By Bill Wolcott
Terry Pegula stole the heart of Sabreland on Tuesday, not by promising to bring Stanley Cups to Buffalo — fans have heard that before — or by anything else he said.
The native of Carbondale, Pa., who made billions in getting oil and gas out of the ground, started to cry when he talked about his long-term love affair with the Sabres and his memories of Gil Perreault.
“Gil Perreault, you are my hero,” Pegula said.
“How cool is that?” said Larry Playfair, former Sabres defenseman and head of the Buffalo Sabres Alumni Association.
In his first official press conference as the Sabres owner, Pegula had fun, was assuring and was as straightforward as he could be with the media, but no one expected that emotional reaction. The 59-year-old billionaire quickly recovered and made a joke of it.
He touched a nerve of the 300 folks who gathered at the HSBC arena, and likely caught the Sabres nation off-guard.
Perreault, the first draft choice of the Sabres in 1970, didn’t know what to make of it.
“I was kind of surprised that he was a big fan like that,” said No. 11 who led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals in just five seasons. “Somebody told me he was a big hockey fan in the 1970s and he probably had the chance to watch us play. In the way he spoke, he’s willing to spend a lot of money to win. Time will tell.”
Pegula not only watched the Sabres, but found an overpass in the Pennsylvania hills where he could listen to the games on Buffalo radio.
“Everybody wins in this,” said journeyman Derek Smith. “You can tell with the way he reacted to Gilbert. There’s a passion there. When there’s a passion, I think he’s going to do all he can to helps us win here.”
Pegula was asked what was it about Perreault that caught his attention. “Have you ever seen him skate?” Pegula said. “That's my hockey genesis right there!”
Former Sabres coach Floyd Smith once described Perreault as a “blur.” The centerpiece of the French Connection was regarded as one of the most gifted playmakers in the NHL and was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990.
Playfair, who was born in British Columbia, related to Pegula’s tale of listening to Sabres’ games on a Buffalo radio station in Pittsburgh in the 1970s.
“This guy was unbelievable,” said Playfair. “He tells stories of his early years when he would listen to games when he could catch it on an overpass. I remember when I was kid, listening to the Vancouver Canucks and doing stuff like that. He got lucky in life and through some hard work made enough money to buy a team.”
Pegula is the fourth owner of the Buffalo Sabres, if you don’t count when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took over the bankrupt team. Nobody was counting, not even Bettman. There was Seymour Knox III, John Rigas and Tom Golisano.
Now it’s Pegula. He brought his family to the HSBC Arena for his introduction. The Pegula family wore blue Sabres shirts with “Pegula” and “No. 4” on the back.
“They just gave it to me, but it looks good doesn’t it?” said Laura (Pegula) Biesinger, Pegula’s daughter. “I’ll wear it to bed tonight. I’ll wear it tomorrow.”
Pegula told little stories about his family and said Laura, 28, was the family’s biggest Sabres’ fan.
“Maybe, right behind him I’m the biggest Sabres fan at least of the family,” said Laura, a geologist, who worked for her father at East Resources. “He staked the claim of the city.”
Seymour the III, who brought the NHL expansion team to Buffalo, was the class of the sports owners — any sport. Rigas brought the team to bankruptcy and is in jail. Golisano saved the franchise in the wake of Rigas.
Pegula looks like a godsend. He lured Ted Black, the new president, and Ken Sawyer, senior advisor, from Pittsburgh. He didn’t clean house, but gave strong endorsements to General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff — perhaps irking Sabres fans who were hoping he would clean house.
Pegula quoted Art Rooney, the founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “If you want to be the best, study the best. Panic doesn’t seem to work.”
Pegula was calming, in the wake of a three-game home losing streak. The loss to St. Louis was not like the Sabres, he said. If the Sabres always played like that, they would be 0-55.
Regier noted that Pegula has committed additional financial resource at all three levels, from turning the draft picks into prospects and prospect into players, and ultimately to ensuring players stay in Buffalo. “What he’s done is open areas we haven’t been able to go into,” Regier said.
Meanwhile the team is scratching, but slipping back in their race for a playoff spot. The Sabres need a playmaker. However, a Gil Perreault doesn’t come around every 40 years.