By Stu Hackel
The NHL Board of Governors today approved the sale of the Sabres to Terry Pegula, and besides it being good news for the fans of that club, it also might be good news for all hockey fans. Why? Because Terry Pegula is a such a big hockey fan that he sniffed back tears of joy at his introductory press conference as he recalled his roots as a Sabres fan in 1975 and saw members of that team in attendance, especially the one he called, “my hero”: Gilbert Perreault.
Perhaps this notion is just a pipe dream, but as a hockey dad who attended Sabres games for 18 years, listened to the audio of their televised games over long distance phone lines in the days before the Center Ice package, and isn’t embarrassed to cry in public over his love of the game, maybe, just maybe, Pegula will speak at NHL owners meetings as a fan as much as a businessman.
In a letter to Sabres fans on the start page of the team’s website, Pegula writes, “From 1980-1998, I was sitting next to you in your seat at both the Memorial Auditorium and the HSBC Arena as a season ticket holder. As a longtime Sabres fan, I have followed all the great players who represented our city. Along with each player and fan, we have all shared a vision…to have the Buffalo Sabres name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.”
Terry Pegula is a hockey fan, a wealthy one to be sure, but a fan nevertheless. His son played the sport in the Buffalo area and Pegula helped coach the team.
When he spoke Tuesday (video part 1 and part 2), one of the first people he talked about was outgoing owner Tom Golisano. Pegula thanked him ”for saving my hockey team.” That’s a fine sentiment, for despite his thrifty ways, Golisano did save the Sabres after they had been through bankruptcy after the disastrous ownership of the Rigas family.
It’s said that a fool and his money are soon parted, but it’s hard to argue with Pegula’s passion for the sport and the Sabres. He was near tears of joy as he introduced his family to the audience at the outset, especially his daughter Laura, who is such a big Sabres fan that ”she would make everyone in this room look like a Moscow Dynamo fan.” How many other NHL owners even know what Moscow Dynamo is (or, more accurately, was since the great Soviet-era and KHL team merged last summer with HC MVD to become UHC Dynamo)?
“Starting today,” Pegula said, “there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department,” in their effort to fulfill his dream of winning multiple Stanley Cups. “There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets.”
The decision to keep Darcy Regier as GM and Lindy Ruff as coach will end speculation that changes in the team’s hockey department were imminent. This may not make everyone happy, but fans aren’t always happy when the team isn’t winning. Regier is a very good GM and Ruff is a very good coach, and with the resources that Pegula plans to devote to the team, the two men will get a chance to show what they can do without the kind of restrictions that saw talented free agents like Danny Briere walk away and kept others from not reaching their potential.
Joining the executive group with Pegula, who will be CEO, is Ken Sawyer, the former president of the Penguins who will be senior advisor and alternate governor. It’s a shewed move by Pegula to coax Sawyer out of retirement, for few understand the ins and outs of the league and the clubs better than he does. Sawyer not only guided the Penguins through bankruptcy, he was the CFO of the NHL for 14 years. There’s not enough institutional memory in the league and its teams, but Sawyer has it.
The Sabres’ new president, in charge of day-to-day operations, is Ted Black, who has held jobs as a Penguins executive and senior VP and GM of Fox Sports Pittsburgh. This is only speculation at the moment, and perhaps it’s wild speculation, but Black’s TV experience could mean the Sabres will eventually reclaim their rights from MSG and launch their own channel again. The Rigas’ Empire Sports Network collapsed along with their business empire.
“A clarion call should go out to the league and to hockey players everywhere,” Black said at the press conference, “that Buffalo is hockey heaven. If you want to come somewhere and work for the best owner in the league, which that’s what you have in Buffalo here right now, then you should make some plans to come to Buffalo because this is where it’s going to happen. It might not happen this year, it might not happen the next, but it’s gonna happen.”
Just how far the Sabres can climb up that stairway to heaven is uncertain, but it was an impressive and promising Day 1.