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Sabres suddenly toast of the town

BUFFALO -- Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano stood on the temporary stage outside HSBC Arena before a recent playoff game with a mob of fans chanting his name.

''Thank you, Tom! Thank you, Tom!" everyone yelled.

A reception like that might be enough for Golisano -- a Rochester billionaire, sudden hockey nut, and occasional politician -- to reconsider his recent decision to rule out a fourth New York gubernatorial election bid.

''That's a question that probably I think about every day," Golisano said yesterday. ''But right now the decision is still negative."

Political aspirations aside, Golisano doesn't need votes to learn he's the toast of Western New York.

Three years after purchasing the Sabres out of bankruptcy, a move that prevented the franchise from folding or relocating, Golisano is enjoying his young and resilient team's playoff run.

In their first postseason appearance since 2001, the Sabres dispatched Philadelphia and top-seeded Ottawa to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, which opens at Raleigh Saturday. ''I can't walk down the street or into a restaurant without people making comments to me about how well the team's doing or how excited they are," Golisano said. ''So it's almost like a fever has come over the area."

Thanks in large part to Golisano, the Sabres have authored the feel-good story of the NHL season. From bankruptcy to brilliance, Buffalo has emerged as the model of success under the league's new rules.

On the ice, the Sabres are fast and skilled, capitalizing on the NHL's renewed emphasis to open the game by negating obstruction. They won a franchise-record 52 games -- albeit in the first season the league eliminated ties -- and finished fourth in the East to end the longest playoff drought in their 36-year history.

After making about $600,000 before the playoffs, the team has netted an additional $3 million in five home postseason games -- not including at least two more against Carolina.

Because of the playoff success, Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn projects the team will have more than 11,000 full season-ticket holders next year.

''You sort of have to pinch yourself, don't you?" Quinn said. ''I don't spend a lot of time looking backward but, when you reflect on it, it's really amazing. I think it shows a lot of resilience to the City of Buffalo. I think that if this franchise had folded, it just would've been devastating."

Quinn credits Golisano, who made his fortune founding the Rochester-based Paychex payroll processing firm. It was Golisano's incentive-driven management style that led to the Sabres' vision of building around a young core of players. And it was his hands-off approach that allowed Sabres general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff to mold that group into winners.

Golisano might not have known much about hockey before he purchased the Sabres, but he's since learned the nuances of special teams, odd-man rushes, and the strengths of his roster.

''My primary goal when I bought the franchise was to get it on good solid economic footing, and that happened," Golisano said. ''The real plus is how well the team has done and what that's done for the community and everybody's psyche."

Even his own. Golisano jumped out of his seat when rookie Jason Pominville scored the series-clinching goal in Buffalo's 3-2 OT win against Ottawa Saturday.

''It all came together," Golisano said. ''As every day goes by, the community's confidence level, my confidence level continues to go up. And you've got to admit, those young men are very entertaining and very inspiring."

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