Thanks for joining us for another installment of Bar Stool Debates, where Joe and Brandon go back and forth on the hottest topics floating around the Buffalo sports scene.
As we sit here with admittedly nothing better to do, stuck in the No Man's Land of the Buffalo sports year, today we pose the question: Which team, the Bills or Sabres, is most impacted by the burden that is convincing people Buffalo is a great place (no, really, it is!) as it relates to recruiting.
Brandon: With one of the most significant off-seasons in recent memory looming around the corner for the Buffalo Sabres, how many more years will have to pass before the franchise achieves its goal of creating Hockey Heaven?
Hockey Heaven, of course, as defined by the loyal hockey fans of Western New York, is the state of absolute hockey bliss, an area where players who grow up around the sport can only one day dream of playing.
It's safe to say Buffalo, from the outside looking in, is far from a dream destination for anyone (though the view from the inside often sheds a different light). From your average Joe looking to start a career or an NHL of NFL star, not many are into the Buffalo-or-bust state of mind.
With that in mind, and the fact that the Bills aren't exactly considered a football star's paradise, which team, the Bills or Sabres, will have a more difficult time selling themselves as the ideal landing spot for future stars?
Joe: Let me state that this is probably like debating which is nicer: Ellis Island or Alcatraz, when it comes to both teams.
I'd be the first to say that the easiest way to sell either franchise to player has to be winning. Free agents will go to both Pittsburgh franchises, the Green Bay Packers and the Red Wings because they are winning. Of course, neither the Bills or Sabres are close to it.
I think the Sabres have a worse recruiting problem, mainly because there's been more documented "thanks, but no thanks" stories. Look at what happened with Robyn Regehr: The guy was coming from fricken Calgary. CALGARY! It may as well had been Alaska at that point, and he still had reservations about coming here to the point that the Sabres needed to get on Air Pegula to convince a guy who is a good defenseman, but not anyone special, to consent to a trade.
How about last year when it was reported by Elliott Friedman that the Sabres tried buying Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Shane Doan? Even with them overpaying, they didn't want to come here. As for the Bills, all you have to look at is Mario Williams. They overpaid him and he came.
What else you got, Brandon? Tell me how your boys over at 1 Seymour Knox Plaza can sell players on besides new lockers and tips on fracking.
Brandon: Well, I want to first start by saying there are extenuating circumstances to everything. In the Sabres' defense, there had been more to each of the examples you used.
Regehr was a family man uncertain whether he wanted to relocate his kids after more than a decade in one place. Parise wanted to play in his home town, and Suter wanted to play with Parise. Had Parise been from Buffalo, we probably would have overpaid and gotten both. In any event, I digress. It's not like I'm saying the Sabres are perfect, because they're not. I just felt the need.
Anyway, there's nothing black and white about this debate. There are so many factors that go into recruiting, professionally, in college, or anywhere. In covering high school and college kids, it's amazing to hear of the things they consider when choosing a school. It's not much different in the pros, aside from, ya know, the millions of dollars being thrown around.
The problem for the Sabres right now is that the new locker room and a committed owner are really all they have going for them. So much is dependent on winning, and neither the Bills or Sabres have that. Something they both do have is tradition, and you've got legends like Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas saying Buffalo is the best place to build a career in the country.
I think the Bills' biggest burden, and why the Sabres have the advantage, is in large part due to the lack of guaranteed contracts (even if an NHL player's "guaranteed" amount is still significantly less than the NFL stars.)
It doesn't help that the Bills' very existence past 10 years is up in the air. And the ownership situation certainly doesn't aid things, either. I think both of those factors weigh heavily on the minds of free agents, especially in the NFL.
Joe: You make a good point on the contracts, but, if you aren't guaranteed money, it makes it more prevalent for you to get that money in a signing bonus. Hence, the Bills have the advantage in that department because they can accentuate bonus money.
As for the ownership stuff: Yes, Pegula is obviously probably a better owner to play for in a franchise stability sense and he's just easier to relate to. No offense to Ralph, but he's 900 years old. Plus, at least the Bills have made changes. They fire people and don't act like the press and the fans are out to get them.
And what about the booing? You'll never get a Bills player to bash the fans here. Hell, the reason why the Bills Mafia took off is because of the relationship between the fans and players.
The Sabres fans here boo more than the folks running a nearby haunted house. You have to admit that plays in it?
Brandon: I never quite understood the dynamic that leads to the difference between a Bills fan and a Sabres fan. It's the same damn city, and, in most cases, it's the same damn fan! How can they be different? But I will agree that they are, and their relationships with their respective teams absolutely creates a different atmosphere.
More and more I think the relationship between the fans and the team is not lost on the players, with the growth of Twitter and Internet. At the same time, though, if you're a player who has spent five seasons in a place like Florida, where they're lucky to have 5,000 fans in a hockey arena on any given Friday night, I think players also see the passion of Sabres fans as a great thing. At least, if I were a player, that's how I would think.
It's an opportunity to come in and build something of your own in a place where you know people will take notice, much like I think Steve Ott has done.
