Pegulas buy Bills to cement commitment to Buffalo
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Larry Quinn had never heard of Terry Pegula, let alone knew what to make of the man in the golf sweater inquiring about the possibility of buying the Buffalo Sabres.
It was the spring of 2010 when the Sabres’ then-managing partner met with Pegula at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh after being introduced by mutual friends.
“I guess the first reaction was, ‘I kind of wonder if he’s serious?’” Quinn recalled. “It was just very casual. It wasn’t anything that was like an earth-shaking meeting that changed the course of time.”
Pausing briefly to reflect upon what’s happened in Buffalo since, Quinn added: “Even though it turns out it did, right?”
Pegula eventually bought the Sabres in February 2011 in what became the first step in transforming Buffalo’s landscape and professional sports hierarchy now that he and his wife, Kim, are the new owners of the NFL’s Bills.
The town already redubbed “Pegulaville,” is celebrating the couple for stepping up to buy the franchise for an NFL-record $1.4 billion after Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson died in March. In doing so, the Pegulas ended long-standing fears of the Bills leaving town.
“This whole scenario with the Bills has worked out so well for the community,” Quinn said. “What a chain of events.”
It’s as if the Pegulas fell out of the sky at a time the region needed them most. Their arrival coincided with an economic turnaround already beginning to take shape in a rustbelt town previously known for chicken wings, snowstorms and abandoned steel mills.
The Pegulas are helping spur the rebirth with the construction of a privately financed $172 million hockey and entertainment complex downtown. Scheduled to fully open next spring, the HarborCenter has the potential of turning Buffalo into a hockey destination and has already lured the NHL’s annual rookie combine away from Toronto.
“Folks in Buffalo, in many ways, feel that opportunity used to pass this community. A lot of good things didn’t happen here,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said. “With Terry and Kim Pegula, we are finally getting the big breaks.”
Terry Pegula grew up in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, graduated from Penn State, and made his fortune selling his Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling rights for $4.7 billion to Royal Dutch Shell in 2010. His compass, however, has pointed to western New York for much of his life.
It was in Olean, New York, where Pegula based his company, East Resources, and eventually met Kim, who grew up in nearby Rochester. And it was the Sabres’ famed Gilbert Perreault-centered “French Connection” line that first drew Pegula’s attention to Buffalo in 1975.
Living in Pittsburgh, Pegula would listen to Sabres games on a transistor radio on one of the city’s bridges because that’s where he got the best reception.
During his introductory news conference as Sabres owner, Pegula teared up and said, “My hero!” upon getting a glimpse of Perreault seated in the crowd.
The Bills, too, were on his radar. He would regularly attend games at Orchard Park.
The Pegulas’ commitment to Buffalo became evident during the Bills’ purchase process, which raised questions about relocation with a push by rocker Jon Bon Jovi and a Toronto-based group to buy the franchise.
The Pegulas eclipsed the competition with a bid that was more than $450 million above the franchise’s value.
“I have never seen anyone more committed to buying a team,” said Steve Greenberg, managing director of Allen and Company, the banking firm that oversaw the Pegulas’ purchase. “Their commitment to keeping the Bills in western New York trumped everything and everyone else.”
Not that money has mattered much to the Pegulas.
“I got a hell of a deal. I own the team,” Terry Pegula said Wednesday.
That’s a reflection of how he previously described his approach to investments.
“Believe it or not, I have never made a decision in my life based on money,” Pegula said in 2011. “It was always based on what I believed was right, and what should be done.”
Pegula spent nearly $10 million to renovate the Sabres’ locker room and player area.
He committed more than $100 million to Penn State to start up the school’s Division I men’s and women’s hockey programs.
At Black River Entertainment, the Pegulas’ Nashville-based country independent music label, they invested heavily in staff and renovations. That paid off in the form of a songwriting Grammy this year, and the label charting five top-30 songs last month.
Though their estimated worth is at $4.6 billion, the Pegulas don’t show it off.
Terry Pegula prefers driving 700 miles from Buffalo to Nashville to boarding any of the private jets he has access to. He’s comfortable sitting at the end of a bar in a blue-collar Buffalo saloon munching on — what else? — chicken wings and sipping red wine.
He didn’t know what, as he put it, “Twittering” was. His uses a flip-top cellphone because he doesn’t need the distractions that come with modern-day smartphones.
The only real criticism directed at Terry Pegula is that he might be too much of a loyal fan.
With the Sabres, he retained longtime general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff despite a long stretch of inconsistent results. Ruff was fired in in February 2013, and Regier followed nine months later.
Unaccustomed to the spotlight, Pegula has also been sensitive to criticism and balked at speaking to reporters for much of last year.
It didn’t help that Pegula was constantly reminded of the three-year Stanley Cup objective he first laid out upon buying the Sabres. His team fell well short in finishing with the NHL’s worst record last season.
The Pegulas now take over an NFL franchise in the midst of a 14-season playoff drought — the NFL’s longest active streak.
“An owner of a sports team has one job, to be liked,” Pegula once said. “There’s one way to be liked, and that’s to win.”
For now, the Pegulas have the admiration of an indebted community.
“They are making purchases that they did not have to make,” Brown said. “The Pegulas have embraced the hopes that people in the community have for the transformation of Buffalo and the long-term stability of our professional sports teams.”
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