Saturday, July 02, 2016

Post Card from Iceland

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."
- "Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin

It was always difficult to say where you were in Iceland.


We came out of the Reykjavik airport (actually located 45 minutes away, in Keflavik) shortly before 1 a.m after a 5-1/2 hour flight from Toronto and the usual wait for customs and luggage. The sky looked like twilight - dark enough to put on car headlights, but light enough so that objects could still be seen in the distance.

It took some time for the bus to fill up with fellow visitors, and then the vehicle dropped off a few people along the way before arriving in Reykjavik at about 2:15. Along the way, we came to the realization that it was getting lighter outside.

Welcome to Iceland, late June edition.

Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to the North Atlantic country, the first question from others centered on the midnight sun. Yes, we did not see darkness for the entire nine-day trip. The day we were in Akureyri on the north coast, sunset was at 12:50 a.m., and sunrise was at 1:25 a.m. So it never became completely dark. That made it important to make sure the curtains in hotel rooms covered up as much of the windows as possible. On the other hand, walking down a fully lit street after 10 p.m. is a unique experience.

We took a bus tour of Iceland with 19 others that covered more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of a week, seeing a couple of cities, a few towns or villages, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains, hot springs. and sheep - lots of sheep. I will post notes on individual locations (with pictures) on my travel blog when I get to them. Here are some observations, with the help of some members of the group who turned from strangers to friends in much less than a week:

 * One of the odd parts of a trip to Iceland is that a look at the words of an Icelandic location provided no clue to English-speaking people on how to say it. There are 36 letters in their alphabet, and some combinations of letters produce unknown sounds to English speakers. When we were in Egilsstaoir (missing a squiggle under the o), no one had much of an idea about how to say it - so we didn't. The volcano that blew up in 2010, causing air travel problems for the world, is called Eyjafjallaokull. There are YouTube videos with instructions on how to say that one. T-shirts spell it out phonetically - AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuuti-uh. And good luck.

Names are no better. Our bus tour guide said her name once, but she thankfully said to just call her Steffi. The bus driver's name was the same story but he provided no snappy nickname. After he introduced himself on the bus, I let out a stage whisper, "Let's call him Skip." It got a good laugh, and the name stuck for some through the trip.

* We figured the bus tour would be tiring, as we had to change hotels every night for five straight nights, and it was. It led to a feeling of "If it's Sunday, it must be Reykjahlio" at times. But there were plenty of stops along the way to break up the drives, so we saw a lot and no one collapsed. No complaints here.

* Looking for a trip to a foreign country where communicating is easy? Iceland is your place. Just about everyone speaks English. All of the major signs that tourists see have both languages printed on them - along the lines of Canada's use of English and French. However, all of the television outlets from Iceland used Islandic, and a daily English newspaper didn't seem to be available anywhere. Therefore, it was tough to keep up with the latest news of the host country. Interestingly, a  Presidential election took place early in our stay, and we had no idea who won until an Internet search produced a result. (There were no roadside signs for candidates, either, come to think of it.)

* We did happen to be visiting when Iceland had its "Miracle on Grass" moment. The national soccer team had qualified for the Euro soccer tournament for the first time, causing a bit of a frenzy, and then advanced to the round of 16. There mighty England awaited, but Iceland came through with a 2-1 win. England's population - 51 million; Iceland's - 330,000. We could hear fireworks from our hotel in East Iceland. How embarrassing was the loss? The coach of the English national team immediately resigned after the game. Soccer has grown in popularity in Iceland as more and more fields have added artificial turf.

* There were English stations on cable television - mostly from the BBC. They devoted much air time to the Brexit vote. That result dismayed our new British friends who were traveling on our tour, and not just because they had to watch the trip become more expensive by the day as the pound suffered a beating in international currency trading. 

* A quick note on weather is required. It rained a little every day, but usually only for a short time. Temperatures were in the low 50s under mostly cloudy skies. Apparently that rare 70-degree day sends everyone running to the beaches (just to relax, not to swim in the freezing waters), but none of that took place while we were there.

* The hotel rooms were on the small side by American standards. They were missing top sheets, meaning we slept directly under a nice quilt, and clocks. The showers were a little claustrophobic, which was surprising in a place where people shower naked together (men and women are in separate rooms, for the record) before heading into the hot springs. One of our rooms did not have a bar on the floor to prevent shower water from flowing all over the bathroom - causing a small flood. The room did come with a squeegee, though, which was a first.

