Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula speaks during a news conference announcing the new ownership of the NHL hockey team in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - If there were any doubts that Terry Pegula was as big a Sabres fan as he says he is, they were erased when Pegula choked up at the sight of Sabres great Gilbert Perreault in attendance at Pegula's first news conference as the team's new owner.
If there were doubts about Pegula's commitment to bringing a championship to Buffalo, he took care of them, too, by promising all but a blank cheque to general manager Darcy Regier.
"Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department," the Pennsylvania natural gas billionaire said Tuesday at HSBC Arena, with the players he inherits sitting to his left and the ones he spent years watching—Perreault, Larry Playfair and others—at his right.
"I'm going to try not to look this way too much," he said to them, eyes welling with tears.
"He loves the game and this is a dream come true for him," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said before introducing Pegula shortly after the NHL Board of Governors unanimously approved the US$189 million sale of the team from B. Thomas Golisano. "It's also a dream come true for the league because we know this franchise is in great hands."
Pegula immediately put to rest doubts about the future of coach Lindy Ruff, saying he and his staff will remain in place. Ruff, the NHL's only coach to win 500 games with the same team, is in the final year of his contract but did not accept a contract extension offered to him last fall. Regier, also in the final year of his contract, signed a two-year extension earlier this season.
"Panic doesn't seem to work," Pegula said, borrowing a quote from Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney to explain the decision to keep the long-serving pair in place, even as the team struggles for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. "Our feeling is you pick good people and you try to stick with them."
Ruff is the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL.
"It means a lot to me, personally," Ruff said. "For almost 30 years, I've been a Sabre in some capacity or another, going back to when I was drafted in 1979. I said my goal was to win a Stanley Cup, and he may be more passionate than I am."
Pegula introduced Ken Sawyer as the team's senior adviser and Ted Black as president. Sawyer is a former chief financial officer of the NHL and former president and chief executive of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Black spent the last two years as general manager of the hockey television network FSN Pittsburgh after a nine-year run as a Penguins vice-president under Mario Lemieux. Pegula will be chief executive officer.
"Starting today," Pegula said, "the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup."
To that end, he said he'll increase budgets for scouting and video, and bring in more player development coaches to work on rallying player morale by paying attention to everything from locker-room amenities to nutrition.
"You can just tell how much he wants to win," Sabres forward Drew Stafford said, "and you want to win for a guy like this."
With the NHL trade deadline less than a week away, the new owner didn't rule out making player moves, but didn't say whether he has anything specific in mind.
While he is a billionaire in one of the nation's poorest cities—the median household income is under $28,000—Pegula came across Tuesday as just another Buffalo fan aching to see his team win it all, describing seasons past spent glued to radio broadcasts and an 18-year stretch as a Sabres season ticket holder.
"You're my hero," he told Perreault, star struck.
Pegula and his wife, Kim, have western New York ties, having lived previously in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park after meeting in Olean, a 90-minute drive south of the city. Kim is from nearby Rochester. The couple will continue to live in Florida, where one of their five children plays tennis, but will travel back and forth to Buffalo, Pegula said.
At 59, Pegula has an estimated worth of $3 billion and was most recently ranked 110th on Forbes magazine's list of wealthiest Americans. On Tuesday, he was asked whether he viewed his purchase of the team as a business venture. The outgoing Golisano, the billionaire founder of payroll company Paychex, made a hefty profit on the team after buying it out of bankruptcy in a deal valued at $92 million.
"If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well," the founder and former president of the energy company East Resources Inc. responded.
On whether he'll spend to the player salary cap, "We'll put the pedal to the metal as capably as we can," he said. "I don't know if it's wise to spend to the cap every year. But we're not in this to save money, that's for sure."