Bucky Gleason: Pegula leading way as Bills, Sabres change course - The Buffalo News

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Bucky Gleason: Pegula leading way as Bills, Sabres change course

Terry Pegula was characteristically elusive Wednesday when he began retreating toward the elevators after the news conference announcing Jack Eichel's eight-year contract extension worth $80 million. It was vintage Pegula, who never has been comfortable with the limelight.

Right when he appeared content with politely declining an interview request and continuing about his business, the owner of Buffalo's two major professional sports franchises made a quick and unexpected U-turn.

"What do you want to ask me?" Pegula said, briefly interrupting an attempt from a public relations man to whisk him away. "Do you want to ask me about Jack Eichel?"

The truth was there were a few items to address in addition to getting the young franchise player of his hockey team locked up through 2025-26. The contract will allow the Sabres to open the season Thursday against the Canadiens without worrying about the potential for a nagging distraction.

But there was more to discuss, much more, considering all the positive energy funneling into the Bills and Sabres over the past week. In a three-day span, the Bills improved to 3-1 and were alone in first place in the AFC East, and the Sabres made the biggest financial commitment to a player in franchise history.

It was a rare opportunity for him bask in the glow of accomplishment, no matter how brief.

"We're in it for the long term," Pegula said. "It is a process. We've been working hard and trying to build."

Jack Eichel happy and humbled to be in Buffalo for the long term

Pegula had been knocked around like a piñata at various times during the process and justifiably so. He made several dubious management decisions shortly after purchasing the Sabres that contributed to them becoming an unsightly mess. The Bills' long and dreaded playoff drought continued for two more seasons under his watch.

For all the upgrades to their facilities, Kim and Terry Pegula should have installed a gold-plated revolving door. They spent an estimated $60 million in buyouts and severance packages to cover hiring mistakes and other personnel blunders, from Ville Leino with the Sabres to Rex Ryan with the Bills.

Six months ago, the two franchises were in shambles. You knew it was bad earlier this year when Pegula started holding news conferences with regularity. He fired Ryan and cleaned house with the Sabres, kicking Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma to the curb, before returning to the Bills and dismissing Doug Whaley.

Amid the chaos, he granted Sean McDermott unprecedented power in the football department even though McDermott had never been a head coach. For a while, Pegula had two franchises, one coach and no general managers before hiring first-time GM Brandon Beane based largely on the advice of McDermott.

Added up, Pegula owned two dysfunctional teams that were going nowhere. The Bills looked so bad that many didn't entertain the possibility of them winning this season and instead directed their attention toward the 2018 draft. The Sabres made so many changes that you wondered if they would ever get their house in order.

Remember the old punchline: Go Bills … and take the Sabres with you.

Now?

The past week has served as a shining moment in Pegula's tenure as an owner. Sure, fans celebrated when he purchased the Sabres in 2011 and the Bills three years later. The region cheered when he helped reshape the waterfront. But he was applauded mostly for what he did for Buffalo while getting ripped for his work with the Bills and Sabres.

Deep in the hills of Pennsylvania, Terry Pegula's other world

For the first time since he showed up with lofty aspirations and no idea how to reach them, Pegula has provided reasons for genuine optimism about his teams. It's amazing how quickly a few unexpected victories for the Bills and a smooth contract negotiation with the Sabres can change the tone.

When he was told as much Wednesday, and he was reminded he had been criticized often over the years, and much came from me, he refused to acknowledge his worst days were behind him. An ordinary guy at heart, he proceeded with the same cautious optimism expressed in every gin mill in town.

"It's early in the football season," he said, "and the hockey season hasn't started, so …"

So don't get too excited.

Pegula knows success, even by meager standards, can be fleeting. He's still finding his way as an owner but appears to have surrounded himself with competent people in both organizations. The likes of former cronies such as Ted Black and Joe Batista seem something from the distant past.

With football people making football decisions and hockey people making hockey decisions, Pegula can do what all owners should: Provide financial and emotional support while getting out of the way so others can do their jobs. Pegula seems more comfortable now than ever as an owner.

"With the people running both organizations, yes," he said. "We're definitely more comfortable. We help when we can, but we've got pretty competent people."

Q&A with Terry and Kim Pegula: Firing Rex, hiring McDermott and fixing the Bills

Who knows? Maybe the Bills' impressive start can carry over to the Sabres, who have stumbled out of the gate for four straight seasons. At least they're assured Eichel — the young backbone of their franchise — will remain for the long haul. Pegula called the signing "a special moment" Wednesday.

And it was.

Eichel is a terrific player who should get better with experience and more talent around him. He sounded like he welcomed more leadership responsibilities and heightened expectations. Let's not forget that he's only one player and watches two-thirds of the game from the bench, but keeping him should add stability.

In fact, nobody of consequence in either organization is going anywhere for the foreseeable future. It's another good sign and refreshing change that could translate to more winning.

You can only hope that the once-bumbling franchises will follow the lead of their owner: Right when it looks like they're intent on marching in a familiar direction, they'll make a U-turn and respond.

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