A native gives me advice on what to see in Iceland. He was a little stiff.
* Speaking of missing, there are no good sweatshirts in all of Iceland. Anywhere. I looked. There are a few clever t-shirts, including one that used the quote at the top of the story. But sweatshirts didn't get more witty than the one that read "Iceland." There were no long-sleeve t-shirts, either. Say, isn't this country right below the Arctic Circle? We told Steffi that she should quit the tour business and sell sweatshirts and flower seeds (none of those around either). "Steffi's Shirts and Seeds" would clean up.

* Iceland is an expensive country to visit. Just about everything but wool (remember, lots of sheep) has to be imported, which adds up after a while. Lunch for two was in the range of $35 unless you had a couple of tasty Icelandic hot dogs (they add a bit of lamb to them). A small soft drink was at least $3. Salads were relatively scarce on menus, and pricey when found. A 1,000-krona note is worth $8.16, at least as of this writing, which caused some mental mathematics whenever we looked at prices. One other point about prices - tipping is more or less not allowed in Iceland. Natives consider it a handout, so it is included in the price. You'd be surprised how helpful that is for tourists.  

* Driving can be an adventure in Iceland, as few roads outside of Reykjavik have more than two lanes and the rural areas feature many dirt roads. As a result, collision shop owners do well there. We had thought about renting a car and driving around Iceland outselves, but letting Skip do the driving proved to be a good decision. If you are interested, the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

* Iceland is a place for serious photographers. We saw several people at the major attractions with large cameras and plenty of extra equipment, such as tripods. Last year on our European cruise, we saw a far greater percentage people using tablets - which, at least to me, shouts out "amateur." I will say, though, that some phone cameras are good enough to take quality photographs these days. 

* Someone asked about the lack of wildlife on display in parks, shorelines, etc. Then we all realized that most animals never could migrate to Iceland. There are plenty of birds, though, including the cute-as-can-be puffins. The island also is home to about 100,000 horses - one for every three people, more or less.

* For what it's worth, there was a surprising amount of graffiti in Reykjavik - more than you'd think in an area with less than 250,000 people. We asked a few people about it, and we got answers ranging from drugs to immigrants.

* The "Buffalo is the center of the universe theory" was proven a couple of times on the trip in casual conversation. (As you may know, there's always some connection to Buffalo, no matter where you go.) We were chatting with a couple of Americans when I mentioned I was from Buffalo. "Oh, one of my best friends works for the Buffalo News." After a few stories about co-worker Sue Schulman, we became pals in no time. And Steffi trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute during the 1970s, spending several years in Buffalo. Amazing.

Iceland has plenty of natural wonders scattered around the country, and people - native and visiting - are welcoming and friendly. It made for a fine vacation.

It's always nice to return home - or at least to the Toronto airport.
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lunch with Gordie

If my Twitter feed was any indication, every single sports reporter who was working in the 1960s through 1980s did some sort of story with Muhammad Ali. There were all sorts of accounts of encounters with The Greatest Of All Time bouncing around after Ali's death.

Except from me. I missed out. I think the only time Ali and I were in the same building was when Don King promoted a boxing card at Memorial Auditorium, and Ali showed up.

But as for Gordie Howe, who died last week, well, that was another story. I had a regular lunch date with Gordie once a year for a few years. That deserves a bit of an explanation.

The Sabres used to have a media luncheon once a month during the hockey season in the mid-1980s. It was a chance to have steak for lunch on the team, and talk to team management. Once a year, Howe would come in to town to promote the Emery Edge Award, which went to the plus-minus award winner.

I'm not even sure what the company did, and why it sponsored an NHL award, but no one really cared. Howe turned up, had a nice lunch, and told stories about hockey. It must have been a nice way to make a few dollars. I know I sure enjoyed his visits, and everyone else did too.

My best memory of Howe came at one of those sessions. Gordie had just finished lunch when he went to get a pitcher of water for a refill. After filling up his own glass, he asked the group if anyone else wanted water. A few said yes, and Howe started refilling glasses.

At that point, Sabres' public relations director Gerry Helper got up to start the more formal part of the ceremony. He thanked everyone for coming and then said: "Let me introduce a few people to start. First is your waiter, Gordie Howe." Everyone laughed hard, including Gordie.

