Sabres nation hitting the breaking point
By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
Years from now, when this franchise is again celebrating a decade by decade commemoration as it is doing this season, it will be almost impossible to envision how this team writes a glowing commemoration of these past ten years.
This past week, things around here got ugly, Down right ugly. And there have been past ugly moments that have outraged the fan base… Coach Ted Nolan getting disrespected and shown the door following the 1997 Northeast division title; the franchise bankruptcy following the collapse of Adelphia and subsequent criminal prosecutions; the black day when Danny Briere and Chris Drury both were allowed to leave via free agency. And the restlessness of the fan base these entire past years since Terry and Kim Pegula assumed ownership of the franchise in February of 2011.
This. This moment in time. Worse than any of the above inglorious events. Not even close.
After a lengthy time off for the All Star break, play resumed and this was the moment for the team to capture. A ten game set with nine games at home. A wild card playoff berth well within reach. Players rested and focused and ready to seize the opportunity.
It’s been anything but. The team has gone 1-3-1 in their five home games. The losses have been ugly and virtually unwatchable. Tempers are flaring on the ice, with players Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart slamming their sticks and showing frustrations for all to see. The team is still without two key players – Winger Victor Olofsson and goaltender Linus Ullmark nursing injuries. Putative superstar Jeff Skinner has gone 16 games without scoring a goal. His dazzling performance of last season is just a fading memory. His box car salary is front and center for all to see.
The things happening off ice are just as jarring, and not indicative of what a top tier professional sports organization should be doing. In past weeks, no fewer than two former players have been presented jerseys with their names misspelled, and keen eyed fans also noticed that those same jerseys worn by all the alumni players were cheap knock offs, with logo placement, stitching and embroidery severely lacking.
The arena experience continues to get failing marks, a building turning 25 years old and showing its wear and tear, and not in a good way. Around the NHL and the NBA, peer venues are getting dazzling facelifts and additions of new electronics, technological marvels, and fan comforts. New arenas in Edmonton, Detroit, Sacramento, Milwaukee and San Francisco have raised the bar tremendously for the NHL/NBA patron experience.
In Buffalo it’s just more of the execrable DJ Milk, screeching and slamming his way through hideous pregame shows and intermissions that send most patrons into the concourses to escape the din and clatter of the noise.
And while all this swirls, we have to ask, where are Kim and Terry Pegula?
The Pegulas still enjoy tremendous goodwill and political capital around these parts, despite the on field and on ice failings of their two flagship sports franchises the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.
There is still a common consensus that had it not been for Terry Pegula stepping up to buy the Bills franchise in 2014, that the team would be gone by now. Other than the Bon Jovi bid which was the cruel target of a well orchestrated disinformation campaign, the teams future in Buffalo through the other ownership bids would most likely be over by now.
As for the Sabres? No doubt that another suitor would have come along to buy the team from the Golisano interests.
But both franchise ownership transfers are interesting fodder for speculation.
Sabres owners have always been known for their definitive presence around the Sabres front office, in the community, and at Sabres games. Founding owners Seymour Knox III and brother Northrup Knox rarely missed a home game, visibly ensconced in their lower gold seats at the Aud right between the two players benches.
During the Adelphia era owner John Rigas, diminutive in size but easily recognizable with that shock of white hair, could often be seen at games, walking the concourse of the arena, glad handing with fans, participating in photos, even passing out his cell phone number to patrons having any issues with the arena experience or food quality.
If anyone could be credited with “saving” the franchise it was Tom Golisano, who waved his checkbook at TV cameras while a lengthy bankruptcy saga unfolded at the foot of Main Street. Golisano was a folk hero of sort, wiping out the team’s and arena’s debts with one fell swoop, and then his rag tag franchise came out of a lockout with their best three season run in franchise history.
Golisano was also a regular at home games, until his love interest with former tennis star Monica Seles carried his interests in other directions. He sold the team in 2011 to the Pegulas, almost tripling his investment in 8 years.
With the Pegulas, that sort of face to face interaction has been scarce, and always well scripted. Since assuming presidency of the Sabres in 2017, Kim Pegula has yet to hold a news conference with the media. The two own an estate in East Aurora, but like most people in their net worth class, have legal residency in Florida, which requires that they not be physically on New York soil for more than 182 calendar days in a given year.
Kim Pegula is known to be a very hands on executive, but according to sources within the organization, runs the day to day operation from her location in Florida and by teleconference. Her husband Terry is known to be somewhat shy and introverted, not at all like his predecessors who were each larger than life personalities in their own rights.
Does this make them bad people? Not at all. Their passion for Buffalo, their contributions and investment in the community, their ownership of Buffalo’s two major franchises, have made them the most recognizable, albeit controversial, amongst Buffalo’s most noted citizens.
Pegula Sports and Entertainment is a vast and multi faceted organization which not only owns the Bills and Sabres, but two indoor lacrosse franchises, the sprawling HarborCenter and all the entities that comprise it, other food service establishments both here and in Florida, a record label, and other ancillary marketing and advertising entities. It is no small task for someone like a Kim Pegula, given her humble roots, to oversee such a sprawling empire.
Yet in the wake of this growing business lies many top tier names of on ice and off ice executives who are no longer with the team. Lindy Ruff, Darcy Regier, Ron Rolston, Pat Lafontaine, Tim Murray, Russ Brandon, Phil Housley, Ted Nolan, Ted Black, Mike Gilbert, Bruce Popko, John Koelmel, Erica Muhleman. Did we miss anybody?
Talk to most anyone working at PSE and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that their organization is a great one to work for and one of the happiest corporate cultures to be a part of.
See the dichotomy? What are we missing here?
What we are missing here is a face to face presence with the owners. We need Terry Pegula, and Kim Pegula, here in Buffalo. We need them now. We need them in that locker room, letting their well paid players and coaches know right from their lips that their performance is unacceptable, and that they will be shown the door in a hurry if things persist. We need them in the arena, to face their ticket buying public and assure them that help is on the way and better days are ahead. We need them at the podium at media press conferences, answering the tough questions and assuring the public that they are very much in charge.
Then we need the hiring and seating of a new team president. A guy or gal who understands the hockey department and the marketing department. An individual who will put an end to screeching DJs and appalling number retirement ceremonies (ref Dominik Hasek) and misspelled jerseys. Who can command respect around the league and bring to Buffalo the best in coaches and scouts and hockey geniuses.
The media are not the adversary here. Every one of those individuals who cover the team are fans too. They want this franchise to succeed. They want to write or televise happy stories. They want to keep working through a long playoff run into June. They want to hit the road with the team and bring the story of glory to the winning-starved fans here in Buffalo.
There is talk of a fan protest this weekend .The “#WeAreDuane” hashtag is a prominent one these days, honoring a fan caller to WGR radio who injected his own passion filled remarks about the failings of the team. Oceans of resale game tickets have now hit the $6 floor on Stubhub once again.
Jack Eichel’s stick slamming will not turn this around. Coach Ralph Krueger’s peppy speeches following the games will not turn this around. General Manager Jason Botterill’s report that the owners are “frustrated” will not turn this around.
We need the Pegulas, in Buffalo, stat.
With “2000s night” scheduled for this coming Thursday, February 13 at KeyBank Center, will former owner Tom Golisano be in the building? If so, look for a tremendous ovation to the man that delivered the Sabres from bankruptcy and possible relocation when all seemed lost. Imagine if Golisano and his management team had spent to the cap and gone for broke in that magical 2005-06 season. Sigh…..