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Prospective Sabres buyer wows panel; Credentials, passion impress NHL officials

Terry Pegula left a good impression during a meeting with the NHL executive committee Saturday morning, showing off his regular-guy personality while confirming he has both the financial strength and passion that would make him a successful owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

Pegula met with the five-member panel before the NHL held its full board of governors meetings and then flew back to his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was not available to comment, but it appeared the billionaire from Pennsylvania remained on course to purchase the Sabres within the next few weeks.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman would not speculate on when the deal, which includes $175 million for the Sabres and an additional $14 million in liabilities, would be completed. Bettman has been impressed with Pegula and his love for hockey and said the longtime Sabres fan has the credentials to become a good owner.

"I've spent time with him on multiple occasions," Bettman said after a news conference in RBC Center as part of All-Star weekend. "I think he's a good guy. He has the resources. He's familiar with the area. I think when he lived in Pittsburgh he was a Sabres season-ticket holder. He obviously loves the game. He's investing in it on all levels."

Pegula has eluded publicity surrounding the purchase for the past two months, a practice that continued Saturday when he slipped away from the Umstead Hotel & Spa in nearby Cary, N.C., without speaking to reporters. Ben Bouma, his spokesman, said Saturday that Pegula had no comment.

All indications pointed toward him breezing through the NHL executive committee meeting, where he answered questions from a five-man panel and presented preliminary plans for the Sabres once he becomes owner. The meeting started at about 8 a.m. and lasted less than an hour before he left town.

"He was very impressive," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "He's down to earth, he's normal and he spoke about his passion for the game. He spoke about his passion for the Sabres and about this being a lifelong dream to own the Sabres and operate them. And he talked about his vision for the future."

Pegula built his $3 billion fortune through East Resources, a natural gas and oil company he sold for $4.7 billion last year. He donated $88 million to Penn State, enough for a new ice arena to start Division I hockey programs for his alma mater. Sources have said repeatedly he wants to build a perennial Stanley Cup contender in Buffalo.

"He has some pretty substantial resources behind the club and making it successful long term," Daly said. "He wants to see it be successful on the ice. It was a good session."

Pegula, 59, was hoping to close on the Sabres before the NHL trade deadline Feb. 28, which would give him a head start on shaping the franchise's immediate future while giving him a jump on next season. It was not clear Saturday whether he would be able to succeed in that mission.

Buffalo has several players who are in the final years of their contracts and could be traded with the idea management would have more room to operate under the salary cap next season. The Sabres have struggled for most of the season before going on a 9-3-1 run before the All-Star break.

The next step will be gaining approval from the full board of governors through a vote that's expected in the next few weeks. Pegula shouldn't have any problem passing through the other 29 owners given his financial stability and interest in buying a team in a small but strong hockey market.

"The status of the transaction, I'm not going to speculate as to whether or not this is the week or there will ever be a week," Bettman said. "That would be for Mr. Pegula and the Sabres and current ownership to announce if and when they're ready."

Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn had planned to attend the governors' meeting, but did not make the trip. Quinn did not return a telephone call Saturday. Vice president of communications Michael Gilbert said Quinn's flight into Raleigh was canceled. Gilbert also said owner Tom Golisano did not plan to attend the meeting.

Owners and governors leaving meetings Saturday had little to say about Pegula other than acknowledging that Bettman had informed them of the earlier meeting. Pegula has been hushed because he feared his attempt to buy the franchise would fall through after one attempt failed several months ago.

One power hitter who figured to support him was Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the board of governors and chief of the executive committee. Jacobs is chairman of Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos., and long has been a proponent of keeping a competitive team in his native city.

"He's a very well-met guy," Jacobs said. "He made his own wealth, and he's a very nice man."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com