I covered Gordie's last game in Buffalo, on March 6, 1980 (it was Bobby Hull's last game in Buffalo as well, as he was a Whaler then), and I probably stuck a microphone in Howe's face after the game. It struck me that it was like interviewing my father, since he was 52.

The lunches were better. Let me assure you from personal experience that Gordie Howe really was as nice as everyone has said he was. I've got an autographed copy of his autobiography on my bookshelf, and it's not going anywhere.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One degree of separation from the Boss

This is definitely the week to tell this story.

It was the summer of 1978, and I was at a wedding in New Jersey - not far from the fabled Jersey Shore. A high school friend was getting married, so a few of his buddies made the drive down for the ceremony. It was an eventful weekend for a variety of reasons - a massive midnight swim in the hotel pool right on Route 23 in which some of the boys, um, forgot their suits, a car accident that left my 1970 Torino stationary, etc.

But for our purposes, let's stick to the reception. The seating was a little haphazard, and we were placed with a couple from New Jersey. The woman in question was suitably blonde and beautiful, leaving the rest of us trying to at least start a conversation in an awkward way.

During the reception, the disk jockey played some sort of canned music appropriate for the time. After a few songs, I had had enough disco or the equivalent at that point. "This is New Jersey. It's clearly time for some Bruce Springsteen," I said to the table.

The expression on the woman's face lit up. "Are you a fan?" she asked. "Absolutely. I saw the band live last year, and immediately went out to buy all of the albums," I replied.

Then she said, "It's so nice to see good guys do well." That sounds a little enigmatic, so I asked for an explanation.

She told me that once a week, members of the band in some combination used to come over to her house. They'd sit around, play poker, and eat chili. I thought that was quite cool. After I replied in a way to show my jealousy, she mentioned that Clarence Clemons never played much poker. He'd stay in the kitchen with the woman's father, talking about the good old days since they were the oldest ones in the house for those parties and eating chili.

The story is now 38 years old, which means those actual poker games probably are more than 40 decades in the past. But it still fun to hear stories about people like the members of the E Street Band, who were making friends as they tried to scratch out a living doing something they loved. The boys may have thought they were paying their dues at the time, but I'll bet they think of those days every so often as simple and pure.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Smile

After almost a year of campaigning and discussion about Presidential politics, someone finally will get to cast something resembling a ballot very soon. The Iowa caucus will be held on Monday. While standing around for 90 minutes and then announcing your Presidential preference in front of a crowd is a long way from the classic secret ballot that usually comes with democracy, it's all we've got for the moment. So we'll take it.

The odd part is that so many candidates didn't even get that far. We started with about 17 reasonably well-known Republican candidates and five Democrats, and that number has been cut by a little less than half in the past several months. I can't imagine what someone like Senator Lindsay Graham is thinking - "I don't mind losing an election, but I didn't even make it as far as the first caucus. What happened here?"

This weekend, then, isn't a bad time to look at the landscape, and one particular point is striking. I'm not sure who said it first, but a political analyst once noted that the more upbeat, hopeful, positive candidate usually wins Presidential elections. Certainly that applies to races like Obama over McCain and Reagan over Carter, among several others. When in doubt, look for sunshine.

It raises the question - who exactly would you consider the candidate who is the most positive outlook this year? It's difficult to find one out there.

Admittedly, the Republicans have been out of power for eight years, and they need to make a case for change. That's been enhanced because some party members have moved deeper into the conservative side, and they are the ones with the most enthusiasm (more likely to vote in primaries) and the loudest voices. But the candidates themselves have fallen over themselves to be less than pleasant in the process. How many of them would you really like to have next to you in a bar sipping a beer?

Donald Trump might offer a more sunny outlook than most, with his slogan about making America great again. But that's only if the country blindly follows his leadership, and only if you aren't a Muslim. Unrestrained megalomania, even by Presidential candidate standards, is never pretty. And really, anyone that makes fun of someone with disabilities, as Trump did to a reporter, is beyond contempt. Besides, a New York Times story on Sunday points out that 1 out of 8 of Trump's tweets contain some sort of personal insult. I would call that a sunny outlook.

