When Terry Pegula took over as the owner of the Buffalo Sabres in February of 2011, he won the press conference. He talked about how the Sabres would no longer be shackled by financial constraints and said, “From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ sole reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.” He talked about how becoming a contender would be a process of three or fewer years. He teared up when he saw Gilbert Perreault. Newly minted team president Ted Black sent out a clear message by saying, “if you want to play for the best owner in the league, come to Buffalo.” He held a rally outside the arena and everyone cheered.
Yes, Terry Pegula won the press conference that day. He has won almost nothing since. But, boy, do the Sabres ever have a nice dressing room.
Pegula deserves a ton of credit for saving the Sabres and his efforts to revitalize downtown Buffalo and that arena area have been nothing short of spectacular. The Saturday morning of the draft last June, I looked out my hotel window to see the Canalside District buzzing with activity, including an outdoor yoga class in which hundreds of people were participating. A few years prior to that, you would have been able to count the number of people occupying that area on one hand. Perhaps even one finger.
But the fact remains that in every tangible way that can be measured in on-ice performance, Pegula has been a disaster as an owner. The day he officially took over, the Sabres were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a 27-25-6 record. And for a while things were looking up. The Sabres rallied to make the playoffs that year, then bowed out in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers, then jumped out to a 5-0-1 start the next season.
But it has been a complete disaster since. With the firing of GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma, Pegula has continued to throw good money after bad. The next coach the Sabres hire will be the fifth of Pegula’s tenure. The team has a record of 188-232-62 with Pegula as owner and his team has not played a playoff game since that Game 7 loss to Philadelphia six years ago. In fact, the Sabres have become a prime example that money cannot buy a championship. Money spent wisely can win championships, to be sure. But money frittered away on the wrong players and the wrong people running the team allows you to do nothing but spin your wheels.
He has had ample help in Buffalo, but Terry Pegula got the Sabres into this mess and it’s imperative that he gets them out. Not content to be an owner who sits in the background and hires people to do their jobs, Pegula has placed himself front-and-center. When he bought the Sabres, he didn’t need to go spouting off about winning the Stanley Cup and spending all sorts of money. Sabres fans were just grateful that they had someone who was willing to provide some stability and save their team. The words Pegula said that day now ring very hollow, and are a stark reminder to all those rich guys out there that running a successful sports franchise is a completely different challenge than running a successful business.
Perhaps it’s just a perception, but the Sabres seem to be the NHL’s longest-running soap opera. They seem to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. Prior to the Murray-Bylsma firings, all the talk was whether or not Jack Eichel was a coach killer. He had some very pointed comments about his teammates and organization during the exit interviews and a report surfaced, which he and his agent denied, that he had no interest in signing a contract extension with the Sabres if Bylsma was kept on as coach.
This is the furthest thing from the winning culture Pegula seemed so bent on establishing when he took over. As is the case in any endeavor, the culture that is established starts right at the top and filters down. It is absolutely essential that he go about changing the culture by hiring the right people to run the hockey side of things and let them do their jobs. Whether that means bringing in Dean Lombardi as GM, who perhaps would give Darryl Sutter another coaching job, or hiring someone from outside the NHL’s GM and coaching recycling bin, this might be the most important hire Pegula makes. To be sure, between his hockey and football teams, even he has to be getting tired of paying people not to work for him.
By all accounts, Terry Pegula is a good man and a stand-up guy. And we know he has a lot of money. He’s a billionaire, which seems to have a lot of currency these days. A lot of people voted a billionaire into the highest office in the land on the logic that if he could run businesses that successfully, he could also run a country. Of course it’s not that easy, either in high-stakes politics or relatively low-stakes sports. But the sooner Pegula makes the right choices in Buffalo and gets out of his own way, the better off the Sabres are going to be.