I’ve never really made any attempt to hide how much of a Buffalo Sabres fan I am. I fell in love with the team during the spring of 2006, when they were a couple injured defensemen away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals to face a far inferior Edmonton team and when I’m feeling down in the dumps, I can usually make myself feel better by watching Chris Drury’s game-tying, series-changing goal with seven seconds left in regulation of Game 5 of the second round against the New York Rangers.
So when I heard earlier this week that the team’s owner, payroll processing mogul Tom Golisano, had finally agreed to sell the team to Pennsylvania natural gas tycoon Terrence Pegula, I was pretty excited. But I was also reminded just how complex most sports fans’ relationships with their teams’ owners really are and just how quickly they can change.
First off, let’s acknowledge that both Pegula and Golisano do have their critics as well as their supporters. Golisano’s been a major political donor in Western New York which means he’s got supporters and detractors in both major political parties and a couple others as well while Pegula made most of his billions in the Pennsylvania natural gas industry so regardless of your feelings on the environment, I doubt Greenpeace has ever named him Man of the Year. As both a sports fan and an aspiring sportswriter, I’ve come to notice that that’s an aspect of sports ownership that that’s not the aspect of sports ownership most fans focus on the most, though. Fans tend to be concerned more with how involved an owner is and how committed they are to seeing their team win.
When Golisano purchased the Sabres in 2003, they were, putting things nicely, a mess. Golisano actually bought the team from the NHL, which had been temporarily taking care of the team, ala the Phoenix Coyotes and the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets in more recent years. The previous owner before that, John Rigas, who owned the cable carrier Adelphia, had been arrested in an Enron-esque embezzlement scandal and the team was pretty much flat broke and probably about to leave town. Everyone viewed Golisano as a savior for buying the team and pouring money into it and when the Sabres went to the Eastern Conference Finals the first two years after the NHL returned from a season long lockout, that reputation only grew.
Then, in a span of less than two years, the Sabres’ two biggest stars, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, left town to sign bigger contracts with Philadelphia and the New York Rangers and the team’s star defenseman, Brian Campbell, was traded to San Jose and signed a huge contract with Chicago. A lot of fans were furious with team management for not shelling out the money to keep the team’s biggest stars in Buffalo and after Golisano moved to Florida, some of them started calling him a cheapskate.
Nothing had really changed, mind you. Golisano was still spending about the same amount of money on the team as when they’d come up a few unlucky breaks short of winning the Stanley Cup and the Sabres still haven’t finished worse than 10th in the Eastern Conference since 2007. In fact, they even won their division last year and are still currently only a few spots out of the playoffs this season. But because the Sabres haven’t been quite as successful in the playoffs as they were immediately after the lockout and because certain players have left the team, the way a lot of Sabres fans view Golisano definitely changed and did so very quickly.
As a Sabres fan, I’m still grateful to Tom Golisano for keeping the Sabres in Buffalo and for the good years they had while he owned the team. If, as he’s hinted, he winds up buying the Buffalo Bills after their owner, Ralph Wilson, dies, as a Bills fan, I’ll be grateful to him for that too. And because Terry Pegula is an avowed longtime Sabres fan with a lot of money who hasn’t been shy so far about wanting to use that money to make the Sabres a perennial postseason contender and winner, I’m excited to see what happens to the team now that he owns them.
I’m just going to try to be a little more careful deciding how I feel about my favorite teams’ owners from now on. Sports changes far too quickly with far too little warning to make up your mind about a person based on one or two seasons.