Even without Trump, it's a strange group of the rest of those still standing, who basically complain about the state of the country without getting into many specifics about how to improve things. Yes, some think outlawing same-sex marriage would help, some think spending much more money on military spending would help, and some think that essentially bolting the doors when it comes to immigration would help. I'm just not sure where the public as a whole (meaning next November) is in agreement on all of that that. And none of the candidates - Trump in particular - seem to think that telling the truth is particularly helpful. Even when factual errors are made, the falsehoods are simply repeated on the chance that people will believe them.

The leaders besides Trump are Ted Cruz (he's the one standing alone at the bar in our beer test), and Marco Rubio (the one getting proofed at the bar) for now, since they have done well in polling to date. Both seemed to spend the last debate complaining how our country had been ruined in the past seven years. They also turned to religious viewpoints every so often, which appeals to Iowa's evangelical voters, but has the effect of making those who don't share those beliefs feel like they aren't invited to the party.

Otherwise, we have Jeb Bush, looking confused as to why his campaign never took flight and turning bitter as a result. We have Chris Christie, who has a sarcastic New Jersey sense of humor that might not carry well in other parts of the world, and who brings up 9/11 enough to make him an updated version of Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. We have John Kasich, who many not be joyful but at least acts like an adult and thus worries Democrats looking over the field of possible opponents. There's also Ben Carson, who is clearly in over his head but is at least pleasant some of the time, and Rand Paul, whose libertarian views are heartfelt but not a great fit for the Republican Party. I'm not sure I would have picked all of these people to survive this far.

Along those lines, Mike Huckabee came off in his first Presidential campaign in 2008 as being the sunniest of personalities, even though a few of his ideas were odd. His rhetoric was more harsh in  2016 - even if on a personal level he seemed like a fun person. Maybe that was a small factor in his microscopic support level this time, although Ted Cruz was a new face in '16 that pretty clearly worked hard to woo voters from that part of the electorate.

If you are looking for relief in the sunshine department on the other side of the legislative aisle, there's not much help. Bernie Sanders is never going to be confused with a stand-up comedian. Besides, you have to wonder if anyone who was a member of the Socialist Party has a chance of winning a national election. Then there's Hillary Clinton, who once again came into the nominating process with tons of natural advantages (name recognition, money, etc.), and hasn't been able to close the sale. That's partly because Republicans have been pounding the Clintons for a quarter-century, in some cases with some justification, and it has left some scars. But she's also not a natural campaigner; her speeches have many of the right notes but no one hears much music.I once said about Bill Bradley that he'd be a better President than Presidential candidate, and the same description may apply here.

However, Clinton probably has the best case to prevent a reasonably sunny outlook about the future. President Obama never has been good at selling his own accomplishments, surprising considering his rhetorical gifts. But, the unemployment rate has done nothing but drop since he entered office. The price of gas is down to $2 a gallon. The stock market is way up over where it was in 2009. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and Americans have stopped coming home in body bags. Millions of people have health insurance. Yes, the Middle East is still a mess, and terrorism is still a threat, but I'm not sure anyone could have solved those problems. In those big areas, the record could be considered pretty good. Clinton was part of Obama Administration, and thus can piggyback on some of the accomplishments as well as distancing herself from other aspects of Obama's policies.

As the Iowa voters get ready to caucus, I must remind myself that no matter how desperate we are for some sort of results, if only to give the endless consultants on all-news stations (where do they get these people, anyway?) something to talk about, Iowa isn't the best test of popularity. Ask those well-known Presidential nominees, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. But Iowa can offer some surprises - ask Pat Robertson - and it's with a certain degree of glee that we all wait to see what might happen. Along the way, we'll have to see who has a smile or his or her face as we go forward from here.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Midterm examination

Here's a number that might make you think twice. This is the 20th season that the First Niagara Center in Buffalo has been open.

Yup, it opened for business in the fall of 1996. So if you're 26 years old or so, you only have heard of Memorial Auditorium as a working facility. It was an abandoned building for a while, containing only memories for some, and eventually came down years after it should have - if only to sell more stuff to a nostalgic public before it rotted away. Translation: everyone who cared should have a pair of seats in the basement.

Therefore, the First Niagara Center, which isn't the original name and I assume won't be the name for much longer once the next bank merger takes place, is closing in on half of its expected lifespan. That might be a little premature, since the Aud made it through 56 years. But for argument's sake, let's call this a good time to see how we did in the arena-building business.

