You learn something every game. A few hours at an arena always brings a new experience for a fan. Sometimes you get the perfect seats or a good crowd around you. Sometimes you sit in the press box and work a deadline in the coldest part of the building. Sometimes, or maybe just on Thursday night, the Sabres invite you to watch a game in their Party Suite.
Watching hockey from a suite is an odd experience for a middle class sports fan. It’s a really nice zoo exhibit set in a pod from the Galactic Senate. You’re in the seating bowl but you’re just the slightest bit removed from the masses.
You can stand there and sip a Diet Coke while you watch the Sabres’ power play work the half wall. You can munch on free chicken wings and stare through the glass that separates you from the suite next door, learning how the other half watches its hockey. It’s all a bit disorienting. Then, at the first intermission, you take an elevator to the locker room area to meet Ted Black.
Chris and Corey have both attended the blog events the Sabres held in the past. They’ve had quasi-press conferences and suggestion box events and treated a bunch of Sabres fans really well in the process.
It’s been a great endeavor for both parties, and last night was no exception, but I wonder where this relationship is going. It’s an excellent marketing opportunity for the team, and a great experience for the people they invite. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the purpose of these events really is.
I don’t think the team will get its next million-dollar idea from a bunch of bloggers. They know fans want more escalators and better music before games. They want to win hockey games and maybe feel appreciated every now and again. They want the experience of rooting for the Buffalo Sabres to be genuine. They want to matter.
Other than a few pageviews, I’m not sure what bloggers are taking from these events, either. Ted Black isn’t afraid of us. He’s not afraid of a press conference or radio interviews, and meeting a bunch of people from the internet definitely does not intimidate the president of the Sabres. He knew people would come with questions and letters and—based on the team’s start—some frustration.
But they didn’t show it at first. No one shouted out a question for everyone to hear. A pregnant pause and a few jokes kicked things off. Then slowly, one by one, people took him aside and asked this and that. Black asked Kris Baker about a few prospects and people started to relax.
I didn’t come with suggestions or any real goal for the event. I didn’t want a photo or a high five or a job. I wanted to come away from this night believing that things are headed in the right direction. I wanted to believe that the organization isn’t static, that things are happening even if those things may be difficult for fans to measure on a day to day basis.
So, when I had the chance, I asked him. Back in the suite during the second period he answered questions about culture change within the organization between groans about the power play, leaning forward to see if Miller had stopped the puck just below us. He pointed out Terry Pegula’s suite and talked about the growth he’s seen in the team over the last two years.
He said he was micromanaged in his last job, which made it hard for him to function there. He doesn’t want that to happen with the Sabres and he trusts the employees currently in place to make decisions and evaluate them later. Terry Pegula, he said, is okay wasting time and money on a project if the logic behind it is sound enough. It’s about being allowed to take risks and get better, that’s what helps a good organization succeed.
He was talking about marketing and public relations and other arena staff, but the philosophy applies to the coaches and front office as well. Black didn’t guarantee Lindy Ruff’s infinite employment, but he said he likes what Darcy Regier has done over the last 12 months. Black said he’s going to let his general manager do his job. He’s happy with the recent results, including Cody Hodgson. He said everyone on the team wants to be in Buffalo. It’s a good group to work with.
Black said a lot of things that you don’t need to see generalized here. It wasn’t an interview and I didn’t have a recorder or notebook, but for me it was an important conversation to have. He answered the questions I had and seemed honest. He may have even enjoyed himself a bit.
Walking away from the evening it’s hard not to be a bit swayed by him. Ted Black speaks and, like it or not, you believe him. He’s genuine and frank and not afraid to tell you things. His words are careful and measured, but they are meaningful. He speaks the language of patience, of macro over micro, and when he’s done it’s tough to deny he makes a good point about it all.
And on cue, the Sabres turned things around on Thursday night. Thomas Vanek took over in the third period, scoring twice in the final 12 minutes to send the game to overtime. In the dying seconds of the third, boos rained down on the ice as the Sabres tried desperately to enter the offensive zone. The rueful din of a crowd focused on the here and now, overwhelmed by frustration and a ticking clock.
Seconds later they were elated, Vanek on his knees in front poking it in with 1.9 seconds left. From Suite 37 the view was surreal, a building once brimming with anger suddenly overflowing with excitement. Minutes later that crowd, what was left of it, finally exhaled when Ryan Miller stopped Brian Gionta to clinch the second point it in the shootout. Vanek and Miller and a few castoffs had somehow pulled it off.
In the immediate aftermath, with fans screaming and Jason Pominville calling back half-dressed Sabres for a center-ice salute, you start to think that Black really is right. It was an awkward gesture, the captain going off-script to address the fans. Some stick-less players merely waved to the crowd. It was weird, but it was definitely something new for this team. It was an employee improvising to rave reviews.
The faces on this team remain all-too familiar for some. The problems and losses are stale and the inaction is frustrating, but maybe when you pull the lens back a bit you see that the team is really on the right track. As a fan you learn something new every time you go to First Niagara Center. Maybe that’s true for the other half in suits and suites.
At least the logic behind it seems solid enough.