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Remembering Roger Crozier

April 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Roger Crozier, circa 1972

Tonight the Buffalo Sabres will have a fan appreciation night featuring the return of over 75 Sabre alumni players. Unfortunately the impressive list will not include Roger Crozier, Buffalo’s standout goalie from the 1970’s.

Crozier passed away in 1996 after a stellar career that included a Conn Smythe Trophy (the first player to earn the award on a losing team in the Stanley Cup Finals) with the Detroit Red Wings in 1967 and induction into the Sabres Hall of Fame in 1980.

Phil Ranallo, veteran writer of the “Buffalo Courier Express” newspaper brilliantly recounts Crozier’s  performance during the 1972-73 season in his morning column: “What’s New, Harry?”.

In a style that made him a staple at Western New York breakfast tables for decades, Ranallo describes that coming of age season and Crozier’s appreciation for the Sabres team assembled by General Manager Punch Imlach, and defenseman Tim Horton, who watched Crozier’s back that season.

WHAT’S NEW, HARRY?

Phil Ranallo, February 22,1973

AT LAST, LIFE IS beautiful for Roger Crozier or almost as beautiful as life can get for a fellow who holds down one of the most terrifying and dangerous jobs in the world of fun and games.

For the first two years of the existence of the Buffalo Sabres, Crozier stood smack-dab in the center of the bull’s-eye. The cat-quick goaltender was the Sabres’ first line of defense.

Pucks, pucks, pucks, pucks, an endless barrage of rock-hard pucks was fired at him. Tending goal for the Sabres was like being positioned at the wrong end of things in a shooting gallery.

Roger survived those two frightening years; but ended up with more lumps and bruises than a guy who had picked an argument with a cement mixer – while inside the cement mixer. It was enough to give a fellow a nervous twitch.

THIS SEASON, THOUGH–heaven, at last! Players still swarm in on Crozier with sticks in their hands and knives on their feet. But the Sabres have taken some of the pressure off “No. 1,” the gutsy guy who resides in “No-Man’s Land”, the crease, that oblong area in front of the net.

“Yes, Life is a lot easier on me now,” says Crozier, who in his 13-year career has collected numerous badges of his trade-three broken jaws, one broken nose, one broken cheekbone and facial crocheting that adds up to “maybe 300 stitches.”

“It’s easier because we’re a good hockey team now. We’ve come ‘quite far quite fast because of the great job management has done-Punch Imlach and Joe Crozier.

“At the beginning of the season, when we went through 10, games unbeaten, we didn’t really know how good we were, and wondered whether we were just lucky.

“NOW THAT WE’VE GONE through 60 games, it’s different. We know we’re not a flash-in-the-pan team, We think we’re as good a hockey club as there is in the league-with the exception of Montreal, maybe.”

Then Crozier spoke of the Sabre defense and paid special tribute to Buffalo’s geriatric marvel Tim Horton, the 43·year-old Sabre who is making his mark as hockey’s George Blanda.

“I’d watched Horton play for years, but never realized how good a defenseman he is. I didn’t appreciate him (until I played behind him.

“Nobody takes the puck away from Tim in the corners and nobody can check him in front of the net, He’s unbelievably strong, He’s great at getting the puck out of ‘our end of the rink,”

THE CONVERSATION SWUNG back to goaltending and Crozier confessed that he does not regard it as the greatest job in the world-or in hockey. He mentioned the pressure of being the last line of defense pressure that gnaws at a goalie’s stomach-literally in Crozier’s case, since he is prone to attacks of pancreatitis.

“If a forward or a defenseman is playing badly,” Crozier said, “he gets a chance to go to the bench and get re-organized. But a goalie has to stay out there-and it’s murder on him when he’s having a bad night.”

Crozier said he has one fear-the fear that he will play a bad game, “It’s the same-fear every goalie has when he first hits the ice-because he can’t be sure if he’s going to be good or bad.”

