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Sabres sue U.S. over denial of strength coach’s green card

Leon Draisaitl answers questions from fans over Zoom, including how his line will carry over chemistry when hockey returns and who is on his all-time Edmonton Oilers team.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Federal immigration officials wrongly denied a petition by the Buffalo Sabres to secure a green card for their British-born strength and conditioning coach, the team argued in a lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo on Tuesday, U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services misstated facts and arbitrarily failed to follow its own rules in denying permanent residency status to Ed Gannon, an action that potentially subjects the team ''to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.’'

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

But USCIS denied Gannon’s petition, ruling he did not meet the merits required under EB-1 Extraordinary Ability eligibility. The agency said he relied on solicited letters of support and that he failed to produce unsolicited material - including media reports - reflecting his elite status.

The USCIS said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The denial of Gannon’s petition comes amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become ''increasingly active in immigration enforcement’’ and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Last month, President Donald Trump ordered a 60-day hold on green cards in the name of protecting American jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Sabres’ lawsuit includes a letter written by co-owner and team president Kim Pegula, who said Gannon was hired following a worldwide search.

''We spend tens of millions of dollars each year on world-class athletes,’' Pegula wrote.

''We require our head of strength and conditioning to expertly monitor and train these athletes to achieve success on the ice,’' she added. ''It is a critical role that we entrust to someone who also has world-class credentials and who can properly take care of our valuable assets.’'

In demanding to have Gannon’s petition approved, the Sabres also asked the court to declare that USCIS abused its discretion.

The decision in Gannon’s case could have a broader impact, given that many U.S.-based NHL teams’ training staffs include nonresidents.

Gannon earned a doctorate in applied strength and conditioning for elite athletes at the University of Bath in England. The Sabres argue Gannon is clearly at the top of his field given that he is one of only 31 strength and conditioning coordinators in the NHL, calling it ''a little perplexing’’ to question his status in the profession.

He also conducted research linking lower-body strength and power as key indicators of an athlete’s readiness over the course of a season. His work has been published and his methods adopted by strength and conditioning coaches in other leagues and overseeing Olympic athletes, the filing said.

The Sabres also allege USCIS was inaccurate in ruling that the letters of reference the team provided came from Gannon’s former and current employers, when instead a majority came from organizations where he never worked.

The team argued that it did not submit media reports about Gannon’s accomplishments because his profession is not usually covered by the media.

The suit cites USCIS’ own adjudicator’s field manual in noting a petition cannot be denied because no published articles were submitted if the candidate meets the minimum three qualifying criteria. The field manual reads: ''Approval or denial of a petition must be based on the type and quality of evidence, not on evidence that you think should be submitted.’'