To a certain degree, the euphoria sweeping through Western New York today was felt once before, on Feb. 22, 2011, when Terry Pegula was introduced as the Sabres’ fourth owner.
Of course, Pegula’s reported purchase of the Buffalo Bills is much different.
While the Sabres weren’t in danger of moving, there was a feeling he had rescued the franchise. With the Sabres among the NHL’s bottom-feeders, it’s easy to forget now, but that day was among the most emotional sports days in Buffalo history. Pegula’s passion instilled hope in a rabid fan base hungry for a winner.
Here’s what I wrote that day:
BUFFALO – Terry Pegula’s a rabid Sabres fan, you know.
The team’s new owner once stood on an overpass in Pittsburgh fiddling with his radio so he could hear his beloved Sabres fade in and out. Another time, he had a friend in Olean hold his phone to the radio so he could listen to a playoff game from Houston. For his honeymoon, Pegula took his wife to the old Montreal Forum for the Adams Division final.
Before the billionaire, a former Sabres season-ticket holder, laid out any plans for his $189 million purchase during an introductory new conference Tuesday, Pegula relayed his passion for the team he’s followed since 1975.
When he spotted Sabres legend Gilbert Perreault, the man he called his hero and “hockey genesis,” sitting inside the HSBC Arena atrium beside other alumni members, the 59-year-old was moved to tears.
“I’m going to try not to look this way too much because of some of the old faces,” Pegula said as he broke down. “Where’s Perreault? You’re my hero.”
To the legions of Sabres fans frustrated by years of mediocrity and penny-pinching, the team’s fourth owner is their new hero, one of them.
“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ existence is to win a Stanley Cup,” Pegula said. “And, yes, I have said Cups.”
Pegula will spend anything to bring that elusive championship to Buffalo, a goal he wants to accomplish in three years or less. The former Olean resident proudly noted he’s never made a decision in his life based on money.
“If we want to make some money, we’ll go drill a gas well,” the founder and former president and CEO of East Resources, a Pennsylvania-based oil and natural gas company said. “We’re not in this to save money.”
That’s a far cry from the Tom Golisano regime’s break-even mandate.
Pegula will retain coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier. Ruff’s deal expires following the season, while Regier signed a two-year contract extension in the fall. Pegula said he did his “due diligence” on both.
A self-proclaimed Ruff fan, Pegula wants to extend the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.
“We may not have talked, but pardon my French: Lindy ain’t going nowhere,” Pegula said.
He noticed the respect others hold for Ruff when he to spoke to people throughout the league.
“I don’t even know if I should say this, but I’ve had several people of authority say to me, ‘If you’re getting rid of Lindy Ruff, talk to us first,’” Pegula said. “What more? And these are knowledgeable people.”
There had been speculation Regier, the man who hired Ruff in 1997, could be let go or reassigned.
“I talked to many people that are still involved in management in the league,” Pegula said. “I’ve talked to people who had nothing to gain or lose by what they were going to say. I talked to agents, I talked to a whole broad spectrum who know. I have not heard one bad word uttered about Darcy Regier. I think that that means he deserves to stay.”
Why not start fresh? Why keep a coach-GM tandem that has made the postseason just three of the last eight seasons? Right now, the Sabres, who host the Atlanta Thrashers tonight, sit ninth in the Eastern Conference.
Pegula cited a quote from former Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney.
“Panic doesn’t seem to work,” Pegula said. “Our feeling is you pick good people and you try to stick with them.”
Pegula’s biggest change might be expanding one of the NHL’s smallest hockey departments.
“There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets,” Pegula said.
The scouting budget will be increased, additional player development coaches will be hired and video equipment will be upgraded.
“We’ve cut the chains off and (Regier’s) freed up to do whatever he wants to do with Lindy and the coaches,” Pegula said.
Expect the Sabres to keep spending on players, too.
“We’ll put the pedal to the medal as capably as we can,” Pegula said. “I don’t know if it’s wise to spend to the cap every year because you got different things going on every year. But we’re not in this to save money, that’s for sure.”
The Sabres’ front office is also expanding.
Pegula introduced Ted Black as the team’s new president and alternate governor. Black will oversee the day-to-day operations of the club. He previously served in the NHL as a member of Mario Lemieux’s senior management team and as vice president of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1999-2008. He was most recently the senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.
Pegula also hired Ken Sawyer as a senior adviser and alternate governor. Sawyer spent 14 years as the NHL’s chief financial officer and 11 years as a Penguins senior executive.
Black wants the cynical Sabres fans, the ones hurt by years of broken promises and losing, to know that Pegula will live up his words.
“From reading the papers and talking to a lot of the friends I have up here, people are thinking maybe this is too good to be true,” Black said. “Sometimes things are too good and true.”