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The Winter of Our Discontent

Examining the Relationship Between Terry Pegula and Buffalo Sabres Fans

Atlanta Thrashers v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Buffalonians are a hardy stock and we do our best to meet the winter season with courage and resourcefulness. We comb our hair with snow shovels, gargle with rock salt, and tunnel out of our kitchens for periodic expeditions in search of gas and milk and cold beer at affordable prices. Yet even the most courageous among us winds up kneeling in surrender to lake effect snow. Winter in Buffalo is not something to be enjoyed or embraced, it is something one survives.

That winter survival instinct tends to heighten our emotional response to anything that gives us relief from the season of darkness. Like our forefathers before us, we faithfully pant through the Turkey Trot and nod off at Midnight Mass. The mere whiff of a winter storm warning leads to feverish prayers for a snow day. Looking for proof that Buffalonians will embrace any ridiculous excuse to forget about winter for a few hours? Allow me to introduce you to the World’s Largest Disco.

The biggest respite from a Buffalo winter has come in the form of six ounces of black vulcanized rubber. On December 2nd, 1969, Seymour and Norty Knox descended down from the gray clouds overhead and gave us an NHL hockey team. Behold, oh pasty white citizens of Buffalo, for unto you this day a Savior is born and his name is Gilbert Perreault.

For almost half a century, the Sabres have comforted us through blizzards, power outages, and roughly 8,797 closures of the Skyway. They’ve given us a happy diversion from obsessing over the heating bill and wondering how we’ll make it in to work tomorrow morning. There is a connection between team and town in this market that does not exist in any other NHL city.

When Terry Pegula purchased the Sabres in 2011, it seemed like he might be the Gilbert Perreault of NHL owners. Pegula was a Sabres fan’s fever dream come true: a longtime follower of the Blue and Gold; a guy who openly wept at the sight of the French Connection; a passively cocky billionaire who desperately wanted to win a Stanley Cup. It was almost as if the ghosts of Seymour and Norty had returned to Sabreland, only this version of the Knox brothers had four billion dollars in his bank account.

The next few years confirmed all first impressions of Pegula. He spared no expense to upgrade the arena, bolster the scouting staff, and sign any free agent who was willing to come to Buffalo. He spent an estimated 22.7 gazillion dollars to play a key role in the redevelopment of the waterfront. In his crowning achievement to date, he metaphorically punched Jon Bon Jovi in the face in front of everyone in the cafeteria and kept our NFL team here in Buffalo.

Bon Jovi’s broken nose is in the rearview mirror now, but recent events leave me wondering if Pegula’s fervent love for the Sabres is also a thing of the past. It feels like the majority of Sabres fans still love Terry and are interested in pursuing a long-term relationship with him, but we’re starting to wonder if Terry is thinking that we should both see other people.

At the very least, Pegula certainly seems to be sending out mixed signals lately. Is he the guy who opened his bank account and his heart to fly in every man who had ever played a single game in a Sabres uniform for an epic family reunion, or is he the guy who gave us a pair of cheap One Buffalo sunglasses to thank fans for their loyalty to an underachieving team? Is he the guy who roadtrips to Traverse City to get a firsthand look at Sabres prospects, or is he the guy who abandons the team’s traditional year end awards ceremony and replaces it with a sponsored video package?

It is understood that Pegula doesn’t micro-manage the Sabres game presentation crew. He isn’t the guy who places the order for 10,000 pairs of crappy sunglasses for Fan Appreciation Night. I’m not sure how much he gets up to Key Bank Center to watch the Sabres play in person these days, but even if he is down in Boca Raton 24/7, word of this type of ignorant, tone-deaf decision-making must filter its way back to him. How can a man with such a sincere love for the Buffalo Sabres support anyone who treats the team’s loyal fanbase with indifference and condescension?

Spare me the oft-stated view that no one will care about any of this game presentation stuff once the Sabres start winning more games. A first class organization treats its fans with affection and respect no matter where the team is in the standings.

As the Sabres head into another challenging offseason, Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray are getting no small measure of heat from fans. Some of that heat is justified and some of it is unfounded, but a bigger concern lies beyond the coach and GM. As the team starts to examine the product it puts out on and off the ice, it’s time to ask an uncomfortable question: is the Sabres’ sole reason for existence still winning a Stanley Cup or has Terry Pegula’s attention turned toward other interests?