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Quinn: We're tough people in Buffalo

by John McGourty
Larry Quinn, managing partner of the Sabres, believes that the fans of Buffalo make the city a perfect host for the AMP Energy Winter Classic.
ORCHARD Park, N.Y. -- The reason the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic is being held in Buffalo is "because this is one of the few cities where the people are tough enough to handle" an outdoor hockey game, joked Larry Quinn, managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres. "The rest aren't tough enough. Imagine a bunch of New Yorkers trying to do this? They wouldn't make it."

Quinn was joking, but a psychologist would find enough work there to put his kids through Ivy League schools. Quinn was making a point about the nature of Buffalo people. Several points, actually.

Buffalo has never had a major-league baseball team and lost its NBA team years ago. As a result, the fans here hold close their Sabres and Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo has many fine universities, a thriving arts community and its fair share of affluence, but at heart, it's a hard-working, blue-collar town. People here work hard, play hard and treasure family and community. Still, it's one of America's smaller "big cities."

"The joke here is that Buffalo is not a small town, it's a big room," Quinn said. "I went to Canisius High School here in the city, with Tim Connolly's father and Tim Russert, and then went to Notre Dame. I came back and went to work for the city. Nationally known people who grew up in Buffalo, like Tim Russert, will tell you there's something that drives us back here. We're proud of Buffalo.

"We know we're the butt of jokes, nationally, like our most-in-the-nation snowfall. It always seems like the odds are stacked against us. But there's something about us that wants to prove the rest of the country wrong. We have an underdog mentality and a lot of pride."

It's only a short ride across the Peace Bridge to Canada, a little further to Hamilton and not all that far to Toronto. That helps make Buffalo a great hockey market and, according to Quinn, the perfect location for the Winter Classic.

"We are a true border town with a strong Canadian influence," Quinn said. "You don't have that anywhere else in the United States. We also had a strong minor-league hockey tradition, the Bisons, before the Sabres joined the NHL. There was only a very small group of us playing hockey when I was in high school, but now about 60 to 70 percent of boys involved in athletics in this area play hockey.

"Geographically, we are in the heart of hockey country. Sixty percent of the world's best hockey players grew up within a couple of hours of Buffalo. We're part of the Toronto media market. Why not have the outdoor game here, in the cold and the snow? For a lot of reasons, it works out great that we're hosting this game."

Quinn is in his second tenure with the Sabres after a long career in public and private planning and development. A 1974 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Quinn was appointed Buffalo's director of development in his early 20s. Among his accomplishments were improvements on the Lake Erie waterfront and in the theatre district. Quinn was only 28 when he was named Commissioner of Development. In addition to his Sabres' job, he's the honorary chairman of the state's Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, responsible for developing the waterfront area immediately surrounding HSBC Arena and planning the development of the outer harbor and old port.

After nearly a decade in city planning, Quinn worked as a private developer in New York City and Princeton, N.J.

He returned to Buffalo in 1992 at the behest of former Sabres' owner Seymour Knox III to oversee the construction of the downtown HSBC Arena. He stayed on as President and CEO until the club was purchased by the Rigas family. Quinn joined with upstate New York industrialist Thomas Golisano to purchase the Sabres five years ago. He is responsible for day-to-day operations and also serves as an alternate governor on the NHL's Board of Governors.

The Sabres, under Quinn and General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, have had a great run. They played in the Eastern Conference Final the past two years and are again in serious contention for a Stanley Cup Playoff bid, despite losing top two centers Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency last summer. Drury signed with the New York Rangers while Briere signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. Those three teams are only two points apart in the Eastern Conference standings, despite outsiders' dire warnings that Buffalo would not be competitive.

"This is a fun team to watch," Quinn said. "Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff have created a team that fans can like. For the first time, a majority of our players live in the city. Tim Connolly, Andrew Peters and Daniel Paille grew up in this area. Fans see these guys out on the town and at civic functions. Plus, they're a young team and that's a big attraction to our younger fans. On our first line of Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy, the oldest player is 24-years-old. Ryan Miller had a lot of charisma, is very outgoing and has his foundation here.

Buffalo Sabres fans will be out in full force on New Years Day for the AMP Energy Winter Classic. 

"We also have one of the highest percentages in the NHL of players that we drafted and developed," Quinn continued. "We're not a team made of free agents and players that we traded for. Guys spend two or three years with our AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, just down the Turnpike and then graduate to the Sabres. We also have a very dedicated group of parents. Miller's parents drive in from Michigan all the time. Campbell's dad is here for every game. The Connollys, Peters and Pailles are always here. We're not a big community, so our fans are aware of that."

While Quinn gives a lot of credit to others for the strong bond between team and community, he deserves his share of credit. The Sabres had 6,000 season-ticket holders five years ago and now they have 14,000, with a 5,000-person waiting list.

"We did a lot of smart things to make tickets more affordable," Quinn said. "One thing we realized was that we had season-ticket holders sitting next to people who bought much cheaper tickets through promotions. We needed to find a way to build value into being a season-ticket holder, so we made a promise that season-ticket holders would never be undersold through promotions. We wanted to reward the fans who were the most loyal.

"We dropped the price-per-game of many season tickets and instituted variable pricing," Quinn said. "So someone wanting to go to a highly desirable Toronto Maple Leafs game pays more for that ticket than the season-ticket holder. For a game less in demand, they pay less but no less than the season-ticket holder. We also have a lot of seats that are priced to attract younger people that can't afford the more expensive tickets.

"Our crowds are much younger than most around the NHL. You go to Madison Square Garden and see a lot of business people in suits. Here, we have young kids screaming and cheering. It's a youthful atmosphere. Our’s is not a corporate ticket. In Buffalo, a Sabres' game is a big social event. You go and you see people you know. In a way, in a society that interacts less and less, we have in some ways replaced the town square."

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