Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Of self preservation and lunch money

Published by 5-2-2017

When I was a kid, I was the youngest in our group of neighborhood kids who were constantly outside playing sports (or doing other things) until the street lights came on and we had to come home. Being the youngest was never advantageous as it meant that I was smaller than the others I played with and against and it also meant that I was a couple of years behind on the learning curve of whatever sport we were playing.

Learning on the fly was not really fun for me. At times mistakes were made and were usually met with harsh words or something thrown at you. But you learned, and you learned how to play hard. This was the era of Pete Rose and say what you will about him, he played every game as if it was for the championship of the world (see Rose/Ray Fosse in 1970 All-Star Game.) That's how he and all of our sports hero played and that's how we were taught to play by the older kids in our group.

The only thing worse than making mistakes was slacking. Sure, not being able to cover a man or getting faked was one thing, but to not hustle? The punishment was swift and harsh--a hard smack to the head or literal kick in the ass were some of the lighter punishments doled out by the older ones. It was a time, at least in our neighborhood, were you learned not only how to play the game, but how to play it properly and when I got into organized sports, I may have had trouble with a more talented player, but I wasn't going to be outworked.

It's a different world these days in many neighborhoods. There are pockets all over the country where kids still grow up playing that way, but the participation trophy seems to be the norm. There was no such thing back then and even if it were the around, it would be nothing more than an indication that the kids proudly taking home that type of trophy were those whose lunch money was ready to be taken.

Buffalo has two major professional sports teams that are owned by one family and they just so happen to be the two toughest sports to play. Football and hockey are all about contact and separating your opponent from the ball or puck and it takes a good amount of intestinal fortitude, in addition to skill, to win. As a player it's a tough way to make a living although with the way salaries have been going up, it's a helluva good living if you can get there and have a career.

There are a lot of teams and a lot of rosters spots and a whole lot of money to be made by athletes. The first hurdle is getting on the roster and making it through the first contract healthy and on the upswing so that the next contract is even bigger. If things work out and progress continues, there's a big, lengthy contract with plenty of guaranteed money on the other end.

With that much money waiting for a player, and with so many jobs available to those whose teams have no hope of winning a championship or in some instances even making the playoffs, for some players (maybe many of them,) self-preservation is more important than winning.

Buffalo hockey fans are familiar with what it's like to watch a group of players waltz through a season (or six.) Former GM Darcy Regier's "Core," a group of very talented and very well paid players, looked marvelous when it was easy but who wilted at the least sign of pressure. That's what defined the Sabres as a team from 2007-12.

Prior to that, Buffalo had made it to the Eastern Conference Finals two consecutive seasons with "The Core" in it's infancy and with Chris Drury and Daniel Briere as co-captains. Both were the driving forces of that team and left at the start of free agency July 1, 2007.

Drury, who is now an assistant general manager for the NY Rangers saw the players on the team he'd soon be leaving for what the were and mentioned it in his last post-game interview as a Sabre. After losing to the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 playoffs he took questions with bruises from a puck hitting his face while in the crease trying to prevent a goal against. The former Calder Trophy winner and a member of the 2001 Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup winning team discouragingly stated that this Sabres team didn't know what it took to win.

Since that Eastern Conference Finals loss, the Sabres have made the playoffs twice in the last 10 years never making it past the first round with six of those seasons coming under the stewardship of owner Terry Pegula.

Throughout those "Core" years the local media reported a "country-club atmosphere" with the Sabres as they did just enough to make it interesting but never had the intestinal fortitude to get the job done it when it mattered most. Unfortunately for the Sabres, throughout this past season beat writers and media members were reporting a similar feel. In the end Pegula's hockey team finished with a very disappointing 78 points and he ended up firing his GM and his head coach.

Same went for Pegula's other professional team, the Buffalo Bills, as it got to a certain point in a game or season where it looked as if players were hitting cruise control. Whatever the case--whether it was laziness, lack of motivation or preserving oneself--Buffalo finished with a 7-9 record and the head coach was fired with one game remaining in the season.

Personally, I don't get it when a player can't go all-in all the time. It doesn't compute. Things might be different had I been born into a different neighborhood and/or a different era and had an eight-figure salary staring me in the face, but I was always taught to play hard and good things would follow. There are plenty of players in all sports who play the game the right way, however there aren't nearly enough to put each team into competitive overdrive and it puts a premium on finding as many internally motivated players as possible.

There-in lies the problem for Terry and Kim Pegula and their GM-less franchises.

I believe they want to win. However, the Pegulas are stubborn and have insisted upon doing things their way which, much to the consternation of the Buffalo sports community, includes trying to build a winning culture without the proper hierarchy in the operations department. In a matter of just over four months they fired both of their coaches and general managers and the first thing they did was put their football operations in the hands of a first-time NFL head coach. The Pegulas followed that up by hiring a public relations firm to help them deal with the fallout and as of right now their hockey department has an assistant GM at the top of the food chain.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is that the search for a hockey GM is focused upon first-time general managers without any mention of a hockey czar to oversee the hockey department. This is after they just canned another first-time GM whose free-wheeling without a operations president helped lead to his firing. It could also be assumed that their football coach, who has broad and unusual powers for a first-time head coach, will be helping to select the GM.

No doubt some of the candidates they've been interviewing for the Sabres GM position have earned the opportunity through success and quality work as well as a lengthy tenure in their present AGM positions and they may prove to be the answer. But both the Sabres and the Bills are held in very low regard right now amongst the professional communities to which they belong and doing things like the aforementioned make them look like amateurs.

I've said before that the Pegulas are on a lengthy learning curve and right now I believe they're still in way over their heads. That's why it's implausible to me that they still haven't hired qualified people to head their sports operations departments. In their six years of hockey ownership and two years at the helm of the Bills they've been flimflammed and taken by an array of snake-oil salesmen and con-artists, all of whom had self-preservation on their minds and it's kept both franchises spinning their wheels.

Maybe Bills head coach Sean McDermott is the answer and/or maybe the as yet to be named first-time GM of the Sabres will be the answer. Then again, we won't know if they're in the self-preservation business either until a couple of years down the road. If they can find the right personnel, than they could very well make it. If not, than they got themselves a pretty good ride courtesy of the Pegulas, which is something that's been happening for quite a few years under their ownership.

The GM's for both teams have a lot of work to do and that includes identifying and keeping players whose ultimate motivation lies outside of self-preservation. They need to find football players and hockey players and they also need to find coaches who can coach.  Lest we forget, not only are players looking to extend their careers and reap the financial benefits, there are many coaches and front office personnel who are looking out for No.1 too. Regier was a master at keeping his job as GM despite only two years of success since 1999 when he was GM of a team built almost exclusively by his predecessor.

One thing I'll say about former Bills GM Doug Whaley and former Sabres GM Tim Murray, both were trying to build their teams with football and hockey players, respectively. However, with both being first-time GM's they got trapped in one the pitfalls of team-building, mainly giving too much in return for the players they wanted. They were honest GM's who just didn't have the wherewithal to jump that first hurdle and they didn't have anyone above them to help them along.

Terry Pegula got his stated wish, to be more involved in the hiring of his GM's and coaches. But I'm not sure he has what it takes to wade through all the professional B.S. that's thrown around his professional sports teams.

But if that's the way he wants it, he's the owner and he can do whatever he wants. I'm just a kid from a blue collar neighborhood who never played organized sports past high school. But I will say one thing, I never got my lunch money taken.

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