Terry Pegula took a break from the disappointing season his Buffalo Sabres are having to bring the city a bit of good news.
Pegula – who is seldom seen or heard around Buffalo – was in town on Saturday to take part in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the organization’s $172.2 million hotel and ice rink complex that will rise across from First Niagara Center.
Pegula told the 100 or more people in attendance that the Sabres organization would be aggressive in attracting hockey players, coaches and personnel to Buffalo, where his new HarborCenter will serve as a first-class venue in which to play, train and learn about the game.
“In February 2011, when Kim and I bought the Sabres, we talked to each other about what NHL ownership means to a community where your team is located,” said Pegula, who was accompanied by his wife Saturday.
“We also discussed, how can our ownership affect and help the people in the region in which we live?” Pegula said. “Since our core business is hockey, we thought, ‘Why couldn’t we start and build a facility that would attract hockey players, coaches and professionals and create a teaching facility that would be aligned with the Sabres organization?’ ”
HarborCenter will include two ice rinks, a 200-room hotel and an 845-space parking garage. It also will have a 12,000-square-foot sports bar and 8,000 square feet of retail space.
Work is under way at the site, which is bounded by Washington, Perry, Main and Scott streets.
The opening of the rinks is scheduled for September 2014. The hotel is expected to debut in the spring of 2015.
“This facility will improve Buffalo’s visual image. It will bring business to Buffalo,” Pegula said. “It will create a venue families can recreate at, and it will create a world-class teaching and training facility.”
“This is not a small task,” he added. “Many will be involved, but it will succeed.”
Cliff Benson, chief development officer for the Sabres, thanked local officials for moving quickly on the project and talked about how the idea was conceived one day while he and the Sabres owner stood on the balcony of Pegula’s office.
“Do you want to do something to change the waterfront?” Benson asked him.
“Yes,” Pegula told him.
“He didn’t say ‘Yes, but.’ He didn’t say, ‘Yes, what will it cost?’ – although he did ask me that later,” Benson said.
“He didn’t say, ‘Yes, will it make money?’ ” Benson said. “He simply said, ‘Yes,’ and what happened from there has been a great experience for the Sabres organization.”
The groundbreaking ceremony was held prior to Saturday’s Sabres game, under the cover of a large tent on the 1.7-acre construction site.
The Pegulas, Sabres President Ted Black, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz used shovels fashioned from hockey sticks to dig into a pile of dirt.
Afterward, members of the media surrounded Pegula, anxious to ask questions about a losing Sabres season that saw the firing of the head coach, the trading of the team’s captain and ongoing questions about the direction of the franchise.
But the Sabres kept the focus on the groundbreaking for HarborCenter, which also brought out former Sabres, including Pat Lafontaine, Danny Gare and Michael Peca, as well as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
“We knew this could be a great project for this community,” said the mayor, who selected the Sabres proposal for the Webster Block in August following a competitive bidding process.
“But the magnitude of this project even has exceeded my wildest expectations of what we were going to be able to bring to the community,” Brown said. “This is tremendous progress, not just for downtown Buffalo and the waterfront, but for all of Buffalo and all of Western New York.”
As a youth hockey coach, Poloncarz said he is looking forward to playing tournaments in downtown Buffalo rather than in Cleveland or Toronto.
“This is emblematic of exactly what’s going on in this community,” Poloncarz said. “We are seeing hundreds of millions of dollars of redevelopment going on from the private sector, because people are putting their faith in the City of Buffalo and Western New York and it starts right here in front of First Niagara.”
But like his team’s season, Pegula’s event wasn’t entirely without drama.
Firefighters picketing outside the arena with a bullhorn could be overheard during the ceremony, while Pegula’s remarks about two people onstage with him – Brown and Ted Black – led to an uncomfortable moment.
“I’m a little confused, I’m sitting on the stage between Mayor Brown and Ted Black, yet I look over there, and I’m wondering, is something backwards here?” he said.
There was a silence and then bewildered laughter before Pegula started again.
“Ted said they’re going to start a law firm, Brown and Black,” he continued.
Afterward, Sabres spokesman Michael Gilbert said it was an inside joke among the three men and the remark had no racial overtones.