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FLYERS UPSET SABRES
Pegula brings fans new hope

A mid-April snowfall had subsided. Tony Vuich, who has been a Sabres fan for as long as he can remember, stood in the bitter cold on the plaza outside HSBC Arena.

It was still 2 1/2 hours until Game Three, but Vuich wanted to be there early. He wanted his son, Anthony, to remember.

"My first memory was the game against Philadelphia in the fog in '75," Vuich said. "I was only 7 years old. But sure, I remember watching it with my dad. I still have all my hockey cards from back then."

Vuich pointed to the sign in his son's hand. In yellow and blue, it read, "Terry and Kim Pegula, the Proud New Parents of Stanley, born 2011." There was a drawing of a Stanley Cup, wrapped in a blanket, like a newborn.

It was a nice sentiment, if a bit premature. But Vuich wanted the Sabres' new owner and his wife to know they have breathed new life into the team, that they have reconnected people to their childhood memories and instilled a newfound hope into this hockey-mad community. "Oh, yeah," Vuich said. "I think everybody believes in the team now, more than ever.

"(Pegula) has brought a whole new attitude to the team. It all starts with leadership."

Half an hour earlier, Pegula had been standing inside the arena, looking out at the snow and waiting anxiously for his first home Stanley Cup playoff game as owner. Dressed in sneakers and a windbreaker, he looked more like one of the Sabres' fretful fans than a billionaire sports owner.

And Pegula is a fan at heart. That was instantly clear on his first day as owner, when he looked over at Gil Perreault and began weeping. He came across as a blind fan that day. He seemed hopelessly naive when he insisted the Sabres were on the right track and didn't need to be torn apart at the trade deadline.

He saw the team from the optimistic perspective of a fan, and that's why he connected with them on such a personal level. It can be useful for a skeptic to see things through the eyes of a fan now and then. There is something essentially human about keeping hope when things appear futile. It is, after all, what being a Buffalo sports fan is all about.

Pegula believed, and on Monday night he got his reward. His first home playoff game. Belief is a powerful thing.

"Yes, it is," Pegula said. "When I first met the guys in the organization, from [Sabres General Manager] Darcy [Regier] on down to the players, I thought there was something here. I sensed it. Knowing what a horrible start the team had this year, and seeing what had transpired right before I bought the team, I could see it definitely turned around."

The Sabres went nearly two months without losing two straight under Pegula. That streak ended Monday in Game Three as the Flyers won, 4-2, taking a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Still, after the way the team finished under its new owner, it would be unwise to count them out.

There's a renewed faith in the Sabres in this town, and you could sense it Monday night. It reverberated through the plaza, which was jammed despite the unseasonable cold. And it was palpable inside the arena, which was louder than I can remember in the final moments of pregame and the opening period.

The video countdown on the scoreboard was tremendous. Someone in the organization was clever enough to recognize that the Sabres had won 16 regular-season games under Pegula down the stretch. It takes 16 wins to win the Cup. "16 to get in it, and 16 to win," the scoreboard pronounced to the roars of the home crowd.

The playoffs are always an exhilarating time. But there's a feeling among Sabres fans that the team's recent run will be sustainable, that Pegula has the will and resources to ensure long-term success. Even if this postseason falls short, there's a sense that the franchise is in good hands for years to come.

That includes the owner's wife, Kim, a former public relations worker who has been working behind the scenes to help enhance the Sabres' culture. At 6 p.m., Kim and three of the Pegula children stood against the glass doors near the ticket office behind the stage where Terry was addressing the crowd in the plaza.

As the new owner stood on the stage, saying a few words, the crowd chanted "Terry! Terry!" and "Let's Go, Buffalo!" "It's a lot more than we ever expected, that's for sure," Kim Pegula said. "It's very humbling, and kind of funny to hear the people chanting his name, because that's not how we see him."

She laughed at the notion of her low-key husband as some hockey rock star. "Our kids said, 'If people knew dad, they wouldn't be chanting his name.' They make fun of his sneakers and his bad jokes."

"I heard fans out there making fun of the sneakers," said Laura, the eldest Pegula daughter. "Getting up there and saying a few lines was a big deal for him. He likes keeping to himself. He doesn't like the spotlight. But my dad was a fan before he became an owner, and he's still a fan. So the things he says inspire the fans."

Missy Reichard and Sarah Abato concur. Reichard, 21, and Abato, 18, painted their faces yellow and blue for the playoffs because Pegula's enthusiasm inspired them.

"He's true," Reichard said. "A true man, as in, real men cry. I feel like he represents us. He knows we're going to win the Cup some day. If we don't get it this year, next year will do."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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