SO WHY DID CROZIER become a goalie? “When I was a kid, goaltending seemed like a pretty good idea,” he explained, “I worked at it hard and the first thing I knew it was the only position I could play with ability.”

“If I had my choice over again, though, if I could go back and start all over again, I’d be a forward or a defenseman-for sure,”

Sabre fans are happy that Roger Crozier, the great goaltender with the marvelous moves, does not have that choice.  Tonight, when the Sabres meet the Vancouver Canucks in Memorial Auditorium, could be a special night in the life of Roger Crozier. Roger could reach a milestone, if he makes 26 saves, he’ll reach the 4,000 save plateau as a Sabre goaltender. That’s more than half-ton of vulcanized rubber he has kept out of the net in less than three years.

Remarkable.

 

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40 years to the day, Braves legacy lives on

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

By Chris Wendel

40 years ago today the Buffalo Braves played their first regular season basketball game, a 107-92 win over the Cavaliers before 7,129 fans in the pre-expanded Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Today, watching the Buffalo Sabres celebrate their 40th anniversary with much fanfare, it makes sense (and stings some too) to revisit why the Braves were the first of many “what could have been(s)” for Buffalo sports fans.

Randy Smith receiving the NBA All-Star MVP trophy in 1978

While many of us ponder with angst the future of the Buffalo Bills, the thought of replacing NFL football with another NBA franchise has been bantered about.  In a town that can’t figure out a practical development strategy for the old Aud site, it’s almost impossible to grasp a scenario where the NBA and a local ownership group would see value in investing in another NBA basketball franchise.

With all of this in mind, and on the 40th anniversary of the start of NBA basketball in Western New York, it is appropriate to revisit the legacy left behind by the Buffalo Braves:

  1. High scoring offense: After two lousy seasons that were typical of a new franchise, the Braves followed with a sudden meteoric rise utilizing a fast paced offense that was the precursor to today’s modern transition game. To get an idea, take a look at this archive video of a 1976 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-finals between the Braves and the Washington Bullets.
  2. Some solid draft choices : The Braves had three NBA Rookies of the Year in eight seasons with Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio, and Adrian Dantley. Dantley became the first Rookie of the Year in any major sport to be traded from his team before the start of his second season (more on that kind of catatonic management style in a minute). There were ill-fated draft picks as well including John Hummer and Tom McMillen.
  3. Bob McAdoo: The amazing emergence of Bob McAdoo, who followed up his Rookie of the Year season with three straight NBA scoring titles and NBA MVP honors for the 1974-75 season. Basketball Reference recently described McAdoo as “strangely absent from the NBA Top 50” selections.
  4. The unlikely path of Randy Smith: Drafted in the 7th round of the 1971 NBA draft (a courtesy pick by GM Eddie Donovan for not drafting Niagara standout Calvin Murphy in 1970). Smith’s raw talent and determination won out over time as he attained the NBA ironman record for most games played (since surpassed by A.C. Green) and became the MVP of the NBA All-Star game in 1978. Many of Smith’s franchise records (Braves/Clippers) remain intact almost 30 years after his retirement.
  5. Two Hall of Fame coaches, Dolph Schayes and Jack Ramsay: Ramsay left the Braves after the 1975-76 season and coached the Portland Trailblazers to the NBA title the following season. Schayes was fired one game into the team’s second season after failiing to produce a miracle with a team of older veterans and journeymen.
  6. Unhinged ownership: The Braves ownership was unstable from the start. Paul Snyder purchased the team shortly before the Braves first season and may not have known what he was getting into. Snyder’s management style accounted for the team’s rather quick improvement through player acquisition, but his impatience led to knee jerk coaching and personnel changes that short circuited any long-term stability. Snyder’s controlling behavior eventually drove away Jack Ramsay. In 1975 Snyder wanted out because of the Sabres’ control of decent playing dates (a valid point) selling the team to Kentucky Fried chicken mogul John Y. Brown. The bonehead moves made by the Braves during both the Snyder and Brown regimes are staggering to recount years later. Perhaps the biggest “what if” of them all were the transactions that obtained and traded Moses Malone (for money) after only two games and six minutes of playing time with the Braves. If Malone had stuck in Buffalo the Braves’ front line would have included Malone, McAdoo, and Dantley (all NBA Hall of Fame honorees). All three were traded within a year and the team was destined for somewhere other than Buffalo.
  7.  Positive fan support: The Braves fans generally supported its team and were never given a stable product in return. Meanwhile the Knox brothers quickly built the Sabres into contenders by understanding the concept of fan loyalty, keeping key players in Buffalo for most of their careers (not trading them like commodities). The Braves averaged close to 12,000 fans a game when they had winning seasons. Attendance predictably waned as the team traded its good players, the ownership whined about the lack of city and fan support, and the Sabres continued to build their team and fan goodwill.

