Sabres University: Buffalo goes back to school during lockout downtime

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Typically, you start with a university, and then you add sports to bring people together, create that old college spirit and learn lessons that would otherwise go untaught.

In Buffalo, they did it the other way around. They started with a team and added a university – "Sabres University," an internal educational program complete with classes, requirements, binders, T-shirts and even a student mixer.

"I was reluctant to call it a 'frat party' because of liability," laughed Ted Black, the team president. "We'll call it 'student rush' or something like that."

Amid the NHL lockout, the Sabres built fraternity within their organization – call it "Beta Sigma," maybe – but not a fraternity. This was not "Animal House." This was not a really futile and stupid gesture. (Watch this clip to the 2:26 mark – and beware strong language.)

Give 'em an "A" for the effort. Sabres employees shared their expertise with other Sabres employees – from general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, to the folks in broadcasting and marketing, to everyone in between. People gained deeper appreciation for what others do.

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The best was made of a bad situation, and at least someone learned something from it.

"The morale part of it is huge, and the interaction," Black said. "Sometimes there can be an invisible wall between the hockey department and every other part of the organization.

"Here we have Darcy Regier sitting next to the guy who runs the Zamboni, sitting next to the guy who sells tickets, sitting next to the woman that's the receptionist. So a lot of those interactive barriers are kind of broken down."

It began with owner Terry Pegula, the billionaire who has sought to build a first-class winner since purchasing his favorite team. He did not lay off anyone because of the lockout. He did not cut anyone's pay, either. But he did challenge everyone to use the downtime productively.

Black met with Brent Rossi, the Sabres' vice-president of brand strategy and marketing, who came back from a social media seminar wanting to share some ideas with the executive staff. Black suggested Rossi could teach a class to everyone on social media and what it means to the organization.

They kept brainstorming. What if they had a class on this? What if they had a class on that? Black suggested they call it "Sabres University" and left Rossi to come up with a curriculum.

And so Pegulaville became a college town.

For four days this month, from 9 a.m. to the close of business, school was in session. Conference rooms – even the Sabres' dressing room – became classrooms. Each "student" was required to earn 30 credits to "pass" the semester.

There were core classes mandatory for everyone, from "Customer Service Training" to "History of the Sabres." Regier said he gained a better understanding of the customer service reps and "the things they deal with, especially now."

There were elective core classes mandatory for specific departments, such as "Public Speaking" and "Salary Cap & Player Transactions."

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Then there were electives open to everyone, like "Putting the Ice in Hockey," which examined the technique for making the ice itself, and "The Scouting Process," which reviewed how the Sabres identify draft prospects.

One class illustrated the evolution of the Sabres, both in general under Pegula and in particular with Sabres University. "Hockey Operations Scouting Software" highlighted the sophisticated tools used by Sabres scouts and examined "possible applications for other departments."

Back when the Sabres pinched pennies, they cut their scouting staff drastically. "We had to figure out ways to get things done with less, and it forced us very much to the technology side," Regier said.

Then Pegula arrived. He wanted more boots on the ground, and he made an investment in the scouting staff, swelling its ranks from 11 to about two dozen. Now the Sabres have the best of both worlds – the technology and the manpower.

"We're one of the biggest scouting staffs league-wide, and so for us, we're also using this time to try to merge what we learned from being lean into helping us become more effective with a big staff again," Regier said.

In class, Regier showed how scouts mark video clips with comments, so they can look at the video together later, discuss their individual views and come to a consensus. "We used to have tell, and now we've got show and tell, and then you've got conversation," Regier said.

The broadcast team learned how the scouts evaluate players and how they mark video – things they can apply directly to their work – just as Regier picked up something from "Behind the Scenes of a Sabres Broadcast."

"You don't understand, on things like replays, the work that's done," Regier said. "It's obviously a lot simpler now because it's digital versus the old tapes, but all the queuing up of things, the rolling of things, it takes time."

It isn't as easy as flopping onto the sofa and reaching for the remote.

Said Black: "Somebody spoke up at the last class, and said, 'You know, I just turn on the TV and watch the game. I didn't realize how involved and intricate the TV production is. Now I realize how hard they work on a game day to put on a telecast.' "

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The same could be said for "The Anatomy of an Arena Event," or "The Ins & Outs of Game Entertainment," or "Media Buying" or … coaching. Ruff, the guy whose job is constantly second-guessed, explained things like how opponents crowd the box and why he wants his defensemen involved in the attack.

"Lindy Ruff just taught anyone that wanted to sign up just an overview on how his coaching system works," Black said. "He sort of took everyone through that from a higher level. You didn’t have to be a hockey coach or an expert to understand what he was saying."

There will be no final exam, but the students will complete a detailed survey. Even before this semester finished, the Sabres decided there would be another – and they want the next one to be bigger and better. They might include partners and sponsors next time, maybe even the media.

"This is going to be part of who we are going forward," Black said. "So there will be a Sabres University 2.0."

Let's just hope there's no time for a spring semester. Summer school never sounded so good.

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