Terry Pegula prefaced his remarks at the groundbreaking for the HarborCenter project on Saturday by taking a jab at himself. “At least I can do something without Kim helping me,” the Sabres owner said.
Check that. Kim Pegula, who has a background in public relations, might have stopped her husband right there.
“I’m a little confused,” Terry said next. “I’m sitting on the stage between Mayor [Byron] Brown and Ted Black, yet I look over there, and I’m wondering, is something backwards here?”
That one went over like a slap shot to the face. There was a stunned silence, and then some uncomfortable laughter. Pegula finished with a lame comment about Brown and Black, the Sabres’ president, starting a law firm.
At least no one booed, which amounts to progress with our NHL team nowadays. Of course, the room was mainly populated by politicians and various other civic and hockey dignitaries, who had gathered to pose with shovels and cheerlead for the $172 million project on the Webster Block.
It was a happy occasion for the city, to be sure, a chance to celebrate real progress on the waterfront, a generous venture that will go a long way toward realizing Pegula’s vision of a Hockey Heaven at the foot of Washington Street.
But it also provided further evidence of the owner’s fumbling grasp of basic public relations. Pegula has been an evasive figure over the last year or so. He didn’t bother to comment after the Sabres missed the playoffs last year. He still hasn’t commented on his decision to fire Lindy Ruff two months ago.
Hearing Pegula utter clumsy, off-color remarks on the big day, you understood why Black and his PR troops would be reluctant to set him loose in public. The Black and Brown stuff was fairly harmless. I’m not suggesting that Pegula is racist, just guilty of dubious judgment.
Whether it was intended or not, it sounded as if Pegula was making a comment about the darkness of the mayor’s skin. (“Boy, we got a dark mayor here!”).
Some of the politicians were rolling their eyes, believe me.
In a brief, contentious gathering with the media later, I asked Pegula what exactly had been the point.
“Inside joke,” he said.
Very inside, evidently. Pegula wasn’t any more revealing in the rest of his three-minute press session, which began with a team executive asking for our cooperation and urging the media to ask questions only about the HarborCenter project.
Pegula doesn’t have a clue. It would have been one thing if he had already gone on record about firing an admired coach who had been on the job for 16 years, or offered the slightest comment on his team’s putrid showing at any point during the season.
He said this wasn’t the time for discussing Ruff’s firing. He was right. The proper time was two months ago, when he did it.
Cooperation? Here’s a deal, I told Pegula. We’ll avoid asking hockey questions if you cooperate and assure us you’ll talk after the season this year.
“We’ll see,” he said. “Yeah, we’ll see, that’s what I said.”
I tried to give Pegula the benefit of the doubt when he came here. He created genuine optimism when he bought the team and began spending big money on the arena and the roster. It’s great that he and his wife wanted to invest their money in one of our most precious and undeveloped resources.
But there’s an aloof, even flippant, quality to the man. It’s as if Pegula feels he should be above criticism from the media. He has only reinforced the suspicions I had on his first day in town, when he said the writers from our newspaper were partly responsible for the Sabres’ struggles.
Reasonable fans understand that criticism is part of the deal. Pegula said winning the Cup was his only goal. He said it would take three years. The Sabres will likely miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
It’s not mean or negative to suggest his team has fallen short of the mark, or to expect Pegula to be man enough to face the heat now and then. Black speaks for the club on a weekly basis. Darcy Regier does, too. The players stand in their spiffy new locker room and face the music after losses.
Fans can be very forgiving in this town. They’re not happy with the team, and for good reason. But they respect a guy who’ll take a hit and doesn’t run from trouble. Pegula is the one who made the promises and swore his allegiance as a fan. He’s not your typical owner. Fans deserve more from him.
Pegula arrived like a conquering hero two years ago. I remember the outpouring of emotion in those early days. He made it sound Saturday as if he had distanced himself emotionally from the team. But Sabres fans want to believe that the owner is one of them.
He can still be a hero in this town. The HarborCenter project will sail along over the next year, an escalating monument to the Pegulas’ commitment to Buffalo.
They should be applauded for resurrecting the Rigases’ vision for the Webster Block and proving things can get done quickly in this town.
But it’s reconstructing the rubble of the team that is most vital. Pegula needs to take a hard look at his hockey operation and figure out how to build the Sabres back into a contender. It starts with recognizing that replacing Regier is another long overdue local reconstruction project.
The HarborCenter project will make the city an international hockey destination, a gathering place for the sport on every level. But the notion of Hockey Heaven is mainly about the NHL team, about restoring the Sabres to the level of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Regier won five playoff series in his first two years in Buffalo. Assuming the Sabres miss the playoffs again, it will be five series wins in the last 14 years. And still, they pretend to be closer to the ultimate goal.
I imagine the owner isn’t the only one who’s confused and wondering if something is backwards here.