My initial verdict is that it's been a functional building with all the needed features, with one possible exception: charm.

A lot of arenas went up in big cities in North America in the 1990s. They all seemed pretty similar. They had a lower level, an upper level, and a middle level filled with club seats and suites. It's not as bad as the cookie-cutter baseball stadiums that popped up in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the 1970s, but you get the idea.

If you are in the inside of the building, with a few of the ice, well, it looks like most of the other new buildings. The sightlines are clear, although not as good and steep as they were in the Aud. But there's not much that shouts Buffalo when watching a game, either on television or in the building. If you take a lap around a concourse, you probably know where you are in the building at a given moment but that's about it.

The most interesting architectural feature of the place is probably the entrance. The atrium serves as a good gathering place coming in and out of the arena, and that creates a little energy. Of course, it also creates some crowds and lines thanks to post-9/11 security measures that couldn't have been foreseen in 1996. The plaza is nice, and the statue gives the area a bit of a history lesson. Granted there haven't been too many pregame playoff parties there lately for Sabre games, but that's not the arena's fault.

Obviously, the Sabres of that era didn't put many distinctive features into the building, because there wasn't much money to do so. Some things like a second freight elevator got cut out of the plans for budget reasons. If you recall, there was some doubt that the team could sell enough suite leases to even get the structure built in the first place. But to their credit, they got it built, and it still looks good in its 20th year.

Still, the First Niagara Center is a basic arena without many frills. Would you be excited about taking a visitor there to show it off? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a catch, though. The thought struck me that this is just "old guy" rhetoric. When I first came to Memorial Auditorium in 1970, it was the new home of the Braves and Sabres. That meant I felt excitement just by walking in the door. The Aud was already 30 years old then, and it had more nooks and crannies than an English muffin. Can you picture the stairs come down to the floor from the upper golds at the locker room? Can you see the television bucket hanging over the edge of the oranges at center ice? Me too.

Maybe it's just difficult for the First Niagara Center to compete with a building that contained so good memories, and for young people the FNC is generating its own such memories. After all, either building is one of those rare public facilities in which people expect to have a good time as soon as they walk in the door.

But at least from this old guy, it would be nice to see the building have a little more character. It would be good to have some memories updated in that way.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Not-so-lucky Pierre

Let's travel back in hockey time to the summer of 1987. The Buffalo Sabres have the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They did it the old-fashioned way, earning it with the worst record in the league in those pre-lottery days. What to do with it?

The argument comes down to two players. Pierre Turgeon is extremely talented. He's coming off a season in which he scored 154 points in only 58 games in junior hockey. What's more, he's not even 18 yet on the day of the draft. He has a chance to get bigger and stronger and therefore better.

Then there's Brendan Shanahan, a big, tough forward with a scoring touch. Shanahan had 92 points in 56 games in his last year of junior - not overwhelming, but pretty darn good.

Turgeon or Shanahan? That was the discussion leading up to the draft itself. Most media members indicated that Turgeon had a better chance to be a more dominating player in the NHL, but they certainly liked talking to Shanahan more. Some of that was a language barrier when Turgeon of Quebec spoke to English-speaking reporters, but Shanahan certainly came across as the more mature and interesting person.

As we know, the Sabres opted to take Turgeon with that first pick. I'll always remember that, because I worked in Buffalo's public relations office at the time. In fact, I believe I was the first person from the Sabres' organization to shake Turgeon's hand when he was picked. Turgeon stayed in Buffalo until he went to the Islanders in a trade for Pat LaFontaine, as the team wanted to create more excitement in an attempt to get a new arena.

This wasn't a situation like Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Both Turgeon and Shanahan lasted a long time in the NHL. Ever look at Turgeon's final numbers? They are a little spooky in a way. Turgeon finished 515 goals, 812 assists, and 1,327 points. The Sabres' other first overall pick, Gil Perreault, finished with 512 goals, 814 assists, and 1,326 points. Turgeon did play a couple of extra seasons, giving him 103 more games than Perreault. But it is funny how that turned out.

Here's something else that's funny: Do you ever hear Turgeon's name mentioned as a serious Hall of Fame candidate? Not really. Many of the players in that point range are either in or considered a contender year after year, but Turgeon only comes up when the list of candidates is a long one. As in, oh, yeah, him too.

