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Under Pegula, there's trouble in hockey heaven

It has become a joyless, redundant exercise to criticize the Sabres and their owner, Terry Pegula. You're whispering into a tornado of denial, helpless in the face of one man's refusal to entertain the wide-held notion that his general manager might be a problem.

I hesitate to raise my voice, knowing that the local business community might rise up in protest out of fear that Pegula might turn tail and decide not to use his billions to rescue our hapless little town from financial ruin.

Pegula spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time since the Sabres missed the playoffs. He gave a half-hour interview to the team's flagship radio station, WGR-AM 550. Suffice it to say, the exchange wasn't nearly as contentious as the one Ted Black and Darcy Regier faced in the end-of-season press conference.

There was no sense of anger or urgency from the owner. Pegula made the Sabres out to be a rising power in the NHL, a team that is executing Regier's master plan by assembling a stable of talented and hard-working young players who will one day realize the owner's stated dream of winning the Stanley Cup.

And Regier? Pegula showed the utmost confidence in his embattled GM. It had to be tough for disillusioned fans, the ones who believe Regier should be replaced, to hear that Pegula still has an unqualified belief in his GM.

Pegula doesn't see Regier as the problem but as the perfect man to lead the Sabres out of the wilderness. After all, Regier learned at the foot of Al Arbour, who built those great Islander teams about half a century ago.

“When you look at the history, even with the Sabres, what's he done wrong?” Pegula said. “Help me out here. I'm going to ask the question. You gonna talk about some of the past deals. Maybe someone was holding the painter's hand while he was doing the painting. I don't know.”

Boy, when it comes to outlandish quotes, the Sabres are the gift that keeps on giving.

We can add “What's he done wrong?” to the hit parade: Larry Quinn talking about a mulligan; Ted Black saying winning and progress aren't necessarily the same thing; Regier asking the fans to get ready for some suffering. Now Pegula completes a Fab Four of clueless commentary.

Pegula tries to come off as some folksy regular guy. But what I've detected lately is an aloof arrogance, a disdain for anyone who dares question how he runs his hockey team.

It's not Regier who is the problem, it's the nasty media that keeps poking holes in the operation. I'm convinced that one of the reasons Pegula has dug in on Regier is he doesn't want the critics to be right. That's some way to run a professional sports franchise, isn't it?

What has Regier done wrong? How much time do you have? Do you want an entire list, or the Cliff Notes version?

How about missing the playoffs twice in a row, four times in six years and seven times in 11? How about the fact that in 16 years, he has yet to draft a player who finished better than tied for 15th in NHL scoring? Or that he has never drafted and developed a true No. 1 center?

Staying too faithful to underachieving players, like Tim Connolly? Making all those bad moves at the trade deadline? Failing to bolster his defense when the Sabres had a shot at the Cup? Staying too long with Lindy Ruff? Botching the Briere-Drury situations? Overpaying Ville Leino, among others?

Regier has become a joke around the NHL. Despite renovating the locker room and making it a crime to step on the logo, he has a recruiting problem. Pegula admitted as much when he talked about the trouble luring free agents. His two best players, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, don't want to be here.

Of course, it's no shock to hear Pegula defending Regier. He extended Regier's contract before the season. For all we know – he still hasn't addressed it – Pegula doesn't feel Lindy Ruff did anything wrong, either. Maybe he had to be prodded into firing Ruff, one of his heroes.

Early in the WGR interview, Pegula said he didn't want to talk about the previous ownership. Then he did just that. He wasted no time reminding us that Darcy's hands had been tied under Tom Golisano – or to use his metaphor, that “someone was holding the painter's hand.”


Pegula was clearly looking to heap blame on Golisano and Quinn. He came with an agenda, the same as Black and Regier in the season-ending presser when they kept telling us the rebuilding began at the 2012 trade deadline. Their strategy is more transparent than the glass surrounding the rink.

Of course, Pegula wasn't pressed on Ruff during the interview. The “Hockey Hotline” house men didn't ask about raising ticket prices 4 percent and announcing it on Fan Appreciation Night. No reference to the owner's infamous remark about drilling another well. Nothing about the “suffering” theme.

It was interesting to hear Pegula carry on about the Bruins, and what a close, hard-working group they have. That's how Sabres fans have felt for the last, oh, 30 years or so. They dream about rooting for a tough, competitive team that wears out the opposition, a team they could embrace, like the Bruins.

Pegula says he wants players who are tough and work hard. Gee, when did he figure that out? And if the Sabres haven't been tough enough for the last 16 years, whose fault is that? Who put together those teams that never seemed to possess the competitive edge that prevails come playoff time?

Regier, the same man who will be expected to preside over the rebuilding.

The owner said he wants to reward workers. That's what he did at East Resources, the natural gas drilling company that made his fortune. He has put his trust in Regier, who rewarded Drew Stafford, Connolly, Tyler Myers and others whose work ethic and production hasn't matched the investment.

Pegula loves to use his success in the natural gas business as a model. He doesn't understand that running a sports franchise is different. That makes you wonder if his business bonanza wasn't just luck.