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Once a bridge runner

April 6, 2010 4 comments

By Chris Wendel

Growing up east of Lockport, New York along the Erie Canal, an unusual district configuration planted us in the Royalton-Hartland Central School System (Roy Hart). We traveled daily down the canal nine miles away from Lockport to Middleport for high school .

I remember occasionally running the 9 miles or so along the towpath to school, while training for track and cross country. The soft surface of the towpath was named after the mules (remember Sal?) that pulled the packet boats along the canal (filled with lumber, coal, and hay). Long after the canal served as the nations’ major route to the expanding west, the towpath remained and is now part of one of the longest contiguous trail systems in the country.

The towpath was also a great surface for track and cross-country training runs. Our coaches would simply tell us which canal bridge to run to (and return). For example “Hurdles Bridge and back” meant a relatively easy four mile tempo run, while Peet Street meant a long slow ten mile run. Some of us started a tradition on slapping one hand on the cement abutment of each bridge we passed under, marking off another leg of a long day’s work.

I was never much of a contributor to Roy Hart’s track success, but the school was a dominant high school track program in the 1970’s, with times and distances that could compete with most of region’s larger schools. Regardless of the varying levels of talent, those Roy Hart days provided a work ethic and appreciation for running that many of us took with us into our adult lives.

So it was interesting to read a recent story about Vincent Donner a current Roy-Hart student who was the surprise winner at the  Beast of Burden 24-Hour Ultra Run. The ultra-marathon started in Lockport consisting of 25 mile laps along the canal towpath, to Middleport and back. Donner entered as a relative unknown and finished his 100 miles (four laps in 22 hours, 50 minutes and 41 seconds).

Whie his winning performance evoked a certain “Who is that guy?” quality for many seasoned runners,  it was good to hear of a new running hero from Roy-Hart, especially one who knows those canal bridges as well we did.

Western New York Hockey shines on Olympic Stage

March 2, 2010 Leave a comment

By Tim Wendel

The gold-medal game between Team Canada and Team USA left me feeling somewhat bitter and searching for the sweet.

My brothers and I grew up playing hockey at the old Kenan Arena in Lockport. We also practiced on the pond in back

Erie Canal hockey rink east of Lockport,

of our house and even on the Erie Canal.

As the oldest, my teams were the first to venture north of the border, where we got routinely thumped. I remember losing 10-1, 9-0 and 10-2 during a weekend series in Hespeler, Ontario. We were patting ourselves on the back because we scored a pair in the final game.

The teams my brother Chris played on made it closer. My youngest brother, Bryan, actually won the occasional game against the Canadians. So to have the U.S. win the World Junior championships earlier this winter and then come up only a goal short in overtime on the last day of the Vancouver shows how far we’ve come.

So, a tip of the hat to Buffalo’s own – forward Patrick Kane, defenseman Brooks Orpik, and goalie Ryan Miller. More importantly, a salute to all the kids still lacing them up in the Niagara Frontier and playing on the backyard ponds and public rinks from Orchard Park to Transit Road. They will put us over the top sooner than many think.

Let’s go, Buffalo! Making of the Book Part 2,

August 26, 2008 Leave a comment

by Chris Wendel

As I recollect the chronology of this book it dawns on me how long the process has taken and how many pilgrimages I have made to Buffalo. Recently someone asked me why I have dedicated so much time and effort into a book about the Braves.

You see I was a Sabres fan first growing up. Playing hockey from age eight to eighteen in Lockport (when it had a rink) put hockey at the forefront. Still I had good recollections of the Braves. I believe I first heard the cheer “Let’s go, Buffalo!” at a Braves game televised in 1970. Now my five year old says the same cheer in the same old cadence, when we drive past a field of bison on our regular trips to town. The years may pass but it has stayed with me.

July ’05: The Courier Express files have a limited number of Braves pictures; this is going to be a problem. What kind of coffee table book will it be without a large number of action photos? I start to search ebay for photos and memorabilia. Plenty of miscellaneous Topps cards, pennants, and Elton Brand throw back jerseys. One day I end up with a great video collection of Braves highlight films narrated by Van Miller.

Why not put the video into a CD that could be added to the book? I check with my contact with the NBA legal department who warns me to quell any video aspirations. The league is apparently quite protective of any of their video and the Braves intellectual property still belongs to the NBA, not the LA Clippers.

January ’06: Through my “real” job I run into a graphic design person here in Michigan who might be right for putting the book together. He has a strong affinity for sports and quickly shows an interest in what we are trying to do. He starts to appreciate the Braves despite the fact that he grew up in Saginaw and knows much more about hockey and the Tour de France then basketball.

March ’06: Another trip to Buffalo to file through Ranallo columns and past Courier articles. There are plenty of banner headlines highlighting a big Braves win, the amazing scoring exploits of Bob McAdoo, or a 17,000 night of attendance at the Aud.

I get some solid leads on former team photographers through two Braves fans who wonder why I’m always bidding against them for items. One asks; “What are you doing writing a book or something?”

The odyssey leading to the photographers is next.

