The National Hockey League season finally starts in Buffalo today, more than 9½ months after the Sabres last played a game in First Niagara Center.
In the wake of the NHL’s 113-day lockout, does that feel like a long time to you? Just imagine if you owned the team.
“It’s good to be back. I can tell you as an organization, the Sabres are very glad to be playing hockey again,” owner Terry Pegula said Saturday during a season-opening news conference in the FNC’s newly named Lexus Club. “We apologize to the whole hockey fan base, the media, our sponsors and our supporters for the hardship we may have put people through, but sometimes things happen that you don’t plan for in life.
“I can tell you this: We truly are excited about being back. We welcome everybody into our arms and let’s try to make a go of it this year.”
The Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers meet today at 12:30 in a game that will be broadcast nationwide by NBC. Doors open at 10:15 a.m. and all 19,070 tickets have been sold.
Many owners apologized to fans for the lockout last week so Pegula’s official words were expected. Pegula then turned to something that wasn’t: The announcement that he has signed General Manager Darcy Regier to a contract extension.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Regier signed a two-year extension in the fall of 2010 with previous owner Tom Golisano. His contract, however, was not believed to be expiring after the season.
Regier has been the Sabres’ GM since 1997. He and coach Lindy Ruff make up the longest current coach/GM relationship in the NHL.
“Darcy is a talented guy,” Pegula said. “I know from some of the stuff I read that maybe not everyone agrees with that, but he’s got all the resources now. We work very well together and we’re looking forward to the future.
“We have great communication in the hockey department. No egos. Everyone is pulling in the same direction and it’s a very good situation. The creativity. Looking for players, drafting, free agents or whatever. It’s almost like making a painting. Everybody has got to be on the same team.”
Regier said he was grateful to Pegula for the vote of confidence even in the wake of the Sabres’ disappointing 2011-12 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the third time in five years. The Sabres have not won a postseason series since 2007, their second year of back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals.
“I actually feel added pressure but it’s more intrinsic than external,” said Regier, 56. “The intrinsic relates to Terry and the ownership. There’s very strong family unity within this group. The other part, quite honestly, is when you’re involved with a team in this community having lived here as long as I’ve lived here, you’re no longer an outside-hire GM.
“You feel an obligation to the community so it creates more internal pressure to get the job done. Quite honestly it’s good pressure to have.”
Both Regier and Ruff are now on contract extensions. Ruff last year signed what is believed to be a three-year deal with an option for a fourth in 2014-15.
As for the lockout, Pegula said he felt it was necessary to ensure that teams with struggling finances would get revenue-sharing boosts to remain viable.
“My stand was I’m part of a team of owners,” Pegula said. “I definitely felt we all needed to be united in the things we wanted to get for the league.”
Pegula, a Sabres fan dating to the franchise’s early days in the 1970s, said he had sworn off watching hockey after the 2005 lockout that canceled that season. He said his daughters got him back into the game, leading eventually to his purchase of the Sabres in 2011.
“So I can understand if some fans are extremely upset because I was one of them at one time,” Pegula said. “We have to do our best to win those people back.”
So far, the Sabres don’t seem to be having many issues. There are just 12,000 tickets left for the entire 24-game home schedule and five games are sold out. Merchandise has flying been out of The Sabres Store all week thanks to a 50 percent off sale, with lines of fans waiting to get in stretching into the arena pavilion.
The fans are ready and now Pegula says it’s up to the team.
“You’ve got to look at every season to try to win the Stanley Cup,” Pegula said. “Look what happened last year [when the Los Angeles Kings won the championship as a No. 8 seed in the playoffs]. Since I’ve been owner, I’ve watched two teams [the Kings and Boston Bruins] win the Stanley Cup and both of them took about 40 years to do it.
“It’s not something you win every year as an organization but I think our team is a lot different than the team I inherited when I bought it. It’s got a new imprint on it, a new mark. It looks like a good hockey team.”
In other news discussed Saturday:
• Regier said the team has already started the process of deciding what to do about the contracts of goaltender Ryan Miller and wingers Thomas Vanek and Jason Pomvinille, all of whom have deals that expire after the 2013-14 season.
• Team president Ted Black said the Sabres’ $123 million Harbor Center project on the Webster Block remains on schedule for a March groundbreaking.
• Pegula, the top athletics donor at Penn State, used the term “totally inaccurate” to describe reports he provided $1.3 million to the salary of Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien to keep him in State College and have him drop pursuits of an NFL job.
The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported the donation in December and the story was picked up by virtually every major media outlet in Pennsylvania.
“That report is so far off base I don’t know where it came from,” Pegula said.