February 22, 2011. I drove my kids to the airport, as they were about to spend a glorious week in Florida with Grandma and Grandpa, and I sped home in anticipation of a mid-morning press conference that was perhaps the most hyped in Buffalo Sabres, or Buffalo sports, history.
Little did I know what I was in store for.
The Legend Grows…
As far back as November 2010, I had heard and read about Terry Pegula having some interest in purchasing the team from Tom Golisano, that he was a huge hockey fan, and that he and his wife, Kim, had some ties to Western New York. I watched the videos of his ridiculously generous $88 million donation to his alma mater, Penn State, for their hockey program. I began reading reports that, in fact, the entire family were hockey-crazed, and that his favorite team was the Sabres. In fact, as far back as 1983, he told a then-business partner, “If I ever have more than two nickels to my name, I’m going to buy the Buffalo Sabres one day”.
The fact that he was worth a reported $3 billion was just icing on the cake.
And, Here We Go…
On February 18th, Pegula purchased the team from Golisano (along with the Buffalo Bandits) for $189 million.
To the morning of February 22nd, then. Throngs of media, Sabres employees, players, past and present, were on hand to witness history. The fourth owner of the Buffalo Sabres, after months of speculation and silence, was finally going to speak. I could feel myself starting to get emotional. Why? Who knows? Up until this point, anything I knew about this guy was conjecture and inconclusive. I just had that feeling, ya know? I wanted so bad to believe the reports, that he would come in here on his white horse, and lead the charge towards a Stanley Cup.
“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence…”
When Pegula took the podium, his emotions were already starting to get to him. “I am a Sabres fan, and have been since 1975”, he said, his voice trembling. Pointing in the direction of some former Sabres greats, he lost it. “I’m going to try not to look this way too much…because…some of the old faces…”, he said, trailing off and nodding in acknowledgement. “Where’s Perreault?”, he asked, visibly shaken. And, as this 59 year-old man – with more money than God, but obviously ever-so-humble – reached deep down for the strength to answer his own question, said “You’re my hero” to an obviously flabbergasted Gilbert Perreault, I sat on my warm, comfortable couch – as a then 39 year-old Sabres fan for life – suppressing tears and sobs.
My wife, a dedicated fan since 1998, when she got caught up in the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, turned to me and asked, “Can you believe this?”.
I couldn’t speak.
What was it that Renee Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire?
Testing The Faith Of The “Faithful”…
Well, things haven’t gone the way we expected them to, on the ice, in year one of Pegula’s ownership. Not even close. So many changes were made off the ice (new locker room, purchase of the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans, numerous changes to the arena experience, etc.), that many fans took for granted that the on-ice product would fall right into place. An underachieving team on the brink of missing the playoffs has some already trying to run Pegula and his management team out of town.
No one said it was going to be easy. Just ask anyone who’s ever won a Stanley Cup – from players to coaches to, yes, owners – and no one, not one, will tell you it was easy. Did Pegula promise fans that the Buffalo Sabres would win the championship in 2012? I never once heard that. What I heard was a “three-year plan”. This is year number one, and clearly some changes need to be made, on the ice and perhaps off of it. I’m just glad the warts on this hockey team are rearing their ugly heads now, instead of two or three years down the road. I, for one, have the confidence, and faith, that this ownership group will do the right things to change what needs to be changed, and bring a long-awaited championship to the city of Buffalo.
Oh, yeah. It was, “You had me at ‘hello‘”.
You certainly did, Terry. Happy Anniversary.
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