Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grab some popcorn. Pegula vs. Sullivan cage-match on the horizon?

It all goes back to when Terry Pegula met the Buffalo News editorial board shortly after taking over the reigns of the Buffalo Sabres.

This is the quote from Pegula that has stuck in the craw of Sports Editor Jerry Sullivan for over two years, "I think part of the quit in this team comes from the media. Has anybody said anything good about this team recently?"

At the time the Sabres were outside a playoff spot on February 24, 2011 and they were folding the tent on numerous occasions, especially at home. So, there really wasn't much good to say about the team.

In defense of the Buffalo News, media outlets and Sabres fans here and abroad, this had been going on for three of the previous four years.

Views varied on who was to blame for the demise of the team since the end of the 2006/07 season. Certainly July 1, 2007 had a lot to do with it. And even if Pegula didn't immediately get the connection between that date and the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, he knew their names and knew the circumstances under which they left.

What's worse is that the Tom Golisano regime compounded that mistake by letting it happen again when they allowed Hank Tallinder and Toni Lydman walk. The Sabres were coming off of a first place finish in the division, rookie defenseman Tyler Myers won the Calder Cup, Ryan Miller won the Vezina and the team looked like it had a shot to make a deep run in the playoffs.

The reasoning behind those four players departing was money and/or term. That's why at his initial press conference Pegula stated that he wanted to retain quality players.

The face of those decisions, whether he was for or against them, was GM Darcy Regier.

The Buffalo News writers lead by Sullivan and Bucky Gleason, as well as a strong contingent of fans did not forget those decisions. They did not forget a lot of the negatives with Regier at the fore as GM. And there were plenty dating back to Dominik Hasek and Michael Peca--two fan favorites who left the team on less than amicable terms.

The News', lead by Sullivan and Gleason let Sabres-nation know on numerous occasions that they wanted Pegula to throw Regier's ass out the door.

It didn't happen and still hasn't happened. Which is probably the root cause of their consternation.

Gleason ripped Regier after the 2007 debacle. Some choice quotes via billszone.com:
  • The Sabres’ gross miscalculation concerning [Drury and Briere] will cost them plenty of fans, which translates to plenty of money. It’s bad business.
  • Here I was last summer praising Regier for locking up his younger players. It actually looked like the guy finally understood the importance of keeping good people. Come to find out, his real genius is keeping his job. How it has continued for a decade and counting is one of the true sports mysteries
  • Regier has alienated scouts, players, front-office types and fans for years and still came away relatively unscathed.
  • It’s safe to assume a proud hockey town feels like it was kicked in the stomach by the very team it supported, not the leaders who departed. Good thing the Sabres kept coach Lindy Ruff, at least for now. Let’s just call the Sabres’ situation what it is, the biggest personnel blunder in the history of the franchise. The Ottawa Senators fired John Muckler after he helped them reach the Stanley Cup finals because he didn’t do enough at the trade deadline. The Sabres gave Regier a contract extension for doing nothing since the deadline.
For four years the News' had to live with Regier as the GM of a mediocre hockey team. Then Pegula came along.

And Regier was still GM.

After the "Meet the Board" session, the News ended up backing off of the "negativity," or what they viewed as their version of "hard-core journalism" and adopted an "OK, show me what ya got" approach.

Here's what transpired between then and this past weekend:
  • The Sabres made the playoffs that season but were bounced in the first round again
  • The 2011 off-season offered a jolt of optimism as Regier went after whatever premier players were available and landed some pretty well-known names, an anamoly in recent Sabres history
  • Expectations were high for the 2011/12 season, but the team missed the playoffs. It was the third time in five seasons.
  • In 2012 the lockout hit, teams hit the ice in 2013, the Sabres went into an early tailspin and longtime coach Lindy Ruff was fired.
And Regier's still GM.

To make matters worse, just before the season started, Regier received yet another extension, this time from Pegula, which drove the News crazy.

In all fairness, it was an extension believed to be based upon a number of moves that were made with Pegula in charge.

Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, Cody Hodgson, Nasville's 2012 first-round pick, Steve Ott, all coming to Buffalo for virtually nothing sans Derek Roy.

The team continued to struggle and Regier continued to dismantle the team to the point where the Sabres are now the youngest team in Hockey with a bevy of youngins and a multitude of picks in this year's draft.

