Blogger Summit 3.0: Sabres announce big changes

Thanks in large part to all my displaced colleagues here at Buffalo Wins, I had the privilege of representing the site at the third installment of the Buffalo Sabres’ “New Media Summit.”

All together, 16 bloggers comprised the Basement Brigade which invaded the locker room at the First Niagara Center on Monday joined by Sabres president Ted Black and a dozen or so of the team’s employees.

Over the span of roughly two hours, Black fielded our questions ranging from game presentation to offseason plans to ticket price increases to his family’s new dog’s name (they named it Augie, by the way). I decided to break things up into categories to make it a little easier on the eye, as there is a lot here.

Before I get started, I’d like to extend a big thanks again to the Sabres for having Buffalo Wins and to Mr. Black and the Sabres staff who put in a little overtime to accommodate us and make Blogger Summit 3.0 a cool experience.

Also, be sure to check out what the 15 other blogs managed to put together for a different take on the summit. I’ll try to include links at the bottom of this page as they start popping up.

Broadcast changes:

  • The highlight of the summit was without a doubt the introduction, where Black and WGR 550 general manager Greg Reid announced the radio station will begin a new, hockey-centric show called Sabres Hockey Hotline from 10 a.m.-noon Monday-Friday (except during football season, when the show will not air on Mondays for more talk on how the Bills blew it the day before), replacing the dreaded Colin Cowherd spot, “The Herd,” better known as “The Lebron Show,” as Reid so candidly acknowledged. The show is scheduled to make its debut next week (June 18) and will be broadcast live from the arena at the Sabres Store. Headlining this new effort, which Black said will add “more than 350 hours of Sabres coverage” yearly, is Kevin Sylvester, who will leave his post as in-game host during Sabres game broadcasts for the larger responsibilities of hosting and producing the show. “For us, it was a natural thing to say, ‘Hey, we need a hockey show,'” Reid said, adding that WGR felt Cowherd’s show didn’t service the listeners of Buffalo. “When this show is on, we’re talking hockey where it’s an everyday thing.” Based on what Reid had to say, it seems this show will provide some really great access on game days as he referenced the in-house setting as an advantage in regards to access to players, coaches and opposing teams as well as immediate team updates like injuries and insight into game-time line arrangements.
  • Following the announcement of the new WGR show, Black dropped the second bomb of the summit when he stated Rick Jeanneret has agreed to a multi-year deal to remain the play-by-play voice of the Sabres. This news puts to rest any speculation that RJ’s retirement was on the horizon and guarantees us at least a few more chances (the length of the deal was not disclosed) to hear him call, “the Buffalo Sabres have won the Stanley Cup!” While I’m sure he still plans to take a few road trips off, Black even said Jeanneret will call more games than he did last season when he took a cut-back. The exact number was not said, but Black expects Jeanneret to call at least 55 — probably more — games over each season of his new contract.
  • Jeanneret will have a new partner up in the booth, too. The team has announced Rob Ray will take a seat alongside RJ as his new color partner, replacing Harry Neale, who will still have a role in Sabres broadcasts. The move is one we’ve all been waiting for, as Ray has done an impeccable job between the benches over the past few seasons. Ray was destined for this role since joining the Sabres broadcast team and his analysis will surely be a refreshing upgrade over Neale. Neale, Danny Gare and Mike Robitaille will each have roles during the game broadcasts, mainly in post-game and intermission segments. Gare will also write weekly columns for Sabres.com and will have a weekly segment on Sylvester’s new show. There will be no immediate replacement for Ray between the benches for home games and Black said Ray will likely remain on ice level while carrying out his color role.
  • Filling the shoes left by Sylvester’s move to WGR will be Brian Duff, who has now signed on full-time with the Sabres and will host all pre- and post-game shows on MSG. I’d imagine all Sabres fans are as psyched as I am about this news, as Duff’s knowledge of hockey and professionalism will be a huge asset to the Sabres broadcast team and will certainly make watching games on MSG that much more enjoyable.
  • Black also said Sabres fans will no longer be tortured when the team visits the New York City-area teams, as the Sabres will do away with the use of the Islanders, Rangers and Devils MSG feeds which plagued those of us who still got to watch those dreadful games last season. Black called the use of these feeds “the low-point of the season” for the team. Yeah, that and the 10-game road losing streak, the ungodly amount of injuries, Ville Leino sucking and the team missing the playoffs all together. Did I forget anything?
  • The Sabres also want to expand their new and social media presence and announced the launch of their new interactive social media website: Ice Network. Black said the new site centralizes all of the Sabres’ social networking sites and will make it easier for the fans to follow along and interact with the team. If you go to the site, you’ll find links to the team’s Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest accounts, among others, as well as links to the Twitter handles of each current player who active on Twitter.
  • All these changes are obviously very exciting if you’re a Sabres fan. I’m not sure I could have thought of a better way to jumble the broadcast crew — something that was long overdue. Props to them.

