Tears were inevitable. Terry Pegula knew as much long before taking the podium Feb. 22 and introducing himself to Buffalo as the Sabres' new owner.
He prepared the best he could under the circumstances. He knew his children would be sitting in the front row, a few feet away. He knew Gilbert Perreault, his favorite player, would be somewhere in the HSBC Arena atrium. He knew their presence would intensify emotions that already were running high that day.
But it goes deeper, much deeper.
Eloise and Myron "Rip" Pegula couldn't spare a nickel 50 years ago, when their son was growing up in Carbondale, Pa. (pop. 8,100). Eloise took jobs in the garment industry to help put food on the table. As the story goes, Rip once jumped from a second-story schoolhouse window, started working in the coal mines and never looked back.
They were good, honest, selfless people, hard workers who were raised during the Depression. They had a shortage of money but gave Terry and his sister a surplus of values. Heaven knows how many sacrifices they made so Terry could attend private Scranton Prep High and build a life better than their own.
Pegula's story sounds like the one each generation passes to the next, but his wasn't born from fiction. He really did hitchhike 15 miles back and forth to school. He really did work at age 14, driving a truck in the mines when he was too young to have a license. He really did mind his manners, keep up his studies and put himself through college.
His $12,000 salary from his first job after graduating from Penn State in 1973 was twice what his father ever made in a year, a fact that for years made him feel guilty. A decade later, he borrowed $7,500 to start East Resources Inc. The company made him a billionaire after his parents died.
Pegula couldn't stop thinking about those moments before he was introduced, and he was overwhelmed by the time he took the microphone.
"It's what went through my mind above all this stuff, looking at my kids and 'Where's Perreault?' " Pegula said. "My parents. Neither one was around to see anything I had done later in my life. I grew up, um, we didn't have much. My parents, trust me, when I got out on my own and started my business, they never asked me for anything. They weren't selfish at all. They gave and gave and gave. My mother was always trying to get me to be better. It was never about her."
Well, that certainly explains a few things now about him.
The Sabres have become his sixth child, his baby, and he wants them to be better. Pegula has spent an estimated $220 million on them, when you include the franchise fee and subsequent upgrades, in the past eight months. His commitment to winning a championship has changed the collective attitude of a proud hockey town that's starving for one.
Buffalo has always wanted to win, but not since the Knox family founded the franchise have so many players wanted to win for their owner. He has done everything expected and more, but he still doesn't understand all the hoopla. The attention makes him uneasy. He certainly didn't buy the team to turn a profit any time soon.
What's the big deal?
The story, he says, shouldn't be about him.
Ironically, Terry, that's why it is.
People are drawn to him because he arrived with a ton of dough and not an ounce of pretense, a quality passed down from his parents that people find fascinating. He's a sports owner who makes winning his top priority. It's a rare combination that's particularly welcomed in Buffalo, where the bottom line for years trumped all else.
"I'm very uncomfortable with this God-like image that people are starting to throw at me. Trust me, I'm very uncomfortable," he said. "It's time to drop the puck and play hockey. I'm really going to try to backpedal from the front of this thing. Let the players get all this adulation and the coaches or whatever the media is saying about the Sabres. Let me be an owner. Let me hide."
That's the beauty of Terry Pegula.
He either genuinely doesn't know or refuses to acknowledge that he's the reason for the excitement and optimism regarding his team. He's just your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill, humble multibillionaire who purchased his favorite team for all the right reasons without forgetting his roots. Some see him as a savior.
Simply, he's a good guy, a cool dude.
For all the money he's spent buying the Sabres, sprucing up the arena, signing players, handing out raises and purchasing the Rochester Americans, people have a greater appreciation for the little things Pegula & Co., have done that don't cost a dime. He insists that it comes from his wife, Kim, and others in the organization.
Take, for example, Kim Pegula and team president Ted Black. Upon hearing their employees were swamped on Slug Appreciation Day, they left their offices and began bagging merchandise and running cash registers. How many owners' wives and team presidents volunteer in the team store?
"I need to set the record straight," he said. "It's all Ted Black and my wife. I like to stay on the hockey side. They're coming up with all of this stuff with the fan experience and all the non-hockey things. People should know that."
Kim Pegula was the one who thought the Sabres needed a new dressing room. It started out as a $6 million project and is now nearing $10 million. Black is behind the upgrades throughout First Niagara Center and improving relations throughout the community. He's another class act. Both are smart, warm and unassuming, much like Pegula.
Last season, Terry Pegula and Black greeted fans in the atrium before games and thanked them for coming. They blew off the owner's suite and watched several games from the 300 level. Several weeks ago, they canceled a limousine and drove around town delivering season tickets. And they drank beer with a fan who greeted them Buffalo-style when answering the door.
It's easy to pull for them because they get it.
Soon enough, people will realize Pegula and a hockey town smitten with him have the same essential values. He introduced himself to Buffalo while wearing a suit and tie, but he's really not a suit-and-tie guy. Really, he's just one of the guys.
Pegula still has his mother's canceled checks for $412, which covered tuition at Scranton Prep. Now, he's paying it forward.
Eloise and Rip would be proud.
"My father used to tell me -- I don't know if he said this once to me or five times a day -- that if I ever had my own business, I better treat people right," Pegula said. "He was one of the guys out there [laboring], and maybe he wasn't treated right. He might have only said it one time, I don't know, but it stuck."