The city of Buffalo has a reputation in the North American sporting realm. It’s not a good one; it has a status of sports futility. It is known across the continent for its ineptitude rather than any sort of storied history.
The city’s two major sports teams — the Bills and the Sabres — have never won a championship. In attempting to win their first, they have suffered some of the most deflating moments in sports history. When people think of sports in Buffalo, the phrases “Wide Right”, “Music City Miracle”, and “No Goal” come to mind.
After years of ridicule, the 2010-11 northwestern New York sports season began just about as mundane as ever. The Bills finished the season a dismal 4-12, missing the playoffs for a 12th straight season and, as of early January, the Sabres were hovering around .500, sitting out of the playoffs.
From the depths of mediocrity came a glimmer of hope in the Queen City.
In late January, 2011, reports started surfacing that Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula was interested in acquiring his beloved Sabres, the team he grew up adoring. One month and $186 million later, the team was his.
Prior to his official takeover of the team, Pegula made a statement through the Canadian Press that set a standard that has not been set in Buffalo since the glory days of the early ’90s Bills: “From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”
For a franchise that, at the time, was out of the playoffs in a city famous for championship disappointment, Pegula’s statement seemed – and still seems – quite lofty.
Andy Boron of SBNations‘ Sabres blog, Die By The Blade discussed the immediate changes with The Good Point recently.
“Things [before Pegula] seemed like they would never change with this team, we were stuck in neutral,” Boron said. “His entire philosophy is so completely different from the previous regime that it caught a lot of people by surprise and many were initially skeptical, but Pegula has backed up his words in every way possible.”
Boron also noted Pegula has created a culture where fans are expecting the team to make a “big splash” as opposed to “keeping the status quo”.
This summer, Buffalo’s hockey club was active — something Boron and the rest of the Sabres’ fan base were not accustomed to.
“The anticipation for July 1 this year was something I’ve never seen in my time as a Sabres fan, and I mean ever,” Boron said. “With Pegula’s dollars clearing the way, there was no end to the speculation about who the team would go after, and I can’t remember an offseason that’s been more exciting than what we had this year.”
The northeast division member was in the spotlight during the opening days of free agency when they acquired Robyn Regehr from the Calgary Flames as well as the rights to Christian Ehrhoff.
Ehrhoff, who notched 62 points in 102 games in 2010-11, signed a 10-year, $40 million contract. When paired up with Ville Leino’s six-year, $27 million contract, Pegula did his due diligence.
For a year criticized for its soft free agent class, the Sabres managed to upgrade in key areas by spending money versus their usual practice of having to cultivate draft picks.
Off the ice, Boron said, the Sabres are going through a sizable repackaging.
“Right off the bat, Pegula and new team president Ted Black began their re-branding campaign to turn Buffalo into ‘Hockey Heaven’, the most desirable market in the league — on par with teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh.”
While Pegula’s ownership has mainly preached change, one very important cog remained the same. He kept both general manager Darcy Regier and long-time head coach Lindy Ruff.
The effect of Terry Pegula reaches farther than the Sabres itself. It speaks volumes to a city desperate for success. For a city that has been trying to reinvent itself and shake its negative image, the billionaire’s investment couldn’t have come at a better time.