- Associated Press - Saturday, February 19, 2011

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Terry Pegula has the NHL’s approval to purchase the Buffalo Sabres. There’s no doubt the team’s fans are on board, too.

Days before the Pennsylvania billionaire is set to formally close on his $189 million purchase of the franchise, Pegula is becoming the most popular sports figure in town.

One fan was spotted at a recent game wearing a Sabres jersey with the name Pegula and the number 189 _ representing his purchase price. A local company is selling T-shirts in the Sabres‘ colors and with the name “Pegula” written across the front.

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And then there were the chants of “Ter-ry!” that went up in the third period of the Sabres 3-0 loss to St. Louis Friday night.

All this, and Pegula has yet to make a public appearance or provide any hint of his intentions in the three months it took for him to buy the team from Tom Golisano.

That’s about to change. With the NHL board of governors’ approval coming on Friday, Pegula is expected to hold his first news conference early next week once the sale is completed.

“Very excited. A change is always exciting,” said Phil Miller, who was among about 50 fans attending a public Sabres practice Saturday. “Change of leadership and maybe a different direction. Obviously, what’s happened in the past hasn’t worked.”

Forward Patrick Kaleta can appreciate fans’ sentiments. Growing up in nearby Angola, he was a Sabres fan long before he began playing for the team.

“Being a fan at one point in my life, you look at the team and look at what’s happening, and it’s exciting,” Kaleta said. “All I can see that’s going to come out of this is positive things.”

Golisano was hailed for purchasing the Sabres out of bankruptcy in 2003 and preventing the franchise from relocating or folding. More recently, he’s been criticized for the front office’s poor decisions in breaking up the core of a team that lost in the Eastern Conference finals in both 2006 and ‘07.

The Sabres haven’t been the same since losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency in July 2007. They missed the playoffs the following two years and were eliminated in the first round last season.

The Sabres are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs this season. Following their loss to St. Louis, the Sabres remained in ninth place and dropped four points back of Carolina for the East’s eighth and final playoff berth.

Enter Pegula, who has ties to western New York, is a longtime Sabres season-ticket holder, has deep pockets and as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said this week, “has a passion for hockey.”

He is the founder and former president of the energy company East Resources Inc., which was sold to Royal Dutch Shell PLC for $4.7 billion last year.

In September, Pegula donated $88 million to Penn State, his alma mater, to fund a new multipurpose arena and help upgrade the men’s hockey program. The 59-year-old has an estimated worth of $3 billion and was most recently ranked 110th on Forbes magazine’s list of wealthiest Americans.

No wonder Sabres fans are excited.

“I don’t think it’s about the fact that it’s a new owner,” said Gary Janish, who also attended Sabres practice. “I think it’s a fact that it’s someone who’s a fan of the team, who has the means to turn it into something that this town’s been waiting for forever.”

Pegula will become the fourth owner in the Sabres‘ 40-year history, and takes over what’s become one of the NHL’s strongest U.S.-based small-market franchises. The Sabres have sold their allotment of about 14,000 season tickets in each of their past four seasons.

Buffalo is a hearty sports town with hard-luck history involving its two professional franchises.

The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 11 years, and are best known for being the only team to lose four consecutive Super Bowl games, which they did in the early 1990s.

The Sabres are 0-2 in Stanley Cup final appearances, most recently losing a six-game series to Dallas in 1999. The outcome is still disputed in Buffalo after Brett Hull’s series-deciding goal scored in triple overtime was allowed even though his skate was inside the crease.

Joe Kontrabecki of Phoenix Apparel and Marketing/andBuffalo helped come up with the Pegula T-shirt design shortly after Golisano announced he had agreed to sell the team.

In two weeks, Kontrabecki said the T-shirt has been his most popular item, having sold about 1,000 at a local store and online despite very little advertising.

“Because of the groundswell of support (for Pegula), we came up with it, dialed it out and people are scooping it up. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” Kontrabecki said. “Hats off to what Mr. Golisano did to save the team, but there’s renewed interest in what Mr. Pegula is doing here. And people are hungry for a championship.”

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