With a more devoted ownership that stuck to any type of strategic plan, the Braves may have survived long-term in Buffalo. Regardless of the outcome, the Braves remain one of the NBA’s interesting historic footnotes. I know well versed NBA fans that are now in their 50’s who recall little about the Braves, yet history shows that for a brief shining moment professional basketball was significant and successful in Western New York.

To find out more about the history of the Buffalo Braves, look for the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves”, available on Amazon.com and through its publisher SunBear Press.

As Aud falls author recalls rise of Braves

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment
Note: It’s been over a year since the release of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves. We’ve reposted a column written by Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News from 2009. The book is now classified as “out of print” but there are still a limited number of copies available online from the Sun Bear Press web site and Amazon.com.

 

Jerry Sullivan

May 22, 2009

I can see it from the third floor of The Buffalo News, a crumbling carcass of steel and brick. You think of the ghosts and memories contained in the old Memorial Auditorium, and in the hearts and minds of the athletes and fans who spent so many hours there.

Tim Wendel remembers. Wendel grew up in Lockport. He came of age in the 1970s, when pro sports in Buffalo were at their zenith and two daily newspapers were there to record the moment. Wendel would run out of his house on cold winter mornings to pick up the old Courier-Express, and to see what Phil Ranallo had to say in his column.

Wendel went to Syracuse to learn journalism. He got work as a sports rewrite guy at the Courier, editing Ranallo’s stuff. He was on his honeymoon in September 1982 when he got a phone call from a friend who was watching his apartment. Your apartment’s fine, the friend said, but your paper closed.

He ended up in Washington, D. C., where his wife got a job with the Post. Wendel wrote a book about the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team. He covered baseball and wrote a baseball novel about Fidel Castro.

He remained a Buffalo guy at heart. He and his brother, Chris, sat around at family gatherings, rehashing games from their youth. One day, they were carrying on about the Braves when a relative said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and write about it?”

That’s where the idea for the book started. Wendel got access to the Courier archives and reread Ranallo’s old Braves columns. Chris said he should start calling some of the old Braves. The first call went to Ernie DiGregorio.

“I said, ‘I want to talk about the Braves,’ ” Wendel said Thursday. “His reaction was, ‘Wow! Yeah, let’s talk about the Braves.’ All the guys felt that way.”

Wendel’s labor of love, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” was more than four years in the making. On May 30, Wendel will be at New Era Cap on Delaware Avenue for a book signing and release.

The book is 216 pages, coffee table size, and costs $89. That’s a tad pricey, but it’s hard to place a value on people’s memories. There are some 250 photographs, most by Robert L. Smith. There are eight chapters, one for each year of the Braves’ existence. Wendel’s text is accompanied by 15 of Ranallo’s columns.

“We’re bringing Ranallo back to life, so to speak,” Wendel said. “Once again, I’m playing straight man to Phil. I’m writing the narrative and he’s the voice of outrage and reason.”

Wendel traces the team from its inception through the playoff seasons to the grim departure, after Paul Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown. There are eerie parallels to the current sports scene. Snyder wanted to regionalize his franchise. The Braves played as many as eight games a year in Toronto.