Arena changes:

  • When asked about any expected changes to the First Niagara Center this year, Black said: “We accomplished a ton last year … In terms of moving forward, there are a couple things we are still not ready to announce yet, but if they come to fruition will be dramatic. Our goal is to continue to make this a hockey destination.”
  • The Sabres will be putting the finishing touches on the First Niagara Center with a new roof paint job, replacing that beautiful aqua ring that welcomes those entering the city via the skyway.
  • The new sod for the waterfront, which Terry Pegula contributed, was being installed while we were filing in. I asked Black during the “happy hour” prior to the summit if Pegula had more plans to get involved with the waterfront and he said the Pegulas are very open to anything that would improve the community, especially the immediate area outside the arena, although adding that nothing else is in the works just yet.
  • I think the Sabres still have plenty of ideas in mind, but the progress of whatever those ideas may be is not far enough along for anything significant to be said just yet. Black did say they will feature a whole new outdoor experience next season, though. The Sabres will do away with the Labatt Blue Party Tent, as it was not as successful as they had hoped (that’s what you get when you charge a $10 cover). He also said if the Sabres are playing into May and June next season (which they had better be), there will be plenty of pre-game party opportunities, including concerts and other events.

Special Events (All-Star Game, Winter Classic, Draft, etc.):

  • Regarding the inaugural American prospects game which will be held at the First Niagara Center on Sept. 29, Black said: “I’m not 100 percent sure what to expect other than to expect the top U.S.A talent playing in a market that loves watching hockey.” He said that because it is an inaugural event the Sabres have the freedom to experiment with a lot of “cool things,” which should make for a unique experience.
  • As far as the progress on bringing an All-Star Game or draft to Buffalo, Black said they’re still looking into it, but it seems to me like it’s something that’s probably still a good 5-10 years away. “It’s something important to fans to get that game back here. It’s time to come back here,” Black said. The All-Star Game is booked until at least 2015, with Columbus as its host next year and the Olympic year to follow. It’s still cool to think about.
  • Regarding another Winter Classic, however, Black sounded much more optimistic: “You can talk to anyone in the NHL; they all recognize what Buffalo has meant to this franchise. I think everyone at the league level feels a bit of gratitude toward Buffalo.” Black then referenced the possibility of the NHL expanding the Winter Classic to multiple games, to which he said would bode well for Buffalo securing another game. It only makes sense for the game to return to its original site sometime over the next five years.

Hockey Operations (Draft, Free Agency, Trades, etc):

  • As expected, Black gave plenty of non-answers to the offseason questions. He did talk at length about the trade market, though, and he referenced the Sabres’ four top draft choices at least once. If you’ll allow me to speculate, this is the umpteenth time I’ve heard Black talk up the trade market, so don’t be surprised if this is the means by which the Sabres lean most heavily on to improve the roster for next season. In addition to talking at length about trades, Black also called the free agent pool “limited.” It makes sense, really. So, sorry to all you Parise enthusiasts out there. It appears as though the Sabres much prefer making a deal than forking over $8 million on a free agent, at least at this point. In fact, I’d be willing to bet we see a trade or two from the Sabres as we get closer to the draft. But who knows. Black again used his XBox quip while reiterating a trade takes two to tango, which I find amusing. “This isn’t XBox where you can push a button and execute a trade,” he said.
  • When asked about the Sabres’ biggest need, Black said: “It’s finding players that will get you through that tough playoff run … I don’t think there’s a single-biggest need … I think it’s well-documented that we’re thin at forward.” He’s talked about an upgrade in physical size as a need in the past, so, it appears the Sabres would love a top-6, 6-foot-4, 230-pound center who can score 40 goals and perform in the postseason. Yup…

Collective Bargaining Agreement:

  • Black refused to get anywhere near the CBA topic and whether or not we will have a hockey season come October, as anticipated. He said they’re going to leave that one to the Commish and Bill Daly. “I appreciate that (CBA question), and I hate to disappoint people, but I can’t really talk about that,” Black said. “The Sabres have full faith and confidence they’ll negotiate a CBA on our behalf.”