Humble Beginnings

March 19, 2008 Leave a comment
Chapter One: 1970-71 Season

To order “Buffalo Home of the Braves” visit www.sunbearpress.com

On January 20, 1970, the National Basketball Association voted to expand by four teams. Along with Portland and Cleveland, an NBA franchise was awarded to a group of investors headed by Phillip Ryan and Peter Crotty for Buffalo.

The age of sports expansion had been well under way since the late 1960s. The National Hockey League, for example, had doubled the number of its franchises from six to 12 in one grand move. The NBA had expanded to Seattle and San Diego in 1967; and to Milwaukee and Phoenix a year later. While some contended that the talent pool wasn’t there to support so many new teams, the NBA was eager for new markets in large part because it was at war with the rival American Basketball Association.

The ABA had been around since 1967 and was developing a strong following in some parts of the country. The ABA, with its distinctive red, white and blue ball, emphasized slam dunks and high scoring. The rival league was driving up player salaries and many owners in the older NBA were becoming increasingly concerned about the bottom-line. New teams to the NBA paid escalating franchise fees. In the case of the new kids on the block – Portland, Cleveland and Buffalo – the entry fee was $3.7 million.

Days after the announcement was made, it became apparent that the Buffalo group didn’t have deep enough pockets to operate a team at the most expensive rung of professional basketball. In looking back on the team’s checkered past, it was the first sign of trouble for a ballclub that would soon rank one day among the best in the league and in the next breath be spirited away from town in the most bizarre bait-and-switch move ever seen in professional sports.

Location-wise, Buffalo appeared to be a solid enough choice for NBA expansion. Even though its metropolitan area population was 1.3 million, the lowest of the new expansion cities, Buffalo’s economy was built upon the rock-solid basics that once made the Great Lakes such a vibrant area – shipping, hydroelectric power and steel. In addition, the area had a rich basketball history at the college level. Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure formed the “Little Three,” and Calvin Murphy (Niagara) and “Buffalo” Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure) had recently received All-American honors.

The New York Knicks’ Eddie Donovan, who had played and coached at St. Bonaventure, was hired as the team’s first general manager. Besides being a great judge of talent, Donovan was also known as the guy who coached the Knicks the night the 76ers’ Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Penn. That still ranks as top individual scoring night in NBA history.

The team’s nickname, Braves, came from a contest with 14,000 entries. Dave Lejewski of Dunkirk had the winning entry and was awarded season tickets. Neither Lejewski, nor anybody else in Buffalo for that matter, was exactly sure what kind of team would be taking the floor at Memorial Auditorium. In the NBA draft, the Braves had the ninth pick in the first round. Unlike Buffalo’s new hockey franchise, the Sabres, the Braves missed out on top talent their first season. (The Sabres were able to select scoring star Gilbert Perreault with the top pick and they never looked back in building their team.) The first four selections in the NBA draft proved to be bona fide stars. Lanier, the star from St. Bonaventure, went No. 1 to Detroit, followed by Rudy Tomjanovich (San Diego), Pete Maravich (Atlanta) and Dave Cowens (Boston). After that, the draft dropped off, so Donovan traded the franchise’s first draft choice to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Mike Davis. Davis had been on the NBA’s all-rookie team in 1969-70.

The Braves had another pick in the first round – No. 15. Local fans clamored for the new club to take a chance on Niagara’s Murphy. Murphy had proven to be one of the greatest scorers in college history. But he stood only 5-foot-9. For that matter, there was another dynamite guard still available when it became the Braves turn to choose – Nate “Tiny” Archibald from Texas-El Paso. Yet as the moniker indicates, Archibald wasn’t a towering giant, either.

In the end, Donovan played the percentages and selected 6-foot-9 forward John Hummer from Princeton. He was a solid rebounder and played good defense. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great shooter, even from the free-throw line. It wasn’t until the third round that Donovan threw a bone to the locals by selecting Chip Case of Virginia. Case had played his high school basketball in suburban Lockport, N.Y.

Predictably, the rest of the squad was stocked with rejects from other teams. Besides Hummer, the Braves’ original starting five included Herm Gilliam, Don May, Dick Garrett and Nate Bowman. The best player on the squad that inaugural season proved to be Bob Kauffman, a former first-round pick with Philadelphia. With the new team lacking in height, Kauffman took over the center spot, even though his natural position was forward.

Dolph Schayes, a one-time Hall of Famer for the Syracuse Nationals, was the coach. His expertise was talking up the team to the local media, which was important because the Sabres were already off to head start with the public.

But before the first season got underway, the team needed to add one more individual. When the Braves’ original investment group began to fall apart, the NBA approached Paul Snyder about taking over the franchise. Snyder had made his money in the food industry. Despite his small stature, his firm handshake and riveting gaze soon gained anyone’s attention. In the spring of 1970, Snyder sold Freezer Queen, a frozen-food company, for a generous profit to Nabisco. The time seemed right to try something different, like owning a professional basketball team.

When the NBA called, the Braves had almost completed preseason play. While the team was the usual collection of cast-offs and misfits, it was easy to daydream about greater glory. Next season the team would likely have a top draft choice. Kauffman was somebody to build around. The team was Snyder’s for the asking, but he would have to act quickly. A new season, the Braves’ inaugural one, was about to begin.

To order “Buffalo Home of the Braves” visit www.sunbearpress.com