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opinion

Buffalo Sabres' Jack Eichel in action during an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 19, in Philadelphia.The Associated Press

The Buffalo Sabres are something more ambitious than the worst team in pro sports. They are a gesamtkunstwerk of failure.

Decade-long postseason blank? Check.

Busybodies for owners? Check.

Managerial incompetence? Double-check.

Bad trades? Check to the power of four.

Inexplicable fight with angry star who wants to leave in a league where no actual stars ever leave? (taps mic) Check.

Getting some things wrong is easy. Getting everything wrong is hard.

Getting Jack Eichel wrong seems like a magic trick – we all watched the Sabres do it, and we’re still not sure how they managed it.

Eichel – a generational player, the draft consigliere to Connor McDavid, the best American to ever do it (if you believed the hype) – hurt his neck in March. Since then, he has been fighting with his club over how to repair the injury.

He would like an involved surgery rarely done on pro athletes. The Sabres would prefer he get a simpler, more common procedure.

For seven months, they’ve been back-and-forthing on this, first in private, and then in public. Over the summer, Buffalo stripped Eichel of his captaincy, which I like to imagine involves someone hacking the ‘C’ off Eichel’s jersey while single tear rolls down his cheek and a bugler plays Taps.

If the goal here is an eventual reconciliation with the most talented piece on your roster, this act of petty revenge seems less like coming over the top rope and more like skydiving in through the roof of the arena.

Eichel’s leverage in this situation is his talent. In any sane hockey town, that would be enough to get his way.

But owing to the unique characteristics of the Buffalo market, the Sabres have better leverage – their incompetence.

The Sabres have beaten Buffalo down. The city famously loves its sports, but has grown used to failure. If you’ve got this far into the column, you probably know them all by heart.

Disappointment defines Buffalo sports in the same way the title drought used to define baseball on the north side of Chicago.

If failure is your raison d’être, why would anyone care if the best player won’t play? Why would you get angry because the team won’t trade him for other, better, solidly necked players? You’ll just lose anyway. Might as well lose with panache.

That is the real roadblock in the Eichel affair.

Another problem is the NHL’s labour agreement. It gives teams the final say on what medical procedures their players undergo.

In our age of the uncritical worship of personal freedoms, this is a bit of a throwback:

“I hear what you’re saying, but I’d really like to keep my arm.”

“Sorry, we’ve made up our mind. It’s coming off.”

(It’s not nearly that simple, but that is the gist.)

Years back, covering a different sport, a very famous player told me the story of how one of his teams straight-up lied to him about a major surgery. It was only when he went to a second doctor, bringing along a DVD of the operation, that he found out what had been done to him while he was under anesthesia. He claimed that choice, one he’d had no say in, caused a terminal decline in his ability to do his job.

If there’s one of those stories out there, there must be many more. Maybe that helps explain Eichel’s paranoia.

The system works because of the prevailing culture – players play and their bosses do their thinking. The system starts sparking and belching smoke when the players start thinking for themselves.

At no point along the way have the Sabres claimed Eichel’s choice of surgery is dangerous. Just that they prefer their plan.

So I don’t blame the guy for wanting to fix his neck his way based on what he’s being told by his doctors.

According to reports, this will all reach a head (again) in coming days as Eichel holds emergency talks with the Sabres. One presumes the substance of those talks is, “Please trade me. At this point, trade me to the Rockford Icehogs.”

How long can the NHL let this go on? Forever, theoretically.

In the same way a player’s control of his health decisions is restricted by contract, so, too, is the league’s control of the personnel choices of its constituent members.

Sports works on the basis that there is a point at which the legalities give way to common sense. A line beyond which greed and shame trump the letter of the law. It’s the reason teams everywhere trade players they don’t want to trade all the time. No one can make them do it. It’s just that the alternative is unthinkable.

The Sabres are over that line and still running.

If the team wants to torpedo Eichel’s career, it can do that. All it will cost them is the US$50-million still owing on his deal.

It’s madness, but it’s not inexplicable. The people already sank this team. Why not take the former captain down with the ship?

You have to admire Buffalo’s commitment to the cause. A team this dedicated to its project of self-destruction is almost admirable. It appeals to the little anarchist that lives in all of our sad, conventional souls.

In an ironic twist, the Sabres have started their season with three wins. And not chintzy wins – a blowout, a comeback and an even sweeter comeback. Maybe the players have got tired of hearing how terrible they are. Winning is their way of fighting the system.

If you didn’t know the full history, based just on recent observation, you’d say this was a fully functioning, mediocre NHL team.

But that’s how this art piece functions. If you pass it quickly, it looks like everything else. It’s only when you stand back and stare for a good, long while that you perceive just much effort it takes to be this bad.