Terry Pegula recently made a trip to his favorite college, Penn State, to watch the football team play Alabama. The game featured legendary national powers, universities that rarely meet, so he was ready for excitement. He was ready for an uplifting weekend.
By the time he headed back to Buffalo, the Sabres' owner was completely dismayed. It wasn't just the lopsided loss by Penn State that ruined his visit, it was that everyone he encountered expected it. He must've talked with 50 friends and fellow alums, and not a single one figured the Nittany Lions had a chance. Not one.
"Nobody believes down there anymore," Pegula said. "It's difficult."
The weekend reinforced Pegula's belief that attitude impacts results. Of course the result was negative, he thought. The entire vibe nudged it that way.
He and the Sabres are ready to test his theory in the other direction. The mood in Sabreland is off-the-charts positive. Since he bought the team in February, Pegula has improved the roster, locker room and arena. More than that, he's improved morale. He's brought the winning attitude Penn State used to have up to Buffalo.
"We've got that here now," Pegula said. "We believe we can win. Just because you talk about it doesn't mean you're going to do it. I don't think anybody in here is foolish enough to believe it's going to happen just because you want it to, but it's definitely the way to start."
According to the team, it's the only way.
"There's an energy around the room. We're not going to deny that," center Paul Gaustad said. "We have high expectations, and we want to be champions. It's been a really positive atmosphere around the locker room."
The 2011-12 season begins Friday when the Sabres play the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki, marking one of the most-anticipated season openers in team history. Fans and players can't wait to see what gift the Sabres present next. It's been like Christmas for the past eight months, and the holiday cheer shows no sign of subsiding.
The Sabres have treated their followers to three new faces: forward Ville Leino and defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff. The fans have had season tickets delivered to their homes by players and Pegula. The team will return to newly named First Niagara Center next week to find a completely renovated locker room.
"Just the whole outlook has changed," Ehrhoff said. "They want to take the extra step to be a competitive team and play for the Stanley Cup. That was my goal, to be on a team that's really committed, and ownership has shown that right from the start. I talked to them, and I think right from the start when I got here they made sure they're serious about it. It's probably only the beginning."
> Newcomers are good fit
The on-ice arrivals have jacked up the expectations considerably. On paper and throughout the preseason, the trio provided exactly what the Sabres needed.
"We feel like the guys coming in complement what we have already," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "What we're looking to do is try and develop a game that can spread across the league when you talk about matchups. We need to be able to play against 29 other teams and match up, and not just compete but beat different styles of hockey."
Regehr and Ehrhoff bring a veteran presence to a defense corps that lacked experience. Regehr also brings toughness, while Ehrhoff adds offensive skill. Leino is a much-needed center, a proven playoff performer who can complement Derek Roy.
"We've got all the elements we need to be able to go out and compete, and compete at a top level," defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "All the cards are there for us. It's just a matter of us putting the pieces together in the right place. We're excited. Yeah, we're confident, but not overly confident."
The newcomers have arrived during a time of massive change, so each mixes into the scenery. Ehrhoff will make $10 million this season, but it's not discussed much because the Sabres also committed $38.5 million to defenseman Tyler Myers. Leino received a huge raise, but so did the ceiling in the dressing room.
Every change is one small part of a grand plan.
"They don't have to be world beaters, but they have to be good players for us," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I don't think any guy needs to be painted in the picture that they have to be the savior. We don't need a savior. We just need the level of our team to be a notch up to give yourself a chance to compete and contend."
Contending for the Cup is what nearly everyone expects.
"People here now, myself included, you talk about championships," General Manager Darcy Regier said. "You want that. You want to do it. You hope you get off to a good start, but ultimately you've got to have the conversation, you've got to talk about it, you've got to put it right up front and center, and you've got to go after it."
> A whirlwind start
The Sabres are quick to warn a championship won't be easy. The Sabres thought they improved their roster last season, too, but they started terribly and needed a second-half surge to make the playoffs.
Chemistry takes time to develop, injuries happen. The teams that deal with adversity best end up as winners, and the Sabres feel that's where their refreshing attitude will help.
"When everything's going right, everyone's happy," Roy said. "When something starts going bad that's when you see who the leaders are and who your real teammates are and who's out there to play hard. There's going to be some tough times this season, we know that, and we've got to stick together as a team and play hard."
The Sabres start the season in whirlwind yet intriguing fashion. They begin with the Ducks in Helsinki, then they fly to Berlin, Germany, to play the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. Of note: The last three Stanley Cup champions have started the season in Europe.
The Sabres hope their worldwide good vibe makes them the fourth straight.
"That's the bottom line. You've got to win," left wing Thomas Vanek said. "It doesn't matter how much you spend, how nice of a locker room you have, how nice of a carpet you have. If you don't win, you don't win.
"Guys are more excited about the changes and stuff, but I've said it before as far as hockey goes, I still think the mentality is the same. Our goal from Day One since I was here [in 2005] is to win the Stanley Cup. That doesn't change just because we're getting a new locker room and we've got a new great opportunity. But obviously, it's different. The atmosphere is different."