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Sabres exit excited about coming back; Players believe changes being made by Pegula will make the team the complete package

The package from the Buffalo Sabres arrived at their employees' homes this week. It was obvious right away this was not an ordinary delivery.

The box was addressed to the spouses of the team's workers, not the employees. It also came while the Sabres were in Philadelphia, which was precisely the point.

Frequent and extended business trips can be tough on families, something Terry and Kim Pegula noted during the back-and-forth travel of the playoffs. The Sabres' owners decided to say thanks to the people who get left behind.

The gift alone was magnificent -- think legendary Manhattan boutique, not strip-mall dollar store -- but the note that accompanied it shined even brighter.

"Thank you for lending us your husband on the road," the Pegulas wrote. "It's a special gift that you give us, and we want to give you something back."

The families were floored, not just because of the extravagance but because the Pegulas added their personal touch. The owner took over in February and vowed to provide a positive working environment, promising to do everything he could to develop a first-class organization. He's delivering.

The improved attitude and increased excitement accompanied Pegula's players out the door Thursday.

The Sabres, still disappointed to pack their gear for the summer instead of for the second round, cleaned out their HSBC Arena lockers with a good feeling. They headed into the summer steadfast in their belief the team is moving closer to its goal of a Stanley Cup.

"With Terry coming, I think he set a mind-set that a lot of guys really, really like and care for. I know I do," leading scorer Thomas Vanek said. "Not that [previous owner] Tom [Golisano] was bad. I enjoyed having Tom. I think he was good for us.

But Terry just brings another element, just the way he talks to guys. He cares. You can tell he cares so much, and that's what hurts even more is you let him down, too.

"Going forward, I think the mentality is in the right place. That's a big boost."

The Sabres usually leave town in the spring hoping the team will be improved when they come back. This time, they're leaving knowing it's going to be better.

"We feel good about our ownership," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "Terry is a caring guy, and he's excited about hockey. He's excited about the Buffalo Sabres, so we're in a great position that way. Let's see what he can do.

"He's been nothing but upbeat and positive. He's been around before and after games. He's been a presence, and I expect him to be a presence during the summer."

Pegula has already made it clear he expects the Sabres to communicate better this summer. The players' main contact last offseason was the occasional text to see if everyone was alive, but now Pegula wants the team to take advantage of its friends and family plan.

"Hockey is going to be a passion," Miller said. "It's encouraged throughout the organization. It's not just the seven or eight months you're obligated to be here. It's a 12-month process. So we'll just take a little bit of a break, and we'll start to evaluate.

"It's something where we talked about being in better communication with each other over the summer, through the organization and also as friends and teammates, just checking in, making sure everything's going the right way. We're getting ahead on that stuff."

While the players chat with each other, Pegula and the rest of Sabres management -- President Ted Black, General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff -- will talk amongst themselves to determine how to improve after another first-round exit. The four will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. today in the arena to discuss the past season and look ahead.

The Sabres, like most teams, need help at center and defense. In the past, they would have relied on trades or prospects to fill the holes. Free agency is now a viable option, thanks to Pegula's wallet and welcoming attitude.

The available players could be impressed by both.

"It's tough obviously because of tampering stuff, but everybody has got buddies you talk to," said right wing Drew Stafford. "Everyone else notices without anyone really saying anything. They notice the attitude. They see us as players, and it's really nice to see the support Terry has for us.

"We're just starting. He came in late, but after a full summer, the first summer of really taking control, we'll see what happens. We're excited."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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