If there were a trophy for worst owner in professional sports, Terry Pegula would have that thing locked down tighter than the Buffalo Sabres’ grip on last place in the NHL.
After the latest shocker to hit the Sabres – the resignation of Pat LaFontaine as president of hockey operations this past weekend, just 3 1/2 months after he took the job – Pegula can take his place on the dishonour roll beside such meddling luminaries as Harold Ballard, Bill Wirtz, Charles Wang, Donald Sterling, Ted Stepien and at least two generations of the Bidwell and Glieberman families.
The only thing clear in the murky situation surrounding the most dysfunctional franchise in the NHL is that most of the blame can be laid at Pegula’s doorstep.
The story behind LaFontaine’s abrupt departure is not known because the principals are either not talking or telling versions simply too preposterous to be believed.
LaFontaine, beloved as a player in Buffalo and hailed as a sign Pegula finally learned the right way to do things when he was hired Nov. 13, 2013, to help rebuild the woeful Sabres, is not talking to the media because he signed a confidentiality agreement.
The official Sabres news release said LaFontaine quit to return to a job with the NHL, where he was vice-president of development and community affairs. Sabres president Ted Black told reporters that as well this past Sunday, adding: “I can tell you there was no discord.”
Um, okay, Ted, if you say so.
After talking to a number of people close to LaFontaine and others in the Sabres organization, it is clear the situation is the result of a toxic mix of an owner who is too much of a fan for his team’s good, who surrounded himself with a surplus of advisers whose motives must be questioned, and a former NHLer who needed neither the job nor the salary, nor the headaches of dealing with a fan-boy owner and his cronies.
Sources said there were increasing signs of friction between LaFontaine, 49, and Pegula, 62, in recent weeks. Some of the issues were said to be the chain of command between rookie general manager Tim Murray, LaFontaine and the owner, and the pace and scope of the rebuilding effort.
What isn’t clear is whether LaFontaine told Pegula to take this job and … or if the team owner beat him to the punch.
Left clinging to the wreckage are Murray, 50, who landed his first GM job just two months ago, and interim head coach Ted Nolan.
Murray was reportedly ready to announce as early as Tuesday that Nolan, 55, was signed to a multiyear deal. But Nolan was clearly left reeling in the wake of the departure of his close friend.
Although Murray told reporters the contract is still there for Nolan to sign, the coach told reporters Monday in Dallas: “No, I haven’t thought about it. My main focus right now is the game tonight.”
Nolan must think he is in hockey’s longest recurring nightmare.
He left the Sabres in 1997, in the wake of reports of discord with then-GM John Muckler, which did not help Nolan land another job in the NHL. He finally came back as a head coach in 2006, when LaFontaine was brought in by Wang, the New York Islanders owner, to restore some order to that franchise. LaFontaine quit that job after just six weeks, when Wang rejected his advice against firing GM Neil Smith, also just six weeks in his job. Nolan lasted for two years, but then was out of the NHL until January. And now this.
However, the betting is Nolan will eventually sign the contract and stick it out. Walking away might do too much damage to his NHL career, as his stock rose sharply after he got the Sabres playing less-awful in the past two months, and then took Latvia to a near-upset of Canada at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Murray and LaFontaine may not have seen eye-to-eye on every detail of the Sabres’ rebuild but their differences were not considered enough to cause the latter to quit. Less clear are the relationships between LaFontaine, Pegula’s “advisers” and Black.
Until LaFontaine came along, Black, who used to work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the only president on the team. Then, he slid over to handle just the Sabres’ business affairs. There is also former Penguins president Ken Sawyer whispering in Pegula’s ear.
And there is the curious case of another Pennsylvania connection, Joe Battista, the vice-president of hockey-related businesses. Before Penn State University started an NCAA hockey program, funded by Pegula, one of the school’s richest alums, Battista was coach of its club-level team. He is a buddy of Pegula’s, who then appeared in the Sabres front office despite no NHL experience. Then, he recently started turning up in the middle of hockey decisions, which may not have been thrilling to LaFontaine.
As for Pegula, silence reigns. He only speaks when there is a cheque to present or a new hire to show off to the fans.
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