Ticket Price Increase:

  • Black attributed the increase in ticket prices for the upcoming 2012-13 season to the Sabres, shockingly, not qualifying for revenue sharing last season. Ticket prices have gone up each of the past three seasons (8 percent this year, and 5 percent over the previous two, Black said), and Black said the supply and demand factor is what’s continuing to drive them up — the Sabres were top 5 in ticket sales last season and were bottom 10 in ticket prices. Black said the Sabres will never be among the highest ticket prices in the league, but they would like to be somewhere in the middle so that they qualify under the league’s revenue sharing policy, which favors small market cities like Buffalo. “For me it’s always difficult, because I have yet to get a letter that says, ‘Hey, I got the price increase. Thanks so much. Let’s keep it coming.’ So it’s never a popular thing to do,” Black said. “If I wanted to be popular I would reduce prices and everyone would love me. But quite frankly that doesn’t do anything long-term for the benefit of this franchise.”

Game Presentation and Fan Relations:

  • A big part of some of the discussion was regarding the team’s plans to improve and grow their brand via game presentation and fan relations. “The best game entertainment is what’s on the ice,” Black said. “It starts with winning more games at home.”
  • It’s clear Black and the Sabres staff prefer to take the hockey-first approach when it comes to game presentation, which is fine. Michael Gilbert, the Sabres’ director of media relations who travels across the country with the team, said he thought the team’s game presentation was better than 70 percent of the rest of the league. I suppose that’s true. Without getting too involved in this discussion, I still think the Sabres could do more to make the game-day experience a little more sentimental for fans — such as the use of pyrotechnics/lighting and pregame montages to get fans pumped up, as well as better player tributes for milestones, accomplishments, etc., an area they are often criticized for.
  • Black also said the team wants to begin to make more of an effort to expand the Sabres’ fan base, specifically into Southern Ontario, referring to the Golden Horseshoe as the “Blue and Gold Horseshoe.” He added he believes it’s important to target younger fans, and emphasized the importance of the success the Student Surge section was in its first year. “A lot of times you hear the chants starting there … hopefully traditions will start from there.”
  • Other game presentation notes included the intermission clock, which will return to the digital screens this season, and, much to Mike Harrington’s chagrin, Black suggested the blooper reels will be here to stay, saying it’s something the fans enjoy.

As a final note, I’d like to point out something that you probably don’t care much about, but is cool news for Buffalo Wins and us bloggers. Beginning this season, Buffalo Wins will be one of five blogs (Queen City Sports, Sabres Hockey Central, Die by the Blade and 3rd Man In) granted credentials for limited access to the Sabres locker room following games, in addition to the access already allowed to Lindy Ruff’s post-game pressers last year. The privilege is obviously something different (although I’m still unsure as to why any sane person would allow us near their multi-million dollar investments. I’m sure Ryan Miller will be thrilled, though), so be sure to keep tabs on the five of us next season as this should help enhance our content immensely.

Photos via @BuffaloSabres.

Be sure to follow along on Twitter @B_Schlag for more blogger summit discussion and check out the blogs listed below for their recaps and opinions on the day’s events.

Other Summit 3.0 attendees

Queen City Sports 

Sabres in Seven

Die by the Blade 

Black & Blue & Gold: Part 1Part 2Part 3

Sabres Hockey Central 

Buffalo Rising

Sabre Noise

Sabres Prospects

The Hosers

The Sabres Observer

Two in the Box & 3rd Man In: Podcast

Buffalo Sabres Nation

Mark D’s Sabres News

Roll the Highlight Film

This post is brought to you by Gino’s Pizza Place in Tonawanda, NY.

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