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Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame: Michael Peca's presence is a gift, leads to WNY's hall

People notice Michael Peca. When he was playing hockey, his determination on the ice allowed him to lead off it. As he transitioned to the business side, his smarts and clearly defined vision opened doors and closed deals.

Those close to Peca have defined it as a presence. He's humbled and honored by the word.

"I think the presence is just over time you earn people's respect," the 43-year-old said. "I know people that I respect a great deal, they have a great presence when they enter a room that I'm in because you value what they do, what they believe, how they carry themselves.

"If people feel I had that presence, it's pretty neat."

The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame feels he has it, which is why he'll be inducted as part of the Class of 2017 on Nov. 1. Peca knows the history and importance of the hall because its home is in the atrium of the Sabres' arena.

"I've walked by that display for many years and seen all the great people and athletes that are in there, so to be one of them now is pretty cool," he said.

The primary reason for Peca's induction is his time with the Sabres. He played in Buffalo from 1995 to 2000, and he captained the Sabres to the Eastern Conference final in 1998 and the Stanley Cup final in 1999.

Goaltender Dominik Hasek was the elite player and Miroslav Satan was the offensive catalyst, but it was Peca who molded the group into a team.

"Michael was a guy with a ton of character in him," said former teammate Jay McKee. "He led on and off the ice. Not just what he did on the ice but who he is as a person. He made for a great leader, and this is an honor that he's well-deserving of."

There are two types of leaders in hockey – the rah-rah type and the lead-by-example kind – and Peca was definitely the latter.

"I was always generally a pretty shy guy growing up," the Toronto native said. "Even early on in my career, even early on as a captain, I tried to lead by example. I tried to let what I did show what I was as a leader more than what I said.

"When you're like that, as you start to speak it carries more weight because you're not just talking to talk. You're talking when you feel there's value to what you have to say."

That attitude goes a long way in Buffalo, where fans value effort as much as any other trait. Peca's work ethic earned him NHL awards (the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward in 1997 and 2002), a key role on Canada's gold-medal Olympic team in 2002 and local endorsement deals. He and his Western New York wife, Kristin, were regulars on television ads.

"I think the city is a reflection of my own personality and the way I went about it, and the friends that I have," Peca said. "They're all guys that came from very humble beginnings and had to work hard their whole life to achieve success. I think the city just has that blue-collar mentality.

"I love the people in Buffalo. I really can't imagine living anywhere else."

Michael Peca wasn't big, but he played like he was. (Buffalo News file photo)

Though Peca's ending with the Sabres was far from amicable – he sat out the entire 2000-01 season after failed contract negotiations with former owner John Rigas and then-General Manager Darcy Regier – he stayed in the area through stints with the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.

After retiring in January 2010, he watched his son, Trevor, skate in local rinks. It led him to the secondary reason for his hall induction.

Michael Peca has been instrumental in transforming the youth hockey scene. He grew up in a structured organizational environment in Toronto, and he saw it was lacking it Western New York. He turned down assistant coaching opportunities in the NHL to immerse himself in area sports.

He helped the Buffalo Regals grow and gain admission into the South Central Triple-A Hockey League (SCTA). The Regals are the only U.S. organization in the 10-team alliance, which features groups based in the Ontario cities of Hamilton, Guelph, Brampton and Burlington.

"He was the main guy and the main reason why the Regals organization was able to go into the SCTA," said Larry Playfair, the retired Sabres defenseman and director of alumni relations. "That was unheard of. Nobody thought that would happen, and I believe Michael was 95 percent of the reason why that did happen."

Peca became general manager of the Buffalo Junior Sabres in 2011-12, and his success continued. He was named Ontario Junior Hockey League Executive of the Year in 2013.

"In Canada he's well-respected," said Playfair, a longtime Junior Sabres executive. "He was on their Olympic team. All the owners are Canadian, and Michael's presence in the meetings and around the rink during games is noticed.

"I've been around the junior team for probably 10 years, and when Michael walks around and meets the other teams' owners and general managers, there's definitely a difference when they get a chance to meet him and realize what he's doing.

"Michael's made a huge impact on amateur hockey in Western New York and continues to do it."

It's possible Peca's contributions to youth hockey could someday eclipse his success with the Sabres. Either way, both jobs have been noticed in Buffalo.

"Nothing but great memories, on the ice, off the ice," Peca said. "My whole life has been in hockey, and the greatest memories for me isn't the money I got to make, isn't the cities I got to visit, it's always about the friends you make and the relationships you build. That's been the most wonderful thing about the game of hockey for me is the relationships I've gotten over the decades I've been in it."

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