BUFFALO - University at Buffalo Law School sports law expert Nellie Drew believes Buffalo sports fans will get their wish: The Bills will stay in Buffalo.
And while she's not a party to the confidential negotiations that will determine the team's fate, she brings the next-best thing: a synthesis of educated opinions based on decades of sports law experience at the very top of Buffalo professional sports, the instincts of a spellbinding teacher and the soul of a Western New York sports fan who would bleed Buffalo red, white and blue all over the power suits she has worn through some of the most historic sports negotiations of Buffalo's modern sports era.
"They will stay here," says Drew, a UB Law School graduate and now adjunct professor who teaches four sports law courses, including negotiating sports contracts, selling sports franchises and drug testing in professional sports.
"Anyone who watched Andre Reed's induction into the Hall of Fame knows that. Practically, it is never an easy matter to move a team. As long as there is demonstrated interest and commitment by sufficiently financed local owners and a dedicated, passionate local fan base, leagues prefer not to move teams."
Drew is a font of sports-law wisdom and hands-on experience with a passion for Buffalo, its people and its sports teams. She was a key player in some of the most famous and influential deals in Buffalo Sabres and NHL history during the past 25 years, sometimes while in advanced pregnancy with one of her seven biological children.
She is known for her memorable bonding techniques to bring people together - from cookie rituals that galvanized consensus during high-level, legal board meetings, including talks leading up to the building of First Niagara Center; to sitting back as her students threw her a surprise baby shower in class; to role-playing in class and assigning students famous sports law identities - and typecasting when possible.
"I had one young man become so ingrained into his role as Jerry Jones that he showed up for class in a Stetson and cowboy boots," Drew says. "Another was the late Al Davis for the semester. I could always count on him to interrupt in class with an aptly timed, 'I'll sue.'"
She customarily pelts students with candy around Halloween in return for correct answers. She'll tell "real-life" stories to illustrate legal principles - her definition of "reckless" is the actions of a teenage boy, such as the time her own son started punting footballs too close to the house after a recent trip to Bills training camp.
Her mentors and close colleagues range from former Sabres and NHL counsel Robert O. Swados, to Deputy Erie County Executive Richard M. Tobe to revered UB Law School professors Dianne Avery and Alfred S. Konefsky, and former dean R. Nils Olsen.
Drew also has behind-the-scenes stories offering glimpses of the informal and sometimes raw life of a top sports law lawyer who witnessed classic moments of Buffalo sports history.
She accidentally broke then-Sabres owner Seymour Knox III's eyeglasses when Brad May's overtime goal eliminated Boston in the 1993 playoffs. While sitting next to Knox and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, she flung her arms around Knox after the winning goal, knocking off his glasses. "Nellie, you can break my glasses anytime we score a goal like that," he told her.
As assistant to Buffalo Sabres attorney Robert O. Swados, who was also counsel to the NHL, Drew was privy to all league expansions of the 1990s. A favorite story involves the NHL owner who took a conference call while having his teeth drilled in the dentist chair.
She helped Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan work his way through what Drew calls the "elements of a bad 'B' movie" as he and Sabres star Alexander Mogilny tried to elude Russian security through the streets of Helsinki, Finland.
Years before she knocked off Knox's glasses, Drew set her sights on working for the Sabres when, as an undergraduate at Harvard, she wrote a critical note to the owner, blasting him for trading Danny Gare, ("Even a Yalie should have known better " she wrote.). Within the week, she opened her mail to find a copy of the Knox brothers' book inscribed "To Nellie, with best wishes. Go Bulldogs!"
The constant through all these adventures and first-hand encounters with the Western New York sports landscape is Drew's love of Buffalo and its sports teams.
"It's why I came home and why I didn't leave, despite opportunities to do so," she says. "Isn't it fun to watch Buffalo come back? And the people. You just don't find them like this anywhere else."
Drew knows how much having the Bills matters to people from Buffalo, regardless of generations.
"I'm not sure I can even contemplate what would happen if they left," she says. "Have you ever driven down Transit Road on a Sunday in the fall during game time? You can shoot the proverbial cannon down it."
Former Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski once commissioned a study to determine the extent of the local commitment to the Bills to justify making improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"The results of the study were amazing - even by Buffalo standards," Drew notes. "In excess of 90 percent of the population of Erie County valued the Bills more than their jobs, their families and, in some instances, even their religion. If anything, I think that fanaticism has increased in the interim.
"How do you replace that? Beyond the undeniable economic impact the Bills have, the sociological ramifications would serve as the basis for several Ph.D. studies," she says. "How many times have you run into somebody wearing Bills' insignia in a distant place, stopped to chat and discovered an ex-patriate or a neighbor from 15 minutes away? Our sense of community and our collective image is inextricably tied to that charging buffalo."
Consequently, Drew has clear advice to local and state government officials - as well as fans - on how to make sure the Bills do stay here, all from the perspective of a lawyer and fervent member of Bills and Sabres nation.
"Given the mandate of such a significant portion of the population, I believe it is incumbent upon the state and local governments to assist in keeping the team in Buffalo," she says. "Of course, how they do that is the question. The good news is that the region is so much stronger economically than it was even five years ago. The difficult part is that choices still have to be made. Hopefully, another successful private-public partnership can be forged that will allow the Bills to compete both athletically and financially for the long term."
And she doesn't hesitate when asked if there is anything fans can do on the grass-roots level.
"Absolutely. Buy tickets," Drew says. "This year, you can make a difference by voting with your wallet and with your feet. Let's fill the Ralph from August through December. If you want to go the extra mile, contact Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo and Sen. (Charles) Schumer, both of whom have already expressed their commitment to keep the Bills. Thank them, tell them that you vote and that you are wholeheartedly in favor of government support for the Bills."