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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

If it is just a dream, please don't wake me.

Surely a dream is what this must be. This man, Terry Pegula, can't really exist, can he? The owner of the Buffalo Sabres must be something that I have concocted in the deepest cellar of my subconscious. I mean, a deep-pocketed billionaire that spends his money on acquiring top talent with the same determine and ease that a drunken sailor on shore leave unloads his wallet on a pretty barmaid after spending six long lonely months at sea denied the pleasures of female flesh.

It's not like we hadn't had a heavy dose of the reality of a billionaire owner anyway. B. Thomas Golisano treated the team the way that most guys so powerful that they can wear jeans and a ball cap to a black-tie function do. He nickel and dimed them into a slow, painful to watch on the ice, death. He kept a close eye on the bottom line. "Profitable" became the mantra of his management staff -- and it was chanted loudly to drown out the moans of the dissatisfied faithful that so fervently wished to see the team reach the promised land.

While he deserved an eternal thank-you for saving the Sabres when the team slid into bankruptcy, Golisano never understood the psyche of Sabre Nation. He was a blueblood trying to feign his way along with blue collars. He never got it that the team represented hope to this community -- not just hope of on-ice success, but hope that together we might find a way out of the rust-belted straight jacket that a half-century of political and fiscal missteps had left us tied-tightly into.

But, like an overtime loss on a fluky goal, that's yesterday's news. Something to quickly distance ourselves from while pocketing the inherent lesson learned as we turn our gaze to the next challenge on the road to success.

Pegula arrived last November like some cross between John Wayne and Bill Gates. His resume ripped from a dream that could be described as anything but dry. He lived here in his younger years and was a Sabres' season ticket holder. He went to Pennsylvania and began a quick ascent in the natural gas drilling field. While there he took a transistor radio onto interstate overpasses at night just so he could hear the Rick Jenneret skip-land call of Sabres' games.

Pegula donated $88 million to Penn State University to establish the team as a Division I program. He then set his sights on his beloved Sabres and in February bought the team from Golisano for $189 million.

Then the dreaming began.

Pegula opened his initial press conference by stating that winning the Stanley Cup was the sole purpose of the team from that moment onward. Sabres' fans were beside themselves. Winning a priority? What was next, some sort of a public declaration that money was no object in that pursuit?


Then the vision began to take place. Pegula and his suave sideman, Ted Black, reached out to all of the alumni. The French Connection was reunited and not a moment too late as Rick Martin was about to be called home to that big rink in the sky.

The hated "slug" logo was outlawed and removed from the arena. Fans were asked for their input as to how game day could be a better experience -- imagine that. The locker room was ripped apart so that a state-of-the-art oasis for the team's players could be put in its place.

Then, this past week came to pass. The Sabres were the talk of the hockey world as the team traded, maneuvered and signed their way to adding three of the top available players to their roster for next season. In one fell swoop the Pittsburgh Pirates became the New York Yankees. The team handed out multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts like a huckster handing out fliers at the entrance to the state fair.

Players waived their "no movement" clauses to come to Buffalo. They signed with the Sabers after spurning similar offers with other teams. They got in front of microphones and said, in near unison, that their goal was to win the Stanley Cup and that they felt that Buffalo was the best place to make that dream a reality.

Now that, if that is all that Terry Pegula, his wife Kim, GM Darcy Regier and Ted Black had done, would have been amazing, but this forthright foursome took it to a whole new level altogether. They actually sold the entire region of Western New York to these incoming players and, by proxy, to all of North America as well. They talked about the great quality of life here, the lack of traffic, the strong bond of neighborhoods and families.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they had opened up a real estate magazine with the incoming triumvirate of players and showed then how much farther their millions would go here when they signed on the dotted line for a place to live.

In short, they looked at our region and saw lemonade -- not sour lemons. They saw opportunity -- not depression. They saw hope -- not despair.

They sold the Niagara Buffalo region in the same way that the late, great Tim Russert did when he called it, "God's Country."

And in an instant everything changed. A small market team became a big fish in the NHL. Buffalo is now a premier destination for free agents. When the team starts racking up wins in the fall and the players get a first-hand look at the new locker-room digs, you can be sure that the word will spread and more guys will want to be the next to have the privilege of slipping the blue and gold over their head come game day.

The only way any of this happens is that Terry Pegula exists in just the fashion that he does. He has changed everything and it is all for the better. The Sabres' faithful have pushed their chips to the center of the table and are "all-in." So far the dealer from the "Keystone State" has done nothing but lay palmed aces in front of us while we cash jackpot after jackpot.

It was the highest of natural highs to be a fan of the Buffalo Sabres this past week -- If it is just a dream, please don't wake me.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com JuLY 5, 2011