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Kim Pegula on KeyBank Center, Sabres and winning draft lottery

ATLANTA – New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills, isn’t the only facility at which Pegula Sports & Entertainment is taking a hard look for potential replacement.

KeyBank Center, where the Sabres play, is also undergoing a thorough review by PSE officials, Kim Pegula told The Buffalo News this week at the NFL spring meeting.

The PSE president and Sabres co-owner/president said replacing the facility is no less a consideration than a major renovation.

“I think everything’s on the table,” Pegula said. “I think they did a great job when they built that place (in 1996) and our staff has been really good about maintaining and putting in a lot of cap-ex (capital expenditure) things over the years, but I wouldn't take anything off the table. We really want to take a really, really big, global look at all that.”

KeyBank Center was constructed during the NHL's building boom in the mid-1990s. Of the 17 venues built then, virtually all of them have had major renovations or are about to and Key Bank Center has fallen behind.

During the Sabres’ 2017-18 season, there was considerable social-media buzz over the poor condition of the building, with parts of the building in various states of disrepair. The issues, as reported by The News in March, range from seats that are dirty or damaged, broken and rusted cup holders, and bathrooms (particularly on the 300 level) that have been without hot water for many years.

Asked for PSE’s priorities in improving fan amenities at KeyBank Center, Pegula gave a broad response.

“Because the building is as old as it is, we want to take a much more global look and gather the information, very much like the stadium issues,” she said.

What's next for Buffalo's aging KeyBank Center?

Pegula said PSE was gathering facts in an effort to determine whether to replace New Era Field, where the Bills’ lease with Erie County runs through 2023. The Sabres’ lease with the county for KeyBank Center runs through 2022.

“If you look at all the venues that we have – between Rochester (for the minor-league hockey Americans), the stadium, KeyBank arena – there’s a lot of work to be done in all those areas,” she said. “So we want to kind of globally take a look at how do we fit this together, even if that is something that we package together. What are the priorities that we can live with and just, in the lease years that we have left, what is it that would make the most sense?

“And there's been so much development in and around the arena, we want to make sure that we're not just putting band-aids on things and that we're not shortsighted. We want to be looking toward more the future of where we end up being and what it looks like. Not just the arena, but the whole area. So, right now, we’re doing internal meetings and fact-gathering and talking to different developers and architects, just throwing out different ideas and saying, ‘What will the future of this whole area look like or possibly could look like?’ ”

Pegula said PSE’s internal conversations about New Era Field and KeyBank Center “can be connected,” because both involve agreements with the county.

“But at the same time, they each have different needs,” she said. “That’s why we’re trying to gather all the information, both from KeyBank arena and the surrounding areas, then over at the stadium, and then looking at it from a much higher level. ‘OK, how does this all look? How does this all play out?’

“Even from financing to fan experience to just working with the city and what are they developing? There's some talk about the terminal behind (KeyBank Center), obviously the proximity to the arena, so we just don't want to be too quick to get into something that’s not going to last, is not going to benefit the whole community and the whole area.”

Pegula addressed other topics related to the Sabres:

On how much the Sabres’ winning the NHL draft lottery and the chance to acquire Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin next month reverses the despair of last year’s last-place finish: “First, winning the lottery is bittersweet because it is something very exciting. It's obviously a huge shot in the arm to our whole fan base and our organization knowing that we will have a pick that many consider is another generational player this time around. But having to endure how we got there is never any fun, as we all know.”

On ownership’s timetable for the Sabres to be a playoff-caliber team: “It’s going to be an exciting time. Now, I’ve learned my lesson not to predict expectations. And you can see from Vegas now becoming a Stanley Cup team finalist. Colorado, New Jersey, teams that were bad last year have great success this year. The NHL is always talking about the parity amongst the teams, so to put any expectations, certainly, I wouldn't want to do that at all. But knowing that we have a core of young, skilled players in our system and coming up and part of our future, there’s something to be excited about for sure there.”

On how much concern the Sabres have over season-ticket holders fleeing in the wake of a last-place season and how much impact winning the draft lottery had on sales: “I don't know, specifically, the actual sales numbers on that. Obviously, we’re always concerned. The fan base is really what makes our organization and our team, so whenever we lose that confidence from the fans and we see slumps in season-ticket sales, certainly that’s always a concern of ours. I’m sure that for fans who were on the brink of either renewing their season tickets or just deciding how much engagement they want to go into next year, getting this pick, certainly, I hope that changed their mind and they're hopeful again.

“Obviously, I listen to and read the media ... I haven’t heard anybody say anything bad about (Dahlin). ... Also, we didn’t raise ticket prices. There’s a whole system and a whole metrics on season tickets related to revenue that the league imposes, so we’ve always tried to follow that to make sure that we do the best thing for our organization. But this year, not raising season-ticket prices, I think the letter that (husband and co-owner) Terry and I put out there to our season-ticket holders, we understood and felt what the fans did. And winning this lottery, it really did give us a boost that we needed.”

On the performance of coach Phil Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill after their respective first NHL seasons in those roles when compared to the universal praise the Bills’ Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane received after their first NFL seasons as coach and GM: “Instead of just looking at wins and losses, we were very happy with them. Obviously, they're still our coach and our GM, but we have a lot of confidence in them that they are building this team the right way. Whether it takes them longer than football, that’s to be seen.

“But I really was encouraged and really liked the thought process, the internal planning that Jason has for this team, as well as Phil. They’re learning every day. They were a first-time GM, a first-time coach, so there was a learning curve, a learning process over the last year. And all the discussions that we’ve had with them after the season, we’re really encouraged that we’re going to be moving forward and the foundation is being laid and that they’re going to be a huge building block for us in the coming years.”

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