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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

"Where's Perreault?"

Those two words, spoken as a hopeful question, served to both introduce new Buffalo Sabres' owner Terry Pegula to the team's fans and to instantly cement his status as among the most beloved sports franchise owners in local history.

The oil and gas well multi-billionaire asked for the iconic Sabre centerman to step forward just after telling the audience at his introductory press conference that he couldn't look off to his right because of the assemblage of former players standing there.

He said this in a breaking voice that immediately made it clear to long-suffering local sports fans that there was finally "one of our own" at the helm. Pegula demonstrated, by wearing his heart on his sleeve, that he understood what it means to this community to have a sports franchise that makes winning its top priority.

Pegula also stated that the team would have but one, singular, goal: winning the Stanley Cup. He also made it clear that he would not be operating under the "at least break even" fiscal philosophy of former owner Tom Golisano.

When questioned about adherence to the bottom line, Pegula answered with a devil-may-care swagger that got hopeful Sabres' fans drunk without so much as a cork being pulled from one bottle.

"If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well," the new owner intoned.

After coaxing the first drafted Sabre, the leader of the famous "French Connection" scoring line, out from the shadows, a choked-up Pegula told him. "You're my hero."

With those words, Pegula officially became the new hero of Hockeytown, WNY. He also exhibited just what a powerful tool the concept of belief in excellence can be to an organization and to an entire region.

Since that day just two short weeks ago the team has gone on an extended points streak that has it poised to find its way into one of the last playoff spots. More importantly, the vibe among the followers of the team is noticeably intensified.

Fans are awash with the possibility of what can be. That is in marked contrast to the Golisano years when fans were shackled by the reality of what must be. If the goal is the Cup and the bank vault is open, why must we still think like a small market team? And if we're letting go of that notion, then can the concept of terms like "snake-bitten," "shackled" and "cursed" be far behind in slipping into the land of the arcane around these parts?

In one sweeping moment Pegula not only became a rainbow to storm-sickened hockey fans, but also an inspiration to business and civic leaders struggling with the concept of creating and implementing a new and successful work model.

It's no secret to readers of this column that I am the founder and president of Niagara Rises, Inc. The grassroots organization designed to reverse the downward fortunes of the city of Niagara Falls has come a long way in just five short years. While I am very proud of the successes we've had, I am more humbled by the work that remains to be done and don't feel that there is any time available to stop and do any back-patting.

But, much like Terry Pegula, I am appreciative and respectful of the people who have come before. There are many people whom I admired in this community, folks who didn't wait for government to help them, but instead set out to aid their government by means of their own sweat equity.

People like Dr. Maria Crea. The Johns Hopkins Medical School grad came to the Cataract City in 1958 and spent the next 30 years as one of the most-trusted pediatricians this community has ever known.

As a community activist, Dr. Crea is a woman without peer. Among her accomplishments are her involvement with the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the United Way. She has received many distinctions, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the YWCA of Niagara.

I've been fortunate to have Dr. Crea involved with Niagara Rises and I realize that she has forgotten more about community involvement than I have yet to learn. She is a beacon to all who wish to make a difference on the Niagara Frontier.

And she's not the only one. I have drawn inspiration from people like Marge Gillies. Marge gives so much of her time you would swear that she is two people rolled into one. The chair of the Niagara Beautification Commission has worked diligently to improve the aesthetics of the city. Marge also gives her time to city block clubs and the local historical society along with LaSalle PRIDE.

Roger Spurback is another person who never seems to rest. His work in heading the block club council battles with his one-man crusade against graffiti to occupy the biggest block of his time.

Roger travels around the country and beats the drum for the good work being done here by the people for the people.

Betsy Diachun is another person who has fueled my desire to make a difference. I first met her years ago at the Unitarian church on Main Street and learned of the great work that she does on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. She is also a leader with the Beautification Commission, Old Fort Niagara and the Friends of the Youngstown Free Library.

Norma Higgs is the best way to send a message in Niagara Falls. Her e-mail list seemingly has more people on it than did the one inviting people to partake in the "Million Man March."

Norma is another block club trailblazer and she gives of her spare time to the point that she can spare almost anything but a free moment.

Georgia Brannan is one of my favorite people in all of WNY. The soft-spoken lady carries a big stick when it comes to community involvement. She works on multiple committees for a bevy of organizations. She is one of the principals at the Summit Life Outreach Center and is very active with the American Business Woman's Association.

The day when the work of Niagara Rises, Inc. is furthered to the point that I accept an invitation to a public coronation may never come. If it does I can't tell you what words I will speak or what message I will want to convey.

However, I do know how I will begin. With a voice on the verge of breaking, I'll give up resisting the urge to gaze to my right. I'll stare into the television cameras and speak these two simple words: "Where's Crea?"

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 8, 2011