BUFFALO – The Sabres’ season-ending news conference Monday started innocently enough.
Sabres president Ted Black said Darcy Regier would be returning as general manager. Regier talked about interim coach Ron Rolston’s future, which will be determined later.
But that tranquility only lasted briefly. The atmosphere inside the cramped First Niagara Center press room quickly became contentious.
Within minutes, reporters started hammering Black on the Sabres’ decision to announce their 4 percent season-ticket increase on Friday, Fan Appreciation Night. Black was accused of taking the Sabres’ loyal and rabid fan base for granted.
After it calmed down briefly, a reporter interrupted Black as he was talking about billionaire owner Terry Pegula’s accessibility.
An agitated Black sparred with the reporters, at one point telling one to “behave yourself professionally” and that he was showing his bias. Black later apologized and sought two of them out to shake their hands.
At times, the 46-minute meeting took on a circus-like atmosphere. Heck, it might’ve been more entertaining than some of the team’s games this season.
Here’s some of what transpired:
One reporter asked Black if Pegula, who rarely speaks to the media, has an obligation to talk.
“Terry hired me to run the business and speak for the business,” Black said. “He hired Darcy to run the hockey operation and speak for the hockey operations. He has a high level of trust … and he has empowered us to do that. So that’s our role. Terry’s role is more of being a typical owner.”
The reporter replied that Buffalo fans expect their owners to be responsible and responsive to what’s going on.
“Terry’s certainly available and speaks publicly,” Black said.
Another reporter barely let Black finish.
“When is Terry available? Come on,” he said. “When is Terry available? He wouldn’t answer questions the one time. Come on, Ted. That’s ridiculous.”
Black said, “Terry’s not going to be available to answer every question that you want to ask him.”
Later, the reporter said he wouldn’t let Black “sit there and lie like you just did.”
Black said, “That’s defamatory.”
The reporter replied, “That’s not defamatory. It’s fact. You said Terry’s available and he’s not.”
Black said, “Terry’s available to speak and he does. He’s a very dynamic speaker.”
The first reporter then asked to set up a news conference with Pegula soon.
Black said Pegula would speak at appropriate times. He cited the Harbor Center groundbreaking earlier this month, when Pegula wouldn’t answer any hockey questions, as an example.
“I understand that everyone here wants to grill Terry and to hold his feet to the fire and things like that,” Black said. “That’s just not what the owner of a major business typically does.”
When the reporter Black accused of making defamatory comments replied, Black accused him of “really showing your bias here.”
Earlier, Black said the Sabres sent the season-ticket letter, which cited the CBA, out as soon as they made their pricing decision.
“We didn’t want to wait and try to sneak it on Memorial Day weekend,” he said.
Since tickets fall under hockey-related revenue in the collective bargaining agreement, half of that four percent goes directly to the players, Black said. The Sabres plan to roll the other two percent back into operations.
In order to qualify for revenue sharing, the Sabres, the NHL’s smallest U.S.-based market, must grow their revenues, Black said.
“The entire process still allows this franchise to still qualify unencumbered for revenue sharing,” Black said. “That’s the same process that existed before. There’s an obligation to raise money so that you don’t jeopardize that revenue stream.”
He added: “It wasn’t caused by the CBA. But that’s just the realities of it.”
Black said even after the increase, the team’s prices fall in the bottom quarter of the league.
“You could make an argument on supply and demand basis that ticket prices should be much, much higher because of demand,” he said.
Black was pressed on why a billionaire would raise ticket prices after the Sabres missed the postseason a second straight year.
He said Pegula, who once said he’d drill another oil well if the team ever needed money, isn’t operating the team to make money. Still, Black can’t rely on Pegula’s fortune.
“I can’t get drunk off of Terry’s wealth and assume that he’s going to live forever and that he’s going to spend money forever,” he said. “This city knows what it’s like whenever the well runs dry, to continue that metaphor, and go through a bankruptcy (something the Sabres experienced in 2003).
“My obligation is to make sure I do everything I can to preserve the value of this franchise for multiple owners and multiple team presidents after I’m not here.”
One reporter suggested the Sabres’ actions suggest they’re taking a captive audience for granted.
Black and the reporter then sparred.
“Do I take the fans for granted?” Black asked. “Absolutely not. This fan base has been through a lot short- and long-term. This is a tremendous fan base. They deserve a lot better than they got this year. … I’d rather win one Stanley Cup in Buffalo than 10 anywhere else because I know how passionate this fan base is.”
Black said he’s “not raising tickets by 4 percent to punish anyone.”
He apologized if the letter’s timing insulted fans.
Notes: Regier said winger Ville Leino will undergo hip surgery and he expects him to recover fully. The hip sidelined Leino the first 27 games this season. A lung injury shelved him the final 13. … The Sabres kept their eighth overall pick in Monday’s draft lottery. … Black said even as president, he’s not Regier’s boss. Both report to Pegula.