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What Happened to Hockey Heaven?
As we begin to see exactly where the Sabres are headed, I have no feeling but to wonder. Where did the stairway to Hockey Heaven go?
The “Hockey Heaven” concept started well before Sabres fans knew about it. Back on November 30, 2010, Ken Campbell, of The Hockey News, reported that Terry Pegula signed a letter of intent to buy the Sabres. No one really outside of Pennsylvania had any idea who this guy was.
When you Google search Pegula’s name, you would have seen that he was the founder of a gas company called East Resources. From that moment on, the Buffalo sports scene and media focused on what this could mean to the Sabres franchise, and the area, if someone of a $4.7 billion net worth bought the team.
The following spring, during another lackluster season for the Sabres, it was announced on February 18, 2011 that Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres for $189 million. This lump sum included paying off all debt built up during the Golisano era. Immediately at the press conference, you could see that this Pegula fellow was like us Sabres fans. A fan who cared, and who was brought to tears when he was in the presence of his childhood hero Gilbert Perreault.
Pegula wanted to buy a hockey team his entire life, and decided on his favorite team to be the one. Pegula hired a crack staff of people to help run the franchise for him, including Ken Sawyer, who helped mold the current Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pegula also came out and gave a full vote of confidence to Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, which confused some. Buffalo Sabres fans all over the world, shook with excitement at the possibilities of deep and endless pockets to help bring this franchise out of mediocrity.
“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres reason for existence, will be to win a Stanley Cup,” Terry Pegula said, at the introductory press conference.
Following the press conference, the Sabres began talking about Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh as examples of what Buffalo needs to be in the future. The leadership group set forth to make Buffalo a destination for hockey, Hockey Heaven.
As time slowly went on, Terry Pegula continued to make hockey fan’s dreams come true in Western New York. Four months after buying the Sabres, Pegula negotiated and arranged for the purchase of the Rochester Americans.
It was a re-acquisition of the franchise, which had separated from the Sabres in a nasty breakup a few years earlier. This was another step in the process of working on the Hockey Heaven brand.
The Sabres continued full steam ahead towards making Buffalo a hockey destination. Courting Robyn Regehr from Calgary and getting him to waive no trade clause was the start of it all. Shortly thereafter, the Sabres signed Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino. These moves showed that there was some hope that maybe players could see what was in the works for Buffalo.
Aside from the trades and signings, Terry Pegula immediately took to improving the arena, spending millions on a new locker room, player facilities and multiple different upgrades throughout and surrounding the First Niagara Center.
Fast forward to the following season on November 12, 2011. Ryan Miller was plowed at the Boston Garden by Milan Lucic, causing Miller to sustain both a physical and mental injury. The team failed to take a stand, and was walked all over the rest of the season when teams saw the lack of toughness. This seemed to be the tipping point.
The team seemed to decide that it was time to move in a different direction, and in March of 2012, Paul Gaustad was traded for a first-round pick to the Nashville Predators. Darcy Regier has recently referred to this move as “the beginning of the rebuild”.
In the summer of 2012, no quality free agents signed with the team. Buffalo made runs at high priced players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, offering them lucrative contracts that would have competed with the money they signed for with the Minnesota Wild. John Scott ended up being the big fish signed off free agency for Buffalo. The trade of Derek Roy for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy completed the offseason moves.
In hindsight, the John Scott move pushed Buffalo away from a Detroit or Pittsburgh build, and began looking like a build to defend against another Boston incident. The Ryan Miller incident effectively changes the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future, with Regier turning the franchise down the wrong side road.
In the Spring of 2013 after the lockout ended, the Sabres started flat again. The poor start lead to Lindy Ruff being fired after a 6-10-1 start. Many people in the Buffalo media felt that Ruff had “lost the team”. This was only the beginning.
Darcy Regier started a fire sale of all veteran assets, in hopes to stock pile picks and prospects to build for the future. Regier unloaded the roster, starting with TJ Brennan, Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Captain Jason Pominville.
The Pominville trade left only Miller and Vanek as part of the original core that almost got this franchise to a Stanley Cup. The writing for a rebuild was on the wall, with NHL ready to players returning in any of these trades.
Buffalo again missed the playoffs in the lockout shortened season. The offseason did not get much better for Sabres fans. The time off was marred with continual talks of Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller’s upcoming contract situations. While the endless debate raged on, no free agents signed were signed in Buffalo. The trade of Andrej Sekera at the draft was another sign of rebuild, acquiring a pick and Jaime McBain, a defensive plug in.
Fans and media were informed by Darcy Regier after the draft, that they should be ready for a long period of suffering during this rebuild. There was essentially no coaching search, and much to the dissatisfaction of many Sabres followers, Ron Rolston retained retained a full time coaching gig after finishing very poorly following Lindy Ruff’s firing.
Rolston is known for his ability to help with player development, but had no NHL experience prior to taking over for Ruff. With a developmental coach at the helm, it became quickly apparent that the Sabres were going through hitting a rock bottom foundation, in hopes to build from within.
There have been many issues with the fans and the Sabres in recent months. The third jersey debacle became just that throughout the summer. Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott were named co-captains, only to see Vanek traded less than a month later. There was also the Jason Pominville debacle returning with Minnesota.
The Sabres made an executive decision to not put together a public thank you for Jason, bypassing the fan base outcry for such a presentation. This was exacerbated by the fact that in the past this franchise had done something like this for former Captain Pat LaFontaine upon his return with the New York Rangers, as well occurring multiple times throughout the NHL every year.
The season has begun with the worst start in franchise history, and the team is being smeared all over the NHL with the Patrick Kaleta and John Scott incidents. The Buffalo Sabres are currently the whipping boy, laughing stock and joke of the league.
Fans see Pegula focusing on Penn State and HarborCenter, and feel like no focus is being given to the team. No one is doing what needs to be done. There is booing at games, no sell outs, dirt cheap tickets and multiple Fire Darcy chants at the games.
The final nail to show fans where the Sabres are, was the trade of Thomas Vanek. This was the second time in seven months that the Buffalo Sabres have traded a team Captain.
What Happened? Where are we now?
Hockey Heaven is ways away. A true hockey destination for players is not here. There is no end in sight unless something is done. No one will come here. How long do we have to suffer? If we are back to the Pittsburgh or Chicago model, about 4-6 years.
If anything, Terry Pegula has proven in the last two and a half year that he is a fan. He has not proven that he is a legitimate NHL owner to anyone yet. A great philanthropist, yes. A great community activist, yes. An owner for the players, maybe. This needs to change as Sabres are deeper into the hole with fans, media and the NHL then they were three years ago. Steps need to be taken, improvements made.
Hockey Heaven is no more. More like Hockey Hell.
You can follow Adam on Twitter: @Alindz99