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On Sports

Drafting of Jack Eichel puts Sabres future on solid ice

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Rochester Business Journal
July 3, 2015

Here’s hoping it was a good omen that the dawn of a new era in Buffalo Sabres history occurred in a town named Sunrise. Last Friday evening, in that tony Miami, Fla., suburb, the fruits of this National Hockey League basement dweller’s tank-a-thon season were officially realized with the drafting of Jack Eichel, a generational talent whom the Sabres believe has the potential to deliver Lord Stanley’s Cup to Western New York someday.

Buffalo management and fans originally had hoped to be in the position to pick Connor McDavid, another once-in-a-lifetime player—one whom most experts rate a tad ahead of Eichel. But Eichel is hardly a bad consolation prize. In fact, some believe the young man who won college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy as a freshman last season while leading Boston University to the NCAA championship game might have a better pro career than McDavid. Time will tell.

Sabres General Manager Tim Murray also strengthened his team over the weekend by adding veteran center Ryan O’Reilly and promising young goaltender Robin Lehner. But the crown jewel clearly is Eichel, who, at age 18, immediately becomes the new face of the franchise. You probably have to go back to the arrival of Bills quarterback Jim Kelly in the summer of 1986 to find a Buffalo athlete who came to town with expectations this high. The City of Good Neighbors is a hockey-mad burg. That was underscored again recently when Buffalo’s television ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals were surpassed only by the two cities with participating teams—Chicago and Tampa.

Owner Terry Pegula, whose passion for the Sabres runs deeper than it does for the Bills, is hoping Eichel can be a modern-day Gilbert Perreault. Perreault showed up as the franchise’s first draft pick as a 19-year-old in 1970 and went on to become the Sabres’ all-time leading scorer with 512 goals and 1,326 points. But despite the magnificence of Perreault and his French Connection linemates, Rene Robert and Rick Martin, the trio could not bring a Cup to Buffalo. And neither could superb goaltenders Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller, the last two faces of the franchise. Perhaps that is all about to change.

“Buffalo as a city and the Sabres as a team are heading in a great direction,” Eichel said the other night. “I just want to become a piece of the puzzle.” He will need to be the biggest piece of that puzzle for the sun to truly rise on a proud hockey franchise that’s spent 45 years pursuing that elusive Cup.

Syracuse University fans should be encouraged by the recent hiring of Athletic Director Mark Coyle and the official announcement that Mike Hopkins, the eternal head-coach-in-waiting, will indeed succeed Jim Boeheim as the new Orange basketball boss in a few years.

Coyle comes to SU from Boise State, where he oversaw an athletic program featuring a mid-major football team that has proven it can hold its own against the big boys. He served in assistant AD capacities at Kentucky and Florida State before arriving in Idaho, so he has big-school and big-conference experience. While at Boise, Coyle shepherded the program through an NCAA probation, a skill that will come in handy as SU deals with its sanctions. Coyle also is a talented fundraiser—a must for successful modern-day athletic directors. And he’s also a stickler for academic integrity. His Boise teams annually ranked among the nation’s leaders in graduation rates. So, on paper it appears to be a well-matched hire.

Coyle’s fate will hinge on whether he can resuscitate an Orange football program that went 3-9 last year and hasn’t been nationally relevant for 15 years, and his decision regarding the future of the Carrier Dome. The man who hired Coyle, Irondequoit native and current SU chancellor Kent Syverud, spoke to alumni about the Dome and other topics during a recent visit to the Rochester Museum & Science Center. He said the options are to build a new stadium on another site, replace the Dome’s current air-supported roof, or build a permanent roof. My sense from speaking to Syverud is that SU will opt for the permanent roof and attempt to spruce up the interior of the Dome with more comfortable seating and perhaps expanded suites.

The chancellor said he expected to hear from the NCAA by late summer or early fall about SU’s appeal of its sanctions, which included the loss of 12 basketball scholarships over the next four years. Boeheim’s appeal of his nine-game coaching suspension also could be decided at that time. As far as continuing to play “home” games against Notre Dame and Penn State in the Jersey Meadowlands rather than the Dome, Syverud said he will have Coyle study whether that makes sense any more. He’s heard from numerous angry alumni about that policy—and the ugly, modernistic Nike-designed football uniforms. Here’s hoping my alma mater plays all future home games at home and returns to its traditional orange-and-blue unis.

I’m disappointed, but hardly shocked about the revelations that Pete Rose did in fact bet on baseball games as a player. The reporting of this latest lie kills any chance that the aptly nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” will ever enter the Baseball Hall of Fame without paying admission. I just wish Rose had come completely clean in the beginning and had made a genuine effort, in the words of Commissioner Bart Giamatti, “to reconfigure his life.” That would have meant telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth at the time he was permanently banished in 1989, and also admitting he had a gambling addiction and seeking help. Instead, Rose eventually settled in Las Vegas and continued betting. A gambler in Vegas is like an alcoholic working as a bartender.

Just think: If Donald Trump had won ownership of the Bills, we would have been deprived of his latest run for the presidency. Comedy writers across America owe the Pegulas a huge debt of gratitude for making their jobs easier.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author, nationally honored columnist, television correspondent and radio talk show host in his 42nd year in journalism. You can listen to him Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or on-line at espnrochester.com.

7/3/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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