Thanks to Joe here at Buffalo Wins, I was given the opportunity to attend this week’s bloggers summit at the Sabres game against Montreal.  Although I had to juggle a few things with work and travel, I live in Indiana by the way, it wasn’t an opportunity that I was going to pass up.  Luckily, Mother Nature and Blizzard Nemo held off just long enough to make the trip a success without me ending up being stranded somewhere along I-90.  I want to break down my experience for you into three parts, the party suite, the summit itself, and the game.

The Sabres Party Suite – Suite #38

When I accepted the invitation to the event I actually assumed I would be given a couple 300 level tickets, it didn’t really matter to me.  I was going for the experience.  When I got the email with details the day before, I was pleasantly surprised to see that we would be in the Party Suite.  Once we got to the arena, and collected our Gander Mountain Sabres giveaway hats, we headed to the suite.  The party suite is double the size of the traditional suite at the arena.  There were munchies like chicken wings, jalapeno poppers, etc.  It was a nice set up.  The only negative about the suite – they ran out of beer by the end of the 2nd period.  I guess bloggers drink a little more than they expected.  I was also a little surprised that the Sabres organization didn’t seem to have any representation in the suite to act as a host and chat up each of the attendees.  I was thinking maybe Ian Ott, Samantha Hicks, or somebody else that represented the team would be there, but to no avail.  Overall though, a nice gesture by the team to put us up in the party suite and allow us to hang together as a blogosphere.

The First Intermission Summit

With about a minute left in the first period, we began to leave the suite and head down to the VIP rope line in the main concourse.  As we arrived, Rip Simonick was hanging out taking a look around the concourse from the other side of the rope.  Nobody said a word to Rip, we were focused on what was behind the door.  At this point there was a good amount of confusion and intrigue about what we were going to be doing.  I personally had no idea what to expect.  Again, I didn’t really care.  I was just there for the experience.  There had been conflicting reports about whether Ted Black was going to actually be there or if we were going to just be able to drop questions off for Ted to read after the event.  Shortly after arriving we were ushered behind the doors and into a wide hallway type area.  There a gentleman from the organization informed us that Ted, accompanied by his wife, would be down shortly to answer any questions that we have.  As soon as Ted walked in, he addressed the group and asked for questions.  Crickets.  He asked again.  Still no response.  Clearly, nobody wanted to be the first one to ask him anything.  I was fortunate enough to be standing right next to Ted, so I asked him a couple questions.  I told him that my focus is on statistics and how to use numbers to understand the product on the ice. I asked the following questions.

Q: Do the Sabres have an advanced stats department, and if so, what do they use it for?

A: Ted said that the Sabres do have a system that they use to track all sorts of statistics but they don’t necessarily call it an advance stats department.  They have what they call the PUCK System.  I asked if that was an online resource and Ted said that it was actually a video system that they use to compile whatever stat the coaching team is interested in.  That way they never lose the ability to go back to a certain game and get new looks.  He graciously offered to have me come and get a tour of the system sometime in the offseason if I was interested.  Once I showed interest, he made sure that I understood that he was talking about the off offseason, not an off day during the season.

Q: Is there any stat in particular that the team finds more valuable than others?  For example, in baseball the Oakland Athletics became successful based on finding anomaly stats that they valued higher than other teams, as documented in the book Moneyball.

A: Ted’s quick response was “like on base percentage”, so he clearly understood the reference.  He asked what I thought, being a stat guy, was the most important.  I told him that for me it comes down the success of the team and how well the team plays when certain guys are out there versus when they aren’t able to answer the bell.  Over the course of a typical 82 game season, there are bumps and bruises for everybody and most players tend to miss games for stretches of time.  The thing that has always interested me is whether the team has a better winning percentage when they are in or out of the lineup.  I gave him the example of Christian Ehrhoff last year.  When the German defenseman was in the lineup the Sabres faired considerably better than when he missed time.  His response to that was to say “so you’re under the impression that injuries DO matter?”, obviously alluding to the amount of injuries that the Sabres had last year and the “injury excuse” that was laid out by the team for missing the playoffs .  I told him that there was definitely a correlation between when certain players, like Ehrhoff and Ennis, were out of the lineup and how the team fared in their games.  I also pointed out that over the last several years, the opposite was the case for Derek Roy.  The team seemed to win more often with him in the press box than on the ice.  That produced a nice smile on Mr. Black’s face.  I had the feeling he knew that.

