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Sabres' first year under Pegula a qualified success; Assessment of franchise on the anniversary of its purchase finds much to like, except on the ice

Terry Pegula wanted quietly to commemorate his one-year anniversary as owner of the Sabres. He succeeded.

The foot of Washington Street was devoid of noticeable activity Wednesday. Most of Buffalo's players stayed away, resting after an arduous run of four games in six nights. Aside from shoppers looking for tickets or souvenirs, the atrium of First Niagara Center was barren.

The pomp and circumstance of the previous Feb. 22 was gone.

"That's probably Terry's style more than anything else," team President Ted Black said by phone Wednesday. "I don't even think we even said anything to each other [about the anniversary] when I saw him today. We'll save the celebrations and back-slapping for when we really accomplish what we set out to do."

Pegula turned down anniversary-related interview requests, the only words coming from one of the owner's Twitter-loving daughters.

"A year today since my dad bought the Buffalo Sabres," Jessie Pegula tweeted. "Probably the coolest year of my life."

She also mentioned the first year was just the beginning. There seems little doubt about that.

Folks inside the organization say despite enduring a season with more lows than highs, Pegula and his family are still as engaged as they were that first day, on which there was a coming-out party that drew legions of fans, players, alumni and media.

"I can just tell you that they haven't wavered," coach Lindy Ruff said this week. "Terry's support has been unbelievable."

Drew Stafford saw Pegula's commitment recently during one of the team's lowest points. In the midst of 12 straight losses on the road, a franchise record, the owner stopped to have a chat with the right winger.

"When we were losing those games on the road, we had that streak, I remember running into Terry and he was nothing but positive with us, telling us it will always turn around and giving us a little of that sense of optimism," Stafford said. "It was good having that extra support from him, knowing that he's got our back."

Stafford now hopes the energy from Pegula's first few months resurrects itself as the owner's reign heads toward Year Two. Buffalo went 16-4-4 under the owner to claim the second-last playoff position last spring. The Sabres will need a similar run during their final 22 games to earn a postseason spot this year.

"Last year when he took over, basically we won our way into the playoffs," Stafford said. "There was a lot of good feelings around here. So far, I think that's probably been our best memory. We played our way into the playoffs, and that's obviously something we're trying to do now."

Away from the ice, the successes in Year One outweighed the setbacks:

*Pegula made all of Western New York into Sabreland once again, purchasing the Rochester Americans to be the minor-league affiliate.

*He created a sense of nearly unmatched optimism last summer, acquiring players and handing out contracts that fans had wished for but never imagined possible.

*Pegula and his wife, Kim, transformed the team's dressing room into a veritable palace. It was the most outward example of the Pegulas showing how much they care about their players, but it was far from the only one. Ville Leino received a Buffalo CARE package when he signed with the team. Robyn Regehr got a personal visit at his cottage after accepting a trade. Derek Roy earned an open invitation to hang out while recovering from quadriceps surgery.

"When he took over I was still injured," Roy said. "I was just hanging out in the dressing room and doing my thing, just trying to stay away from the crowd, but Terry invited me into his suite. He was like, 'You can come any night, every night into the suite.' I didn't go every night, but I went quite a bit and they were so nice, very welcoming. That whole group was just really good to hang out with."

*The Pegulas and team President Ted Black have embraced voices from throughout the community, holding blogger summits and welcoming new media into the press box.

*The connection between the team and its alumni has been strengthened, starting with a memorable funeral ceremony for team Hall of Famer Rick Martin and continuing with a 40-year reunion in which every player in Sabres history was invited back for a celebration.

"The biggest thing I remember was last year when they brought all the former players back," left wing Nathan Gerbe said while recalling Pegula's first 365 days. "That was pretty cool for us because we watched a lot of these guys growing up, then you get to meet them in the locker room, that's pretty cool. That's something I'll cherish."

Not everything has been rose petals and rainbows. A disappointing year on the ice has shortened the honeymoon.

"Things probably haven't gone the way he wanted or anybody else here wanted," Leino said, "but he's definitely been a great personality."

The struggles that had the Sabres in last place as recently as the weekend have led fans to scream for change -- any change. Some segments want General Manager Darcy Regier gone. Some think Ruff should go. Others want a roster shake-up.

Black has continually pledged support for the NHL's longest-tenured GM-coach combination. Pegula, in his last public statements in mid-January, absorbed backlash after attributing the team's woes to injuries, not lack of production.

Black said the regime has been "pretty steady" throughout the down times and criticisms. The meetings in the office Wednesday were about "running the business of the franchise," Black said. That seems to be Pegula's plan for the future, whether it's a milestone date or just another Wednesday.

"We didn't get too full of ourselves last year when the team went on a nice run and made the playoffs, didn't get too high even during the highs and lows of a seven-game series," Black said. "That's just more how Terry is wired and how I'm wired. Our goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and everything short of that is going to be a disappointment. Not until it happens will we celebrate."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com