“The Braves’ so-called home games in Toronto, about a 90-minute drive north of the border, often grated on the team’s die-hard fans,” Wendel writes.

Sound familiar, Bills fans?

Wendel talked with most of the main parties, including DiGregorio, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jack Marin and the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay.

“They all hold a sweet spot in their hearts for Buffalo,” Wendel said. “They realize this is where they came of age. They talked about how great it was to play in the Aud, and how great the fans were, and about going out at night. They talked about going to Cole’s and seeing Bobby Chandler and the Bills there.

“They loved the Aud. McAdoo, Randy, Marin, it was almost Field of Dreams stuff, about shooting a basketball at the Aud. They loved shooting there.”

It’s good to know that, as the Aud was coming down, a Buffalo guy was retrieving its brief but precious NBA memories, which live forever.

Buffalo State gets Banner Idea

February 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Two Buffalo area events scheduled for next week will resonate for those who have memories and interest in the Buffalo Braves. The most noteworthy is Buffalo State College’s tribute to their three-sport All-American Randy Smith to be held during the halftime of the mens basketball game against Cortland State on Friday February at 8 PM at the Buff State Sports Arena.

Smith who died unexpectedly last spring, excelled in track and soccer at Buff State while also honing his basketball skills with the Bengals, before embarking on an improbable NBA career with the Braves.

According to an article which appeared in The Record (student newspaper) on Wednesday, Feb. 10th, “Smith’s mother, wife, and daughter along with several coaches and teammates will be on hand for the ceremony that will include a banner being raised in his honor being raised to the rafters.”

For those of us who have been banging the drum for the Buffalo Sabres and HSBC Arena to honor Randy (sorry I can’t keep referring to him as Smith) with a banner, it’s nice for Buff  State’s Athletic Department to have an appropriate ceremony for “arguably the greatest student-athlete to ever don Orange and Black in Buffalo State history.”

Another special event slated for Tuesday February 16th features devout Buffalo Brave fan and Western New York native John Howell. “If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” plays off the painful punchline from the musical “A Chorus Line” to produce a powerful presentation about Buffalo’s roots and more importantly suggests that the future of Western New York  is brighter than one would imagine. Howell wrote a great piece on after Randy Smith that we’ve featured before, but “Remembering Randy Smith” is always worth revisiting.

Chris Wendel, co-author of  “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” will also be at the event to sign and sell copies of the Braves coffee-table style book.

“If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” will be held at 8 PM on Tuesday February 16th at Allen Hall at the University of Buffalo’s South Campus.


A Banner Request for the New Year

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

by Tim Wendel

It was downright heartening to see the Sabres come back against Pittsburgh the other night. Not only did they take down “Sid the Kid” and those annoying Penguins, but they rolled back the clock, so to speak. The victory reminded me of an era when Buffalo teams were offensive juggernauts.

When the Braves were a contender in the mid-1979s, the rap against them was their often-lackluster defense. In fact, that’s the major lesson coach Jack Ramsay took away from his stint in Western New York.

“Sometimes you have to be able to stop the other team,” he told me decades later when I was putting together Buffalo, Home of the Braves.

To that end, Doctor Jack went looking for a new team with tall timber underneath and he found it in Portland, where he and Bill Walton won a title together.

That’s all well and good, but there’s also something to be said for being able to score. In watching the Bill stumble to the end of another dismal season I grew nostalgic for the old days when they could put up points almost as quickly as the old Braves. One could argue that the Bills of the 1970’s played defense about as well as the Braves did, too. Still, they had playmakers on offense and continued to rack up points pretty much until this current crop came along, which barely put up three points against Atlanta.

