As the Terry Pegula Ownership Era begins in Buffalo, my hope is that it’s an improvement on the Tom Golisano Ownership Era.
This is not to say that Golisano, the exiting owner of the Queen City’s Sabres, is a perfidious cad on par with Jon Gosselin or ‘Boots’ Del Biaggio. Golisano saved the Sabres from bankruptcy and possible relocation in 2003 and spent far more than the league-mandated minimum required on team payroll.
The bigger picture isn’t so kind to Golisano, a billionaire businessman who (a) ran for governor of New York three times; (b) lost all three of those bids; and (c) eventually moved to Florida to escape New York’s tax system. While he never spent the bare minimum on player salaries with the Sabres, he never spent to the maximum, either - and he cut costs across the organization, including the whittling down of the scouting staff in favor of video scouting.
In the end, Golisano owned the team, but wasn’t driven enough by the love of the sport or a natural competitiveness to keep up with the NHL’s elite franchises. And while it’s within any owner’s right not to lose his or her shirt on a sports team, I’m tired of seeing the poor people of Buffalo have to hear about having their team “run like a business”.
You know what? Mike Ilitch, Ted Leonsis and Eugene Melnyk don’t run their NHL teams like businesses - at least, not like businesses that have to turn a profit. Those three men knowingly and willingly let their other businesses subsidize a chance - and that’s really all it is: a chance - at winning hockey’s most glorious of prizes.
You never got that impression from Golisano. He was in it, but didn’t want to win it at all costs.
Meanwhile, look at the impact Jeff Vinik is having in his first season as owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning: he hired a top-notch up-and-coming GM in Steve Yzerman (who would never have left the comforts of Detroit without assurances Vinik would spend every penny needed to build and sustain a Stanley Cup competitor); he announced the purchase of the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm; he donated $10 million to local charities over the course of the next five years; and he invested $35 million in upgrades to the St. Pete Times Forum.
If that doesn’t endear Vinik and his employees to the Tampa Bay population, nothing will. Well, winning will, but as observers of hockey in Dallas are discovering, not even consistent competitiveness is a guarantee fans will respond.
The people of Buffalo, however, have hockey in their blood, hearts, souls and underneath their nails. Sure, attendance dipped during a three-year slump after the turn of the century, but since the 2003 bankruptcy/relocation scare put the fear of the hockey gods into them, Buffalonians have worn their love for the game on their sleeves and in their wallets. Considering the economic state of the city, their continued patronage of the Sabres is nothing short of astounding.
The loyalty demonstrated by Sabres fans – and, after the revolting 2004-05 lockout, of hockey fans in general - prove it would be disingenuous to suggest hockey franchises are the same as any other business, when clearly they are much more.
In a time of fractured entertainment experiences, pro teams are one of the few glue-guns any big city has left to try and build a sense of community. They’re an oasis of honest emotion in deserts of blunted nerve endings. They’re water-bombers to douse the forest fires set off inside us by the grind of everyday life.
That, in essence, is what Pegula is getting himself into. At first glance, there is a lot to like about him; he has donated $88 million to Penn State University - the largest private gift in the school’s history - to fund a state-of-the-art arena and establish an NCAA Division I men’s hockey program and a Division I women’s program.
Having that kind of money deleted from your bank account would finish the grand majority of us, but Pegula can afford it, having recently sold his energy company to Dutch Royal Shell for $4.7 billion.
That brings me back to my original point: if he’s serious about succeeding in the NHL, Pegula cannot be bound by the Sabres’ small-market status. He has to work with the league, its revenue-sharing program and, ultimately, his own ego to bankroll the organization the way the best of them do, not just on the ice, but off of it as well. He has to look at the reticence of long-time coach Lindy Ruff to re-sign with the franchise and ask himself if they’ve really been doing all they can in Buffalo during the Golisano Era.
And if Pegula does all that and still insists on pinching pennies, he shouldn’t be buying in to this dream-realizing business to begin with.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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