris Gratton. It continued when the Sabres added Drury (23 goals) and Delmore (18 goals). Miroslav Satan led the Sabres with 26 goals last season, followed by Ales Kotalik's 21.

Neither Drury nor Briere will ever be as offensively dominant as Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine or Dale Hawerchuk. But in an era when the NHL game has become a defensive showcase because of a diminished talent pool, the New Jersey Devils and super-sized goalie equipment, the addition of Drury means the Sabres now have two above-average centers on the roster for the first time since 1995.

Delmore scored 25 of his 34 goals the past two seasons on the power play.

While Delmore may be a defensive liability, toting a plus-minus rating of minus-30 the past two seasons, he's scored nine game-winning goals in that span.

The Sabres, who scored a franchise-low 190 goals last season, now have a chance to average more than 2.8 goals per game for the first time since 1996-97.

Roy almost made the team last season, but was sent back to juniors during final cuts. Roy, a 2001 second-round pick, secured a more lucrative NHL contract by guiding the Kitchener Rangers to the Memorial Cup, the Canadian junior hockey championship, and earning MVP honors in the process.

"It's exciting to see that a lot of things have changed, and it's exciting to see the people in Buffalo really getting up for this year," said Sabres goalie Martin Biron in a recent television interview. "It's a feeling that's kind of been missing the last few years."

The Sabres still have some obstacles to overcome if they want to make the playoffs. They need to re-sign key restricted free agents before the start of the season -- including Drury, Satan and veteran defenseman Jay McKee.

They also need Biron, Mika Noronen or Ryan Miller to stop giving up costly soft goals and live up to the blue-chip goalie hype bestowed upon them.

But at least those are the only obstacles in the way of a playoff berth this season.

And that's a welcome change.

Miguel Rodriguez is a freelance writer covering hockey for the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at miguel_rodriguez33@hotmail.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com August 5 2003