Two weeks ago, during a meeting with management, Sabres owner Terry Pegula took the floor to make something clear. He wasn't backing away from his obsession to win the Stanley Cup by any means, but also he didn't want his people sweating over their futures if they flopped early in the season.
His message was only a slight deviation from one he had been delivering since he walked through the door -- or fell from the heavens -- and landed in the lap of a proud, championship-starved hockey town. He has been up front and consistent about his aspiration to win it all. However, he didn't want his desires to be confused with his demands.
In fact, he was in the midst of soothing his troops and explaining he had no demands about winning now when Sabres coach Lindy Ruff interrupted him with a message of his own.
"Lindy cut me off," Pegula said with a laugh the other day by telephone. "He said, 'No, Terry, we do have to win now. You know what? Winning now is good. That's not bad, Terry, that's good. And we need to know that.' "
Now, the focus is clear. The Sabres will be looking to take their place among the mighty this season while understanding it could take time for their newcomers to get adjusted and their roster to snap into place. The Sabres are over the salary cap and need to make decisions, so players can expect a competitive atmosphere when training camp opens in a few weeks.
They want to have a good preseason and a strong start. The first two months of last season were a mess for a talented Buffalo team that was going through the motions under a listless owner. Their biggest need wasn't a winger or a center or better defensemen. It was an attitude adjustment.
Looking back, it was Pegula's first and greatest contribution. The shift in mind-set began when it became apparent that Pegula was purchasing the team. It continued when the Sabres learned he was committed to winning. It was confirmed when he stood before the masses and spoke with passion and conviction about his sole purpose as an owner.
It started at the top, and that's where the tone will be set.
"If we come out of the chute 0-9 this year, everybody is going to be going skitzoid," Pegula said. "But you gotta believe you're not an 0-9 team, and it will get better. You can't have the Sword of Damocles hanging over the players, coaches and everybody's head. You have to stick with the team."
The Sabres aren't going to start the season as the NHL's best team. They don't have overwhelming talent, the most depth or even the top goaltender. Just know that they aren't far away, either. They will enter the season just as capable of winning it all as any other team.
Hey, why not this year?
Rather than shying away from the goal, or fearing the goal, the Sabres are following their leaders and embracing the goal. Pegula hasn't backed off an inch. In fact, it's been the contrary. The Sabres are inching, if not leaping, toward becoming one of the top teams in the league.
"I've heard some comments, 'It's time to put up or shut up. You say you want to win and all this stuff,' " Pegula said. "Well, isn't that why every team should exist? I don't think we're special. Everybody, and I don't care what sport you're in, you're supposed to do your best to try to win."
In a perfect sports world, winning championships would be the objective. For the most part, it has been a foreign concept in Buffalo. The Bills for years have been collecting ridiculous profits without making any real effort to contend. The Sabres made half-baked attempts to win, so long as they broke even on the balance sheet.
Well, times have changed.
The Sabres were aggressive in the offseason and added veteran defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino.
Pegula on Regehr: "Buffalo is going to love him. He's a leader, just a class act."
On Ehrhoff: "He was good enough to be voted defenseman of the year three years in a row on that team [in Vancouver]. We're really excited about having him join us."
On Leino: "One of his coaches said he was the hardest-working player ever to come out of Finland. He's the kind of guy you have to have on your team to win Stanley Cups."
On all three: "One thing I like about these guys is that they all lost in a Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals. That has to be pretty good motivation for them."
Let's face it, Pegula is the gift that keeps on giving.
He spent some $8 million on the dressing room alone, another $5 million or so buying the Rochester Americans. They're adding scouts and tweaking operations. One way to solve their salary-cap problems is having players in training camp duke it out for roster spots, making them that much stronger and deeper.
Every offseason move was made with the Cup in mind.
Pegula neither requires nor desires a place in the spotlight and has quietly remained behind the scenes throughout the summer. He owns a private jet but spoke last week while driving through a rainstorm along Interstate 83 in Pennsylvania after watching his daughter, Jessica, play in a U.S. Open tennis qualifier in Washington. He has mostly been away from the persistent buzz in Buffalo about hockey season.
"I'm aware that there's some increased [excitement] for the Sabres, and it's even around the league," he said. "One of the things we wanted was some respect. A lot of the other organizations are looking at us now and saying, 'These guys mean business.' "
The Sabres will have 12 games on national television. Boston and Philadelphia are the only two teams that will have more than Buffalo. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup. The Flyers have been among recent contenders.
Buffalo is evolving into a great story, and outsiders are paying attention. It means the Sabres will be playing on a bigger stage. With the attention comes greater expectations, more pressure and fewer excuses. Nobody understands this more than Pegula. And nobody, starting with Pegula, is backing away.
"It's obviously a good thing," Pegula said. "I said before I bought the Sabres, to my wife and myself, that an owner in sports has one job, and that's to be liked. That's the only job I have. There's only one way to be liked, and that's to win.
"I feel that we're going to have an interesting season this year. You know what our goal is. We're going to try to achieve it."