This is definitely not directly a Saab post. It’s not even a car post. It’s actually a story about how a shift in attitude, focus, and faith in a common goal can turn an organization around. This is about a hockey team– the Buffalo Sabres– who earlier this year were all but counted out of making the playoffs, and were looking more at their hopes for next season. Their owner, billionaire Tom Galisano, who saved them from bankruptcy a few years ago and had a few good seasons with them, was basically treading water, not willing to invest too much more to get the team to the next level. There were even rumors that he might sell the Sabres to a new owner who would move the team out of Buffalo to Hamilton, Ontario or Phoenix, something that would crush the region of about a million people.
But suddenly last November there were rumblings that a dark horse had come into the picture who was also interested in buying the team. The media began reporting about a mysterious billionaire, Terry Pegula, who made his fortune starting his own natural resources company from the ground up. Who was this guy, could we trust him? An energy company billionaire? Is he even from Buffalo? Just what does he want with our hockey team?
Well of course, the local media couldn’t help but stoke the fire by stoking the skepticism, they painted the team as “a divestment” for their current owner was very interested in, as if they were some sort of stagnant team. Much like in Saab’s case, there were doubts raised on whether or not the team would be better off under new leadership, and if Buffalonians could trust a new owner to make the sort of investments it would take to get a hockey team to work. Most importantly, would he keep the team in Buffalo? You can see what I mean in the clip below (there were far more skeptical ones I couldn’t find on the net, this one looked fair in comparison) that selling the team was considered a dangerous proposition, and local media and fans questioned Pegula’s motives.
But Pegula gradually won over the media by being open, honest about his goals, and passionate about the Sabres. He had lofty ambitions, some called them wildly optimistic, much like a certain Dutchman we all know. He had passion for hockey proven by his $88 million donation to his alma mater, Penn State, to start a collegiate team from the ground up. He had a vision to take the Sabres to a new era of prosperity, and he personally had the money to back up his goal. Finally, at the press conference when announcing his purchase, Pegula made two things clear. One is that he loved the team going back to 1975, idolizing the French Connection. He used to have friends in Olean put their telephone to the television when was living out of town just so he could hear the game broadcasts. When he saw Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault in the audience at the press conference, he broke down in tears and told the legendary center, “You’re my hero.” His closing statement was something everyone wanted to hear.
“The Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup. We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing and keeping players in the Buffalo Sabres family.”
Most importantly, he agreed as part of the sale and made clear that the Buffalo Sabres must stay in Buffalo.
After the press conference, fans were and ecstatic with our new owner. Suddenly there was a buzz about the team, a feeling of optimism that wasn’t rooted in anything but a belief that we right the ship and push the Sabres to victory in the future. Everyone thought it would take some time, but the optimistic feeling was so infectious, it even infiltrated the locker room. No one expected an overnight miracle, but we hoped that maybe once the draft came around we could make some competitive changes to the lineup and be ready for an incredible season next year. Then the unexpected happened– we started winning. Not a few games, a lot of them. They snapped a 4-game losing streak in the very first game under new ownership. Since early February when Pegula took over the team, the Sabres’ have the best winning record in the league. If they can keep this up for the next 10 years under his watch, we’re going to have to figure out a way to etch his face into the side of Niagara Falls, 15 minutes from the arena where the Sabres play.
The players could tangibly feel the confidence that the community felt for them. Suddenly the entire organization had a new spirit, spiraling up instead of down. With the support from fans, the media, and new ownership, the Sabres could finally stretch their legs and show off just how good they really were. An incredible story emerged from an unlikely source– our all star goalie who represented Team USA in Vancouver, Ryan Miller sustained an upper body injury just as we moved into the last playoff spot and were trying to maintain our slim lead in points. A young backup goaltender was called up from the minor league who no one really knew too well. Jhonas Enroth, a scrappy 22 year old from Stockholm came into net with enormous pressure on him. On his first game playing for the new owner on March 30, under enormous pressure, Enroth earned his first NHL shutout against the New York Rangers stopping 23 shots. To make it that much sweeter, his parents were in the stands having flown over from Sweden to watch him play.
Even though setbacks, you can’t count yourself out. Sabres fans never did, and Jhonas Enroth certainly didn’t let them down. If Saab Cars North America were smart, they’d give this Swedish kid a brand new Saab and put him on an inexpensive local ad– I promise you the dealers in Buffalo wouldn’t have much stock left after a few days.
