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Opining on woeful Buffalo Sabres, Tiger, FitzMagic & March Sadness

scottteaser-215x160-1-300x160-300x160The Buffalo Sabres recently announced they will begin allowing fans to attend home games at KeyBank Center, starting with the Boston Bruins visit on March 20.

Which begs the question: Will anyone want to go?

Through the first third of the season, the Sabres haven’t just been mediocre; they’ve been downright boring. A bunch of scoreless wonders. Last weekend, they were bageled by two different Philadelphia Flyers goalies in consecutive games. The haunting lament of “No goal!” following Brett Hull’s controversial, skate-in-the-crease score that denied the Sabres a shot at the 1999 Stanley Cup has been replaced by the current-day lament of “No goals!”

Ten years after Terry Pegula bought the team and boasted he was intent on bringing multiple Cups to Buffalo, the Sabres remain in disarray. Their current streak of nine playoff-less seasons is the National Hockey League’s longest, and unless superstar Jack Eichel and company start finding the net with some semblance of regularity that skid is sure to hit 10. There have been rumors that Eichel — the generational talent around which Buffalo hoped to build a Cup contender — wants out.

And coach Ralph Krueger could be on thin ice, especially after his lack of transparency following the recent three-game benching of Jeff Skinner, who had zero goals and one assist in his first 16 games. Not exactly the kind of return-on-investment rookie General Manager Kevyn Adams and Krueger were seeking after luring the 28-year-old left-winger to Buffalo with a $9-million-per-year contract.

At this point, there appear to be no easy solutions. One would hope the 24-year-old Eichel stays put, and he and his mates rediscover their scoring touch and put together a playoff rush. Firing coaches and GMs usually happens when things go south like this, but that rinse, wash, repeat strategy hasn’t worked very well for a hockey franchise on its sixth coach and fourth GM since 2013.

Little wonder, respected Buffalo News hockey columnist Mike Harrington recently compared the mess to a soap opera.

“Welcome to As the Sabres Turn,” he wrote. “Watching them play, they’re far from Bold. Or Beautiful. Like sands through the hourglass of another season slipping away, the days of our lives continued to be mired in mediocre hockey.”

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The decision by the Rochester Americans not to allow fans in the stands at the Blue Cross Arena was disappointing, but understandable. State and county restrictions requiring spectators to undergo COVID tests (at their own expense) 72 hours before a game are deal killers. And it would be a losing proposition for the Sabres’ top minor-league affiliate to open the doors for just 500-600 fans, especially with increased costs required by coronavirus protocols. Hopefully, our COVID numbers will continue their downward trend, the number of vaccinations will increase dramatically and the restrictions will be adjusted. But it doesn’t look good for the remainder of this season.

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That had to be spirit-boosting for Tiger Woods to see numerous golfers in a variety of tournaments over the weekend pay tribute to him by wearing the legend’s signature Sunday garb of red shirt and black pants. Among those paying their respects were long-time Woods’ rival Phil Mickelson and women’s golf legend Annika Sorenstam. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying his impact on a generation of golfers.

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Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve had a hard time getting into college basketball this winter. Some of it may have to do with the unnervingly inconsistent Syracuse Orange men, who likely won’t be invited to the NCAAs unless they go deep into the ACC tournament. But I think much of it has to do with games in near-empty arenas. We can watch NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL games on television without seeing fans, but it’s different watching spectator-less college hoops games because the students add so much to the ambience. The NCAA plans to allow a limited number of fans into March Madness games, but it won’t be the same.

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It’s not going to happen because of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s desire to compete for a starting job and because of the Buffalo Bills cap-space constraints and other, more pressing needs at linebacker, offensive line and cornerback. But I would have liked to have seen one of sport’s most beloved journeymen and all-around good guys back up Josh Allen in 2021.

As we’ve learned during Fitz’s eight-team, 16-season NFL odyssey — including a four-year stop in Buffalo — the man is capable of magical performances in spurts. He would be a great insurance policy and mentor. But the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick wants to be more than a guy waiting in the wings. And there are enough teams out there desperate enough to give a productive quarterback with 146 NFL starts a look. Among them are the Denver Broncos, who still aren’t sold on young, inconsistent Drew Lock. The Washington Football Team could be a landing spot. And a long, long-shot could be the New England Patriots.

Regardless where Fitz winds up, the cerebral player with the economics degree from Harvard will continue laughing all the way to the bank. It truly has been a remarkable journey for a rag-armed, seventh-round draft pick. To date, the bearded wonder has racked up 34,977 passing yards, rushed for 2,623 more and accounted for 244 touchdowns (223 passing; 21 rushing) and 169 interceptions. Highlights include being the only player in NFL history to throw touchdown passes for eight different teams, and the first player to throw for 400-or-more yards in three consecutive games, which he did three years ago with Tampa Bay.

Astoundingly, Fitz has pocketed roughly $60 million during his career, including $11 million from the Miami Dolphins, who recently cut him loose after two seasons. Again, he doesn’t fit the Bills, who likely won’t want to spend more than the $1.5 million they gave veteran backup Matt Barkley and the $1.1 million they paid third-string rookie Jake Fromm last year.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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