"I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken grey. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as they trace their way across the steely sky. I used to think I had a pretty good life here, just plugging into my machine for the day, then watching Templevision or reading a Temple Paper in the evening. My friend Jon always said it was nicer here than under the atmospheric domes of the Outer Planets. We have had peace since 2062, when the surviving planets were banded together under the Red Star of the Solar Federation. The less fortunate gave us a few new moons."
For the uninitiated, that's the opening from Rush's epic 2112. It's a tale of a futuristic dystopian society in which the government has assumed control of all aspects of life - reading material, music, you name it. The protagonist is a man who one day discovers a guitar and learns how to play a long-forgotten form of music that the government thought it had obliterated. Excited, the man takes his discovery to the priests at the Temples of Syrinx, only to be horrified when the priests destroy the guitar. Distraught, he spends the rest of his days in hiding while dreaming of what life might have been like until he eventually commits suicide.
With the backstory out of the way, it's the conclusion to our protagonist's opening monologue above that hits home for me as I think about the conclusion of the B. Thomas Golisano era of Buffalo Sabres ownership: "I believed what I was told. I thought it was a good life, I thought I was happy. Then I found something that changed it all."
Similar to our hero, I thought we had a good life under Golisano. Sure, there were rough patches and disappointments, like missing the playoffs in 2007-08 and 2008-09 after two straight conference championship appearances or not having the money to re-sign key free agents. But Buffalo is one of 30 North American metro areas (I suppose Newark and Nassau County want to be considered separate from Manhattan, right?) that are lucky enough to have NHL hockey. Shouldn't that be good enough?
Such were the Sabres under Golisano... "good enough". Not a contender, not a basement dweller... merely "good enough". There would be surprising near-misses along the way, such as the '06 conference finals when everyone knew that if the Sabres could have just squeezed past the Canes despite being down 47 defensemen they'd have murdered Edmonton in the finals. But that was as good as it'll ever be. We're a small market, you see, and that means we have to keep ticket prices very low. That means less revenue, and without the revenue of a larger-market team it'll never be possible to retain a star player like a Briere or a Drury, or God forbid, chase high-dollar free agents on the open market. But that's OK, because Darcy Regier drafts so well that we've already got replacements waiting in the wings down in Rochester Portland Rochester! We'll remain "competitive" in the sense that we'll probably qualify for the playoffs but not really have the personnel to truly contend, all the while being allowed to develop talent for the Flyers and Rangers and other big-market teams to whisk away once they reach UFA status.
That was the sometimes frustrating line of thinking that the Golisano regime sold, and I'll admit that I bought it at times. It was frustrating to watch a team that was competing in the Daytona 500 with a lawnmower engine under the hood for years, but it was necessary. What other ownership options did we have? Buffalo isn't exactly a town made up of rich people, you know.
Then along came Terry Pegula and his $189 million, shattering the illusion that the Sabres have to be another Nashville. In the 2112 universe, Pegula is the "something that changed it all".
Suddenly, Sabres fans were treated to a glimpse of a life they didn't think was possible. Under Pegula's watch, Darcy Regier doesn't dump salary - he gladly accepts other teams' salary dumps such as Ales Kotalik and Brad Boyes. Under Pegula's watch, Regier gets to offer eight and ten-year contracts with big cap hits to players he wants. Under Pegula's watch, Regier gets to trade for players like Robyn Regehr and his $4 million contract because he's a key piece of the puzzle. Heck, Pegula even flew two time zones away to personally make a sales pitch to Regehr to convince him to waive his no-trade clause. Under Pegula's watch, an arena that had spent the better part of the last fifteen years stagnating is treated to some serious upgrades - a new locker room, a fresh coat of paint, the whole nine yards.
In light of that, it's rather easy to cast a critical glare at Golisano and ask: "You're a billionaire too, Tom. Why couldn't YOU have done that?"
It comes down to a single word: passion.
Golisano never had the passion that Terry Pegula has exhibited in just nine short months. For Golisano the Sabres were an investment, and perhaps he felt he was performing a civic duty as well by saving the team from bankruptcy. Maybe he was even trying to curry greater upstate political PR for a future gubernatorial run (one which never occurred, as Golisano decided not to run in 2006).
But Golisano never had that desire to win like Pegula does. It's that passion, not his money, that sets Pegula apart from Golisano. You can't manufacture passion, and ultimately I can't fault Golisano for not having it.
And so this is where the 2112 comparison ends for me, because despite his warts I think it's important to appreciate the "good life" the Sabres enjoyed under Golisano. A lot of NHL owners have come and gone during Golisano's tenure, and quite a few of them left their teams in near-irreparable financial ruin. Tom Golisano, on the other hand, did the opposite: he saved the Sabres after they became a bankrupt trainwreck at the hands of the Rigas family and turned them into a well-run, profitable organization. He rejected inquiries from potential buyers (some guy named Balsillie, maybe you've heard of him) that would have sought to move the franchise elsewhere. And in selling to a man he knew could take the team to heights he did not have the passion to take them, he showed he knew when was the proper time to get out.
I'm fond of saying that I have no regrets, because everything that I've ever done and everything that has ever happened to me has led me to where I am right now. Likewise, if not for the efforts of Tom Golisano the franchise would not be in Terry Pegula's capable hands in the good shape it's in. It is for this reason that I choose to remember the good that Golisano has done instead of the failures, both on and off the ice, that happened during his time. The team is in a better place now, and the future is even brighter. For that, I tip my hat to Tom Golisano.