Well you might say after all that, sure it’s great that they’re winning but how would we feel if they ended up losing? Maybe if they had lost the rest of their season, there would be a lot more skeptical people in Buffalo questioning Pegula’s intentions. I argue that his leadership, passion, tenacity would still inspire the Buffalo fans to believe that their team would start winning again with every new season, that they’d have just as much confidence in his passion no matter the outcome. The Sabres may end up losing in an early round of the playoffs, but it doesn’t really matter– the infectious spirit of knowing that a team that was counted out, that couldn’t compete with cross town rivals, didn’t really have much going for it. That it couldn’t sell out arenas, make a profit, or make good hockey. Pegula’s doubters cited how he made his money off nefarious gas wells drilled by fracking and destroying the Pennsylvania water table, they said he was only looking to buy the Sabres for personal profit and glory. Well those doubters were wrong, and since Pegula came on board the new spirit of optimism has become a contagious epidemic.
So what comparisons can we draw with Saab? We’re a small team with rabid fans, Saab is a small car company with passionate owners. The Sabres had their glory years a few decades ago and then a period of decline and stagnation. Both have a young lineup, poised to show the world just how good they truly are. Saab can learn from Pegula’s successes in the last few weeks. He instructed his new staff to go out into the community and ask for ideas on what the fans wanted to see happen with the team, with something as simple as a comment box at games. Since then, they’ve implemented tons of them, and just last night on the Sabre’s last home game flew in every all star player from around the world for a red carpet entrance party which attracted tens of thousands of fans for the pregame. Hockey stars from as far as Sweden flew in for the night’s festivities.
By hiring Steven Wade, Saab has shown they’re interested in incorporating ideas and reaching out to their fans in similar ways. We at SaabsUnited want to foster the connection between the company and owners too, and are actively working behind the scenes to make this website a real meeting place for all Saab owners who have nothing but the best interests of Saab in mind. In the coming weeks, we’ll have contests to come up with marketing ideas, Photoshop designs, and make our own virtual comment box to pass on to Saab management. No doubt, Saab fans are just as rabid as Sabres fans and want nothing but the best for our brand. So what do the Sabres have that Saab doesn’t? Western New York media may have questioned Pegula from the start, but even if they still had doubts about how he made his money or what actions he might take in the future, they made a quick about face and trusted him at as soon as the press conference was over. Ever since Independence Day 2010, I can’t say the same about the Swedish media, as allegations of Muller and Antonov having ulterior motives just won’t die.
I’m left wondering, what will it take to convince the media and Swedes that just like the Sabres aren’t expected to compete with the Capitals, Canucks, or Penguins but do surprisingly well when they match up, Saabs aren’t expected to perform like BMWs, Mercedes, or Audis but fare similarly well. That just like the Sabres, even though Saab caters to a smaller market, they can still be successful and have value. In the same way that Terry Pegula was questioned about his intent, trust, and how he made his money, Victor Muller and Vladimir Antonov face doubts from the press and people of Sweden. Victor does have a passion for Saab– he truly wants to transform the company into a Phoenix rising from the ashes. How long will it take the media to stop doubting Vladimir Antonov’s background and say that all he’s interested in doing is plundering the company for patents and selling the technology for profit to Russian auto makers? Do you think he’d spend all his time tinkering around in Spyker, Saab, and Bowler instead of continuing in the banking sector if he wanted to make money? Pegula summed that idea very well, “If I want to make money, I’ll go drill a gas pump. I don’t need to make it (money) in the hockey business.” After all, just like Terry Pegula showed he is obsessed with hockey, Vladimir has shown that his whole life, he’s been obsessed with cars– so much so that he now owns controlling stakes in Spyker and Bowler. If it wasn’t clear to you by now it should be– Victor Muller cares about the workers at Saab, he cares about the management, he loves the cars, and he’s staked his entire reputation and his own money on ensuring the company turns itself around. Watch these two videos below and see how much difference there really is between the two men chasing their passions.
Wake up Sweden, and take a lesson from Buffalo. Oh, and if you want to cheer for a team in the NHL playoffs, the Sabres (and Jhonas Enroth) would love to count you as fans too.