The Buffalo Sabres celebrated their 40th anniversary on Friday - 40 years without a Stanley Cup title, but there is an unfamiliar sense of optimism around the team.
Thanks to the arrival of a new owner, Terry Pegula, a man whose affection for the Sabres runs as deep as his bank accounts, Buffalo fans are finally allowing themselves to dream a little bit.
Around 80 former Sabres players accepted Pegula's invitation to attend an alumni reunion coupled with the anniversary celebration at Friday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the largest gathering of alumni in team history, and was thought to be one of the largest ever in the NHL.
The Sabres alumni who still live in the Buffalo area say the change in attitude among the players and fans since Pegula took over in early February is remarkable.
"It's like a dream come true," said René Robert, who played on the famed French Connection line in the 1970s and lives in nearby Niagara Falls, N.Y. "I think it's the dream of every player in every city in the National Hockey League to have an owner like Terry."
It was not that long ago the perennially pessimistic Sabres fans, used to sporting disasters like the Buffalo Bills and a wide-right field-goal attempt in the Super Bowl, and Dallas Stars forward Brett Hull's toe in the crease in the 1999 Stanley Cup final, were looking at another disappointing season for the Sabres.
They were last overall in the NHL at one point in November, and even though the Sabres were climbing steadily in the Eastern Conference, a few weeks before the Feb. 28 trade deadline, general manager Darcy Regier indicated he planned a housecleaning of his veteran players.
But then Pegula, 59, closed the purchase of the team from Tom Golisano and served notice things were going to be different. None of the veterans were traded, and Regier was actually able to add a valuable piece in forward Brad Boyes.
The Sabres tore through March with a 10-4-2 record and are now practically guaranteed a playoff spot. They need only a point from one of their last two games to get in.
This, it must be said, does not mean Golisano was a bad owner who refused to spend a dime on the team. He rescued the Sabres from bankruptcy and the possibility of moving in 2003.
While Golisano did insist the team stick to a budget, which resulted in the eventual departure of stars like Dominik Hasek, Daniel Brière and Chris Drury, he also let Regier keep the player payroll close to the NHL's salary cap. But the budget, combined with the view of Buffalo as not one of the NHL's garden spots, meant the best free agents never considered the team.
Pegula's first actions were to spend money outside of the payroll. The Sabres dressing room was spruced up and Pegula promises much more. There may be a new practice facility, for example.
"It's a totally different atmosphere," said Jim Lorentz, who became a Buffalo institution as a broadcaster after his playing career ended. "I think in the past some free agents didn't want to come to Buffalo.
"[Pegula's]point of view is: we're going to make this the best place to come and play and players are going to die to come here."
When Pegula cashed in his Pennsylvania oil and gas business for a $3-billion (U.S.) nest egg last year, and told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman he wanted to buy a hockey team, there was only one team he had in mind. The Sabres made their first of two losing appearances in a Cup final in 1975, when Pegula was living in Olean, N.Y. - that was when he became a fan.
"Yeah, this was it, there was no other team for me," said Pegula, an unassuming sort who says his wife, Kim, a Rochester, N.Y., native is responsible for most of the new touches around HSBC Arena. He said he wanted to make his mark quickly on the team but has no plans to be a hands-on owner.
"I'm not really doing anything different than I've done all my life with the oil and gas biz," Pegula said. "I could see there were certain things I could do when I came in here, such as put my stamp on the franchise and be more personal with the players. But I don't think it's necessary full-time.
"Let the players and coaches get the glory. I think that's the way it should be. That's why people go watch hockey games. They don't go to see me."