Something that I find interesting in this debate is a tweet by Stevie Johnson from a week or two ago when the Bills promoted Doug Whaley. Something about how proud he was to play for a team with a minority general manager.
This is helping your argument more, but I think things like having a black general manager holds a lot of weight with NFL players, since most of them are black too. You won't necessarily get that kind of relationship in hockey.
Enough with helping your side, though. Do I have to do all the work here…?
Joe: All right, I'll help your side out a bit since you are obviously flustered by my astute observations and 175 IQ. How about the region?
We all know Buffalonians take to heart any sort of criticism about the region from outsiders. There's that old saying where it is nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. That's the exact opposite in Buffalo. You have to live there to truly appreciate the environment.
With that being said, I think the Sabres have an advantage in terms of selling the city itself because Buffalo is a wannabe Canadian city and we pretty much share the same climate and thirst for beer. And the close proximity helps.
Obviously, having a majority of hockey players being from Northern American cities and Canada helps. I remember one time, Willis McGahee complained about Buffalo not having a big enough nightlife for African Americans. Is Groove nightclub still around..because he may have a point.
Brandon: Thanks for returning the favor, Joe. I don't care what they say about you. You're a good dude.
Anyway, the proximity thing as it relates to hockey is probably the most interesting aspect of this debate. Take a step back and take a look at the big picture: while growing up, which team are young hockey or football players most likely to idolize? It's regionalized.
When I grew up, I always said I wanted to play short stop for the Yankees just like Derek Jeter. When you look at it from that perspective, Western New York and Southern Ontario are more likely to produce a player who grew up wanting to play for the Sabres their entire lives.
You'll never get that with the Bills.
Athletes with a shot at NFL stardom aren't born and raised in WNY anymore. They grow up as corn-fed monsters on a farm somewhere in Alabama or Texas. Those people haven't the slightest clue what a Buffalo Bill is.
To the point, I think the Sabres are a more recognizable brand when it comes to recruiting free agents and outsiders not necessarily from the region, therefore it gives them a slight leg up. Even though money speaks much louder than anything, a la Mario Williams.
Joe: What about players knowing the team and its history? The Bills at least have some sort of relevance in terms of history.
Everyone knows Kelly, Reed, Thomas, Bruce and so on. All Hall of Famers..All love the microphone and selling Buffalo. I don't think the Sabres have that great of a tradition when it comes to players. What? Andre Peters? Hell, how many HOFs do we have that only wore a Sabres jersey? One? Gilbert is the only guy who stayed here all his years. Hasek is a Red Wing forever, like he said.
I know, saying a team like the Bills have a good tradition when they have lost four straight Super Bowls is quite sad, but that matters. Jim Kelly and those guys are always available to give someone a call. Who are the Sabres going to get on the line? We've traded like all of our captains since 1990 and you have to be 40 to remember Gilbert.
Brandon: I think that's probably why the first order of business for Terry Pegula and Ted Black when they took over was to reach out to every alumnus possible and parade them around during the final game in 2011.
It's evident that they're focused on repairing those relationships because that type of business model was so lax with Golisano and those before him. There was even that tidbit that slipped out about the Sabres' plan to retire Hasek's number next season.
Yeah, yeah, I know, Red Wings for life. Whatever. But it does mean something that Pegula and Co. are making the right strides in that department, and you'll hear a ton of Sabres say how great the area is, too, especially now.
They might not be the equivalent of Jim Kelley and Bruce Smith to their sport, but having Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine and Dominic Hasek, among others, as advocates for the team and the area I'm sure goes a long way as well.
It is pretty sad, though, when your recruiting pitch is, "Hell yeah! Four straight Super Bowl loses!" And it's worth pointing out, too, that while the Bills FINALLY seem to have figured this thing called football out, we still haven't seen the product on the field yet.
That's what they have going for them, the "come play here! the Bills are headed in the right direction," but there's still plenty of reason to be pessimistic, especially if you're trying to convince an athlete to go with that condo on Lake Erie instead of the beach-front mansion in Palm Beach.
Joe: All right, I know these things are meant to be more contrived I guess between us, but I think both teams have some issues recruiting. To finish this off, where do you think both teams need to work on with getting people to come here…I'll give you a hint..To quote some rapper, who I forgot their name…all you do is "WIN, WIN, WIN."
Brandon: I know. So much for ripping each other's heads off here. Typically by now my points are blowing yours away while you're left behind picking up the pieces of your shattered dignity.
I believe the rapper you're referring to is DJ Khaled (looked it up on Google) and all he talks about is his own winning. But yeah, I think Pegula and Russ Brandon need to start listening to more rap.
Winning is the bottom line here.
Cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit have franchises that are proven and are models for the rest of their respective leagues. They remind us every year that you don't need to be the most anesthetically pleasing place to live, and that a commitment to excellence, integrity and professionalism will go a long way in establishing respect with the fan base and professional athletes.
So what do the Bills and Sabres need to work on? To put it bluntly, they need stop the BS (it appears that both franchises are in the early stages in the process of doing that), go out there and lay the blueprint down for what it takes to be a premier destination for players to carry out their careers.
Winning makes accomplishing that goal pretty simple.