He said that there is one statistic that he would like to see that he isn’t sure if the team tracks or not.  He would like to see some sort of plus/minus system, not based on goals scored or allowed, but on which team possesses the puck longer when each player/line combination is on the ice.  Does the Hodgson line control the play and take it to the opposition while another line sits back and lets the opposing team dictate the play and react defensively? 

Q: Does the team have any access to game logs prior to 1987-88, which is where the online resources, like stop?

A: He wasn’t sure if the team has anything prior to that but he gave me the name of somebody in the organization to contact.  He said that if they did, he would know how to get the information for me.

After a few minutes in the hallway with Ted, we were taken down another hallway where Mike Weber was standing as still as a statue, clearly focusing on what needed to be done in the second period.  It was the hallway between the team locker room and the ice surface.  Slowly the players all started coming out and they formed two lines, one on each side of the hallway.  It was pretty quiet but there was some fist bumping and high fives from some of the guys as they came out.  But they were clearly all business.  In the middle of it, Steve Ott came out and gave a stick to a little girl that was with a group of season ticket holders that had been given the same access as us.  The girl couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the time.  A class move by Mr. Ott.  After they formed the lines on either side of the hallway, Ryan Miller emerged from the locking room and walked down through the center of the hallway and then each player broke formation and followed their goalie out onto the ice.  It was a pretty neat thing to watch.  Then it was over and we were to be sent back up to the suite to watch the rest of the game. 

What we didn’t know was that Ted Black was coming back to the suite with us.  He and his wife, Amy, came up to the Party Suite and stayed for most of, if not all of, the second period.  He mingled more with the bloggers and took picture with anyone that asked for one.  The one thing that I couldn’t help notice though is that Ted Black is definitely a fan.  Yes he was cool calm and collected like the face of the head office should be, but he also had a great interest in the game.  As he was talking to people in the suite and even when we were waiting for the elevator downstairs, he would fully engage with the person but at the same time, he would be constantly glancing at the television screen or out to the ice to check on the progress of the game.  That was nice to see.  It made me feel like he isn’t just some suit with a lofty job that treats everything like a business, he’s a fan just like us.  That’s refreshing.  He’s also a pretty funny guy.  I even got a Seinfeld reference out of him.  As my wife was preparing to take my picture with the president, she had to stop and ask what my cell phone password was in order to unlock it to take the picture.  Ted immediately said, “it’s Bosco”, which was George Costanza’s ATM code.  I called him out on the Seinfeld reference and he acknowledged that he was a big fan of the show.  Same here.

The Game

I’m not going to give you a play by play of the game.  You can find that anywhere.  The Sabres were losing, they tied it late, it went to overtime, they won in a shootout.  What I will write about is the player that I thought was the number one reason that the Sabres won the game.  Thomas Vanek?  He scored 2 third period goals, including the game tying goal with 1.9 seconds left.  He definitely played a hand in it but not who I’m thinking about.  Ryan Miller?  He made some key saves to keep the Sabres in it in the 3rd and in overtime, and then beat Peter Budaj in the shootout, but no.  Not Miller either.  Montreal’s Ryan White?  BINGO! 

Seven and a half minutes into the third period of a game that his teaming is leading by two goals, White made one of the worst hockey decisions I’ve seen in a long time.  He jumped Steve Ott, right in front of the Sabres bench, and began throwing punches like Ott had stolen something from him.  Ott, being the wily veteran, knew better than to retaliate and let the kid take all of the blame and penalty time.  White ends up with the double minor for roughing and the Sabres are sent on a 4 minute powerplay.  But the stupidity of White goes much deeper than this one incident.  He is the same player that was scratched from the Habs/Sabres game in Montreal the week prior because he had taken a different double minor that coach Therrien had thought was ill timed and gave momentum to the opponent.  At the time of those penalties, their game with the Senators was tied 1-1 in the second period.  Ottawa scored on both ends of the double minor to White and never looked back.  They went on to win 5-1.  So if Therrien didn’t like the timing of that one, imagine how he feels about doing the same thing when his team was up by two goals in the third period!

So yes, the Sabres had a nice comeback win and feel good about themselves, but I’m not sure that they should be breaking their arms to pat themselves on the back for this one.  I don’t think it would have ever happened if White hadn’t lost his mind out there.  People talk about plays that change the momentum of a game.  To me, that was the turning point of that game.  Who knows, if the Sabres get on a run, maybe we’ll look back and look at it as the turning point of their season.  Thank you, Mr. White.  We couldn’t have done it without you.