Terry and Kim Pegula’s hearts are always in the right place. They have been loyal to Western New York. They have saved both the Buffalo Sabres and Bills from outside investment and potential relocation (football more than hockey). They have invested billions into downtown Buffalo. They have stabilized the business of pro sports in that city. And what do they have to show for it? A disgruntled fan base, and it appears, dysfunction on the operations side of the sports world.
The latest chapter for Pegula Sports and Entertainment saga appears to be the knee-jerk reaction typical of a fan. Rumblings of player discontent with coach Dan Bylsma have been permeating for the past eight weeks. Jack Eichel’s alleged claim that he wouldn’t re-sign with Buffalo if Bylsma remained only exacerbated those rumblings.
This is certainly far from the dream that the Pegulas had when they purchased the team from Tom Golisano in February of 2011. They were fans of the hockey team. Terry waxed poetic about his love for the early Sabres, and Gilbert Perreault and his French Connection linemates Rene Robert and Richard Martin. He has always paid respect, and continues to to pay respect to Sabres greats, as any true fan would.
What has followed is a constant roller-coaster ride of emotions for the hockey team that could hardly be described as healthy. And it appears to have started from Day 1, from the overpayment of Ville Leino, to the Pat LaFontaine experiment, then the return of Ted Nolan and dismissal of president Ted Black, the Sabres always appear to be in a constant state of flux. And now, after a few years of being the saviours of the Sabres, the Pegulas are now being criticized for not creating a world of stability for the hockey team.
A state that occurs when ownership feels it knows better than the hockey experts. We’ve seen it before in other cities, and I suppose we always will. It is after all, their money.
The Buffalo rebuild has taken time. It appears it will take longer than both Edmonton and Toronto. As a Sabres fan, that has to be frustrating.
Just imagine being a fan and the owner. It’s even more frustrating, but ex-manager Tim Murray should not be blamed for losing the draft lottery for Connor McDavid. Nor can he be blamed for Auston Matthews being born two days after the deadline day for the 2015 draft, and potentially a better second-overall pick than Jack Eichel.
Where Murray can take some blame, perhaps, is signing Byslma to a contract, rather than Mike Babcock (who rejected the offer from Buffalo). There's also the fact that Murray’s plan was taking longer than those of Peter Chiarelli and Lou Lamoriello, which I believe mitigated his position with ownership. Rebuilding most franchises takes time. Well beyond drafting generational players.
There are things that had to happen with the Sabres. A coaching change? Yes. There’s no doubt Byslma lost support of the roster in Buffalo. There was a total disconnect.
As one insider told me, "Dan Bylsma was selling himself and his system. The players weren’t buying what the salesman was selling.”
Where Murray erred was being an old-fashioned hockey guy, falling on his sword and not firing Bylsma when he was asked. But the disconnect the players had with the coach pervaded into the owner's suite.
And that’s not healthy.
As the owner, you have to trust what your manager believes. It probably isn’t in the best interest of the franchise, if the whim of a fan becomes team policy. It is a recipe for disaster. The rebuild isn’t anywhere near finished, and now they have fired the architect.
From a business perspective, it makes no sense. From a fan's perspective, it is the norm. And you can’t run a professional sports organization if you’re a fan. You have to have trust in the technocrats to build your team for the long term. And no one knows what that timeline truly is, particularly the fans… owner or not.
Being a fan, it would appear, got in the way of being an owner, again.