When I think about the Braves in their heyday, it’s difficult to differentiate them from the Bills and the Sabres because every team in town could score, seeming at will. You could see Bob McAdoo & Co. put up a bushel load one night and come back to witness the French Connection & Co. do pretty much the same thing the next at that grand old barn of a building called the Aud. OK, the Braves, Bill and Sabres didn’t bring home any titles during those epic runs. But, all in all, it sure was a lot more fun to watch.

Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for helping make Buffalo, Home of the Braves a reality. Now let’s get a banner to that team raised at HSBC.

30 years later franchsise swap begs for answers

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

By Tim Wendel

NBA Commissioner David Stern knows how quickly a sport can die, how its very integrity can be called into question. One of his first jobs in 1966, as outside counsel for the NBA, was the Connie Hawkins case. A star of the Brooklyn playgrounds, Hawkins associated with a known gambler, and that was enough to have him blacklisted from the league.

At the time, basketball was still recovering from point-shaving scandals that rocked the game in the 1950s. Top players, such as Kentucky All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, were bribed by gamblers to make sure their teams didn’t cover the point spread. The City College of New York — the only team to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same season – was involved and never returned to prominence.

Today, with former referee Tim Donaghy still making waves for fixing NBA games, commissioner Stern likely cannot help but flash-back to those dark days in the 1950s. Stern realizes as well as anybody how fast a sport can fade away.

Thirty years ago, boxing was on top of the world. Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali were household names — national heroes. A Saturday night bout was almost certainly water-cooler talk on Monday morning. Now the sport in which they were once kings has become a shell of its former self.

During that sport’s fall from grace, the public often wondered if the fix was in. Too many times what happened in the ring was manipulated — boxers lost fights on purpose; promoters, judges and referees rigged things to favor one party over another.

The recent news of Donaghy reminds me of another time when I wondered if the fix was really in. If there was much more than met the public eye?

In Buffalo, Home of the Braves, we detail how John Y. Brown swapped the entire franchise with Irving Levin, the owner of the Boston Celtics. One of the architects of that stunning team swap, perhaps the ultimate trade of all time, was David Stern.

Levin headed west with his team, becoming the Lost Angeles Clippers. Brown’s new Celtics, dare we say the old Braves, somehow held the draft right to collegian Larry Bird when the dust settled. Thanks to such an influx of talent, they returned to championship form.

“I was home in Buffalo. Somebody called me from the Braves’ office to tell me the news…,” Randy Smith told me years later. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it.”

With that, basketball’s glory days in Buffalo ended.

Questioning loyalty to Bills leads nowhere

November 16, 2009 Leave a comment

After yet another disappointing loss, the dismal performance of the Buffalo Bills persuaded me to question with friends how far loyalty goes with one’s hometown team. After Buffalo dropped to 3-6 with a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of Tennessee Titans, I threw out the idea of changing my allegiance (at least for the rest of this season).

After eliminating the teams that I’ve grown to despise (Jets, Patriots, Dolphins) the teams left to consider included the Bengals, Chargers, and Broncos.

Living now in Michigan after growing up in Western New York, there’s never been a reason to root for the Lions (with the exception of Barry Sanders). Spending ten years of my life in Colorado and as much fun as it was going to Denver Bronco games in the old Mile High Stadium, my heart still belongs with the Bills.

As I write this New England is beating up on Indianapolis, the same New England team the Bills seemed to have handled in the first game of the season, before giving away the game in the final minutes. That seems so long ago now, but that game has me wondering if the Bills season could have played out differently.

museum store_imageTo temper my delusion, I’ll soon escape to the Buffalo and Western New York Historical Society to view the exhibit featuring 50 Years of Bills History. It will allow me to look back at happier days or suffer several decades of futility all in one afternoon.

P.S. The Patriots blew their lead and eventually lost to Indianapolis. It should be noted that there is a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing New England also squander a game that it had seemingly won.

Braves Book Update: Buffalo, Home of the Braves is now on sale at seven independent book stores in the Buffalo area including the Buffalo and Western New York Historical Society Museum Shop. Purchases can also be made online from SunBear Press.