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On Terry Pegula, the Sabres and creating Hockey Hell

Follow Brandon on Twitter @B_Schlag.

It should’ve been obvious at the time.

When Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, it was impossible not to get caught up in all the hype. We were swept away by the money, by the endless possibilities a billionaire and his Stanley Cup aspirations presented to a sports town desperate for relevancy.

But, in retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming. We forecasted Utopia — the perfect owner with a flawless plan. Were we that naive to expect Hockey Heaven overnight?

Pegula’s Tuesday appearance on WGR 550’s “Sabres Hockey Hotline,” if anything, exposed a few warts on the man that once could do no wrong. We’ve seen now, at the least, that he’s far from perfect.

So, entering the third offseason with Pegula as the Sabres owner, what should we expect going forward? Are the Sabres really going about this the right way?

Pegula’s plan — the “three-year plan” that he once proudly declared would bear immediate results — has proven a bit ambitious, to say the least. Seven playoff games over two and a half seasons isn’t at all what anyone, including Pegula, had in mind on Feb. 22, 2011.

As such, the frustration has gradually begun to sink in, and Pegula seems stubbornly reluctant to adjust his ideals to accommodate a challenge that has become far more arduous than he initially thought.

The problem is that there’s a fine line between persistence and obstinance. What if it’s not just an overreaction by the media and fans and Pegula’s loyalty to Darcy Regier is, in fact, misguided?

During the interview Tuesday, just after the 16:00 mark, Kevin Sylvester asked Pegula whether or not he envisions the Sabres mirroring the approach of the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins.

To paraphrase, Pegula responded, “We need to be more like the Bruins,” referencing the team’s work ethic and hard-nosed style of play that has made it the NHL’s model franchise.

You hear it all the time: “We need to be more like the Bruins.” Not just from Pegula, but from tons of Sabres fans and the like, and it’s the reason these past few seasons haven’t gone according to plan.

Pegula showed up and we were arrogant enough to believe the Sabres could spend their way to becoming the next Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings, insert name of recently successful franchise. We were the cocky know-it-all interns, armed with more money than ever, finally on a level playing field with the veterans. Now that we have Pegula, we thought, you might as well just give us the Cup.

The other teams we're quick to knock the Sabres down a peg. We've since learned the hard way that that's not how it works.

You can’t buy success in the NHL. It takes time, effort and a dedicated team of people willing to do certain things that no one else is doing.

It’s how the Bruins became so good. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli had a unique vision and he executed it to a T. The players and fans bought in, and look where they are now. Now every other team in the NHL is on a mission to “be like the Bruins.”

It’s no coincidence that the league’s best teams operate under this business model. If the Sabres are seeking that distinction, they’re going to have to adopt a more forward-thinking mindset.

Buffalo doesn’t need to be Hockey Heaven. That’s been done before. The Sabres need to create Hockey Hell — become the team that everyone in the league fears and envies all at once.

In five years, the NHL’s other 29 franchises should be saying, “We need to be more like the Sabres.” That all starts with Pegula and thinking differently, and it’s sad that he doesn’t appear to be doing so. Not yet, anyway.

A part of me thinks Pegula’s sour relationship with the press has him more focused on proving everyone wrong. It's as if his vision of building a championship hockey team becomes more clouded with every Bucky Gleason "Fire Darcy Regier" column.

Pegula seems genuinely distraught when outsiders have something negative to say, a Sabres-against-the-world mindset, and that’s worrisome.

Is this a call to end Pegula’s stubborn loyalty toward Regier? Not directly. But sticking with a general manager of 17 years isn’t exactly progressive thinking.

Unless the old dog is in the process of learning new tricks, there’s going to be bad hockey played at First Niagara Center until Pegula figures it out. I have no doubt that he, one day, will figure it all out. But, by then, how many years will we have wasted?

“This is my way of of doing things," Pegula said Tuesday. "I’m not saying it’s the right way … but it’s my style. So I’m going to do it my way.”

Of course, we could all just as easily be wrong about the direction of this franchise. Maybe Pegula's way is the right way.

Who's to say that is isn't? Time will tell.

We’re entering the most important Sabres offseason in years. If Regier hits a few bulls eyes in the draft and free agency, Pegula may very well get his last laugh.

Then again, who could see that coming? 

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