By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
Here’s the history of the former owners of the Buffalo Sabres in a paragraph.
Seymour and Norty Knox founded the Sabres. John Rigas bankrupted the Sabres. Tom Golisano saved the Sabres.
When all looked lost for the Sabres in Buffalo in 2003, Rochester’s Golisano rode to the rescue and purchased the team. He kept it until 2011, when he sold the franchise to the Pegulas – a transaction that included a clause that the team could never be moved. It’s quite a legacy for a man who originally didn’t care a bit about hockey when he first bought a team.
Fittingly, Golisano received a standing ovation when he returned to Buffalo for the 2000s Night at the KeyBank Center earlier this month. He took part in a group interview; the transcript of that session has been edited for clarity:
Question: How much did you know about hockey when you decided to try to purchase the Sabres?
Tom Golisano: I had seen three NHL games. I had seen Bobby Orr and (Wayne) Gretzky play, which wasn’t bad. Friends brought me here to Buffalo for games. It was a new experience. I looked at the purchase more like a business deal. It was a significant investment and a significant opportunity. But now, ask me if I’ve watched all of the Sabres games this year on television. The answer is yes. I guess I’m a fan now.
Question: The whole NHL was going through some difficult times when you got into the hockey business. What prompted you to take that big step of buying a team?
Golisano: I just spent some time with (NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman, and we were going over the circumstances in which we acquired the team – the negotiations and so forth. It was quite an interesting experience. Gary was very, very important to the whole process. The league had control of the team. He did a wonderful job of bringing me to the point of wanting to buy it. You probably remember that there was another bidder that was unable to get financing together. After he had three or four chances, Gary called me and said, “Tommy, are you still interested in buying the team?” I said, “Yeah, but not quite at the same price.” I was teasing him, but we did the deal, and I never regretted it.
If you remember, the issues of the day were the salary cap and revenue sharing. Quite frankly, Gary convinced me that those two things were going to happen. He said we might lose a year (of play in the negotiating process), which we did, but those two things happened. That helped not only this team, but other teams that were in all small market situations.
Question: The team took off in the 2006 season, coming within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals – only to lose in a heart-breaking manner. That must have left some vivid memories.
Golisano: I got there (Carolina for Game Seven) early to go through the parking lot, and there were so many people from Buffalo parking their cars and eating food. It was a great time. That was something. Our defense had so many injuries. That was so memorable.
Question: Do you still play the “what if?” game about what might have happened if so many defensemen hadn’t gotten hurt?
Golisano: Of course, you wonder “what if.” Anyone in sports wonders “what if,” every day. I’m not an exception. I’m sure Dan DiPofi and Larry Quinn (Golisano’s top assistants in running the team) would say the same. It was such an exciting time to see the crowds outside the arena, let alone inside the arena. It was awesome. I think about it all the time. I think about the goal, scored by Jochen Hecht, just before the end of the second period of Game Seven and we went ahead, 2-1. We were on fire. But the defense wore down a bit, and you can’t blame them.
Question: You have been hearing about the twin departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury since they left in 2007 as free agents. Do you have any thoughts on that in hindsight?
Golisano: I know all the inside information about why it happened – the logical process we went through, and the reasons it happened. I don’t have any second thoughts about it. It bothers me that people have negative feelings about how we handled it. But I thought we did the best we could under the circumstances.
Question: What’s the difference between running a professional sports team and running any other business?
Golisano: It’s very much alike, and it’s also somewhat different. I’ll tell you what’s different about it – having the media follow you around and making all these comments about how you are running the team. That’s a lot different. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same thing.
Question: The team on the ice hasn’t done well since it was sold to the Pegulas. What is your reaction to that?
Golisano: I’m a little disappointed. I feel bad for Terry. I know how hard how much it means to him, and to the coaches and the players. I wish they could do better, but they eventually will.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)