Features

David Zygaj — Buffalo Sabres

Cool as ice and to the point

The offseason came too soon for the Buffalo Sabres, which has so long been the case. The team last made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011, only to lose a first-round series to the Philadelphia Flyers.

But while players may be golfing, there’s no offseason for the front office. Quite the contrary: This is when executive staffers really have to be on their game.

While the hockey personnel strive to build on a respectable season—the 42-33-7 mark was a major improvement from the past 10 years and gives much reason for optimism when the next puck drops in October—David Zygaj has different areas to concentrate on. Sure, as vice president of legal affairs since 2008, he might be called in to tweak a player’s contract or weigh in on signing bonuses and the Collaborative Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and its skaters, but from spring to autumn he mostly focuses on the business end of the hockey operation.

David Zygaj | Vice President, Legal Affairs | Buffalo Sabres

David Zygaj | Vice President, Legal Affairs | Buffalo Sabres

“A lot of people may say, ‘you’ve now got some time on your hands,’ but this is when it’s really busy for me,” the mild-mannered Zygaj tells Vanguard in late April at the regular season’s conclusion. “Of course, my entire year is busy.”

That’s because in addition to working for the Sabres, Zygaj provides legal guidance to help sustain the rest of owner and Chief Executive Officer Terry Pegula’s massive operation. A billionaire who made much of his fortune in energy, in 2011 Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres, the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits and the rights to operate the 19,700-seat KeyBank Center overlooking Buffalo’s harbor. Several years later Pegula purchased the Sabres’ minor league affiliate, the Rochester Americans, located a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.

Pegula and his wife, Kim, also own the Buffalo Bills, but the NFL team isn’t part of Zygaj’s responsibility.

One point to ponder

The Sabres’ playoff push that fell just one point short had some of Zygaj’s work going for naught, he having been among those setting down conditions for season-ticket holders and sponsors for the postseason.

But the glass is at least half-filled, he says, as excitement for next season should help renew corporate leases for luxury suites as well as the dasher-board and on-ice advertising that’s become NHL business as usual. Zygaj reviews those deals, which run July 1 to June 30, as well as intellectual property matters affecting the team’s primary logo—a gold-rimmed blue circle with a bison atop two crossed sabers—and the alternative emblems that boost merchandising.

David Zygaj | Vice President, Legal Affairs | Buffalo Sabres

Zygaj also serves as the governor for the Bandits and is a board member and officer of the Buffalo Sabres Foundation, a community-based non-profit. The worst of COVID-19 hopefully over, it’ll be a busy summer for the KeyBank Center as well as the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, with Zygaj overseeing licensing agreements and working with events promoters.

There’ll always be some personnel matters to iron out, and litigation to outsource. It’s all part of being a sports lawyer, for which Zygaj considers himself blessed.

“I’m a Buffalo native and grew up playing hockey and going to games with my dad,” he says in an office adorned by a circa mid-1970s painting of Sabre legend Rene Robert shooting at the Flyers’ Hall of Fame goaltender, Bernie Parent. “This is a dream job for me. I’m thankful to have spent a good part of my career as the team’s attorney.”

Puck once stopped here

Time was when a much younger Zygaj might have envisioned helping the Sabres through other means. A Cornell University undergrad from 1981 to 1985, he logged a couple years as a backup goaltender to Darren Eliot—such were the breaks of playing on the same team as a future NHL’er—before suffering a career ending ankle injury his junior year.

An NHL career not in Zygaj’s cards, he took a sales job with a Fortune 500 company in Detroit for a year, racking up 50,000 miles on a car and mulling law as a more stable career. He graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Law in 1989 and for the next decade handled insurance defense and corporate matters with the local firm of Brown & Kelly.

While Zygaj didn’t hate such work, it wasn’t how he wanted to spend his career. When Canisius College developed curriculum for a master’s in sports administration, he enrolled in night classes that combined business and law.

As luck would have it, he was doing some work for the National Lacrosse League, which was headquartered in Buffalo but since has moved to Philadelphia. Zygaj bought a minority stake in the expansion of Columbus Landsharks and moved to Ohio to help run it. Shortly thereafter, he unloaded his interest in the team, which remained in Columbus for an additional time before rebranding as the Sting and moving to Arizona.

David Zygaj | Vice President, Legal Affairs | Buffalo Sabres

By then Zygaj was back in Western New York working with an entity called the Rochester Sports Group that had hockey, lacrosse and soccer interests. A couple years later, he joined a law firm in West Seneca that handled sports matters, and got a call from the Bandits, which were part of the Sabres ownership.

Zygaj ran the team as director of operations from 2005 to 2008, highlights of which included being named NLL’s Executive of the Year in 2007 and leading the team to a 2008 championship. Afterward, Zygaj transitioned into the chief legal role for the organization.

“I’m asked how I was able to obtain this position. Well, part of it was hard work and the other part circumstance,” he says. “Make as many contacts as you can and do some of everything. Create your own breaks.”

It’s been a most eventful run, he says, with highlights including him helping steer construction of the $100 million Harborcenter, a privately financed two-rink facility where the Sabres and college teams practice. The string of playoff DNQs—did not qualify—has been stressful for the Sabres organization and the community but Zygaj is optimistic of better days.

“Buffalo people are heart-and-soul blue-collar loyal,” Zygaj says. “It’s been a challenge the past few years, but the team is on a trajectory upward.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Summer II 2023 Edition here.

Published on: June 30, 2023

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