What's gotten everyones blood boiling is that Regier created this mess. He was the architect of a team on the decline--from the Stanley Cup Finals to two "new-NHL" Eastern Conference Finals, to two first-round playoff exits to two consecutive non-playoff seasons.

He went from building for the future while adding for the present last trade-deadline to an outright rebuild this year.

Yet, he's still the GM and it looks as if he "ain't goin' nowhere."

Making matters worse is that the owner hasn't talked to the media about the state of his team. Nor has he commented on the firing of Ruff. The long-time coach was still a favorite in Buffalo and received the benefit of the doubt on many occasions. Plus, Pegula infamously uttered these words at his initial presser, "Lindy ain't goin' nowhere."

Now you have it.

With animosity towards a "Teflon" GM dating back seven years, a simmering in the News' belly for two years after Pegula's "negativity" accusation, with boos raining down on an inferior product at the F'N Center, a fired coach and an owner who has not commented on his team for nearly a year, the Buffalo media gathered for a press conference at the groundbreaking for Pegula's $172M Harbor Center project.

Despite their professional demeanor, the group of Buffalo News writers were fit to be tied. They were gonna get in there and get some answers, for the people.

They fired some loaded questions at Pegula, and the owner, much to the chagrin of the self-proclaimed "conduits of the people" was evasive, and short with his answers. Even getting a little testy.

Mike Harrington of the News was the first to get one in for his team and asked Pegula, "How tough was it emotionally for Lindy to get fired for you?"

To which Pegula responded, "I don't need to answer that now. This is a different topic today."

Harrington pressed on, "But people want to hear from you, you haven't had the chance to speak on it."

"Why don't you figure that one out" was Pegula's reply.

"But people want to hear about it, people want to hear about it," continued Harrington as the owner turned his attention to another reporter.

After a Harbor Center question, Sullivan jumped into the fray blaring his trumpet, "You're not gonna talk about hockey today and you want our cooperation today," he blurted out, "Can we get your assurance you'll come out this year and you will talk about the team at the end of the season?"

"We'll see. We'll see."

Sullivan didn't like getting blown off like that and he spent the next two days letting the sports community know.

On Sunday he released a piece, Try as he might, Pegula just doesn't get it.

"Pegula has been an evasive figure, over the last year or so." Sullivan wrote. "He didn’t bother to comment after the Sabres missed the playoffs last year. He still  hasn’t commented on his decision to fire Lindy Ruff two months ago."

What Sullivan wanted was answers. He got none and was none too thrilled about it.

"There’s an aloof, even flippant, quality to the man." he wrote. "It’s as if Pegula feels he should be above criticism from the media. He has only reinforced the suspicions I had on his first day in town, when he said the writers from our newspaper were partly responsible for the Sabres’ struggles."

Sullivan wasn't finished as he loaded up for his weekly spot on WGR's Howard Simon Show yesterday.

He talked of standing with Ted Black after the event. Apparently his congenial conversation was interrupted by Pegula who said to Black, "Watch what you say, Ted. They're tough guys." Sullivan didn't take too kindly to that.

Maybe he was trying to be funny, like Sullivan said.

Or maybe Pegula has a real disdain for Sullivan and his counterparts and awkwardly tried to mask it.

After that little tidbit, Sullivan didn't mince words concerning his view of Pegula either, "He's not that smart."

"There's some arrogance there. Back to the original day he came into our editorial board meeting, I felt this guy was an odd duck and he didn't get the public side of this or the media side of this."

Sullivan summed up his encounter with Pegula, his ill-will towards the Sabres owner, Pegula's relationship with him as the sports editor and Pegula's view of the media in general, "It was the height of arrogance. A billionaire who wants people to believe he's just a regular guy. I heard the word flippant about him and it's kind of what it is. It's like [Pegula saying] 'I'm above this. You guys are gnats, you media people.'"


An owner who's viewed as aloof and flippant by a group with an inferiority complex.

Yessir. The honeymoon's over.

Arrogant. Flippant. Gnats. Tough guy. Odd Duck.

Them's fightin' words and looks as if this is shaping up to be a pretty good cage match between the owner and the sports editor.

Grab some popcorn.

This should be fun.

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