What are the arguments against him? He didn't dominate the competition. Turgeon had two seasons with 100 points, and three years with 40 or more goals. However, longevity is a virtue and those who compile offensive stats are often rewarded by the Hall. Then there's the "he didn't win anything" discussion. You hear that a lot in pro sports, and it's tough to judge that. Some guys just get stuck on mediocre to bad teams, and they aren't going to get much hardware no matter what they do.

The last argument, though, is the most interesting. Turgeon got the all-purpose label of "soft" along the way. It's hard to define that to the hockey outsider. Soft players shrink when the games turn tough and physical. Turgeon obviously preferred to rely on his skill, finishing in the top five of voting for the Lady Byng six times in his career and winning it once. But in the world of hockey, "soft" players fall short in a basic test of greatness.

That brings us, belatedly, to a book Gare Joyce wrote in 2006 called "When the Lights Went Out." It's about the 1987 World Junior Championships. (Just finished the book, it's excellent.) In the last game of the tournament, Canada and the Soviet Union got into an epic brawl in the second period. Both benches emptied, and the fighting went on and on to the point where, yes, some lights in the building were turned out. The game never resumed, and both teams were kicked out of the tournament - costing Canada some sort of medal.

When the dam broke and the players poured on the ice to pair off, one Canadian stayed behind - Pierre Turgeon. "It was crazy, but fighting was never my game," Turgeon is quoted as saying.

Apparently Turgeon's teammates instantly didn't forgive him for sticking to the bench. They immediately froze him out after the game. Some Canadian media members thought at the time that Turgeon's action, or rather lack of action, was unforgivable under the circumstances - to the point where it might hurt his NHL prospects.

Almost 20 years later, Joyce interviewed some of the players about that tournament. Everett Sanipass, who was on the center's junior team in 1987, had this to say about Turgeon: "He was soft. Gutless. He scored goals, but I bet his teammates didn't have any time for him, wherever he played. I guarantee it." Another anonymous Team Canada teammate said, "You're never going to win when your captain has balls the size of snow peas."

I never heard this issue come up before the '87 draft, but it certainly sounds like Turgeon picked up a reputation that day in Czechoslovakia that he never shed. It might even be part of the reason why Turgeon isn't considered Hall of Fame material by some. That would mean he's still paying for it today.

And if that's all true, the defining moment of one of the greatest talents of his generation came when he just stayed on the bench as a 17-year-old during a fight a few thousand miles from home. That, in turn, raises a question that must have crossed Turgeon's mind at some point when he couldn't go to sleep.

If he had it to do all over again, would he still sit there?

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Uncle Van

I can tell you when the first time I ever saw Van Miller on television, give or take a month or two. I can tell you when the first time I ever saw him in person was. And I can tell you when the last time I saw him in person was.

I just find it a little difficult to tell you how surprising it is that I ended up being something of a friend of his over the years.

The start of this "relationship" with Miller, who died on July 18, came in 1965, when our family moved to Elmira, New York from northern New Jersey. Elmira wasn't close to much in the electronic sense back then, and we had to sign up for some fancy invention called cable television in order to see any channels besides the one (!) that was in Elmira. The Syracuse and Binghamton stations were on there, but so was one from Buffalo - WBEN-TV. I quickly dove in to watch the local sports news, and at that time Van Miller presented the sports during the 6 and 11 p.m. news.

I knew about the National Football League in those days, having followed the New York Giants in New Jersey. But I didn't know much about the American Football League then. Van offered a course in the AFL, and as the play-by-play announcer of the Bills, you could tell he wasn't too objective about them. It should be added that the Bills were in one of their few glory periods then, and you could count on Van to wave the flag for them on his sportscasts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I moved to Buffalo in 1970. I already had a head start on sportscasters of the town, although I think I started watching Ch. 2's Mike Nolan for whatever reason when I arrived - probably because he was on first. But I listened to Van broadcast the Bills when the games weren't on TV, and heard him do the play-by-play of the NBA's Braves. He was obviously really good, an announcer who could bring the action to life. Our high school group watched him courtside as he broadcast Braves' games. When one of the Buffalo players went up for a dunk, Van rose from his chair right along with him to give him a figurative boost to the hoop.

More importantly, I saw Van for the first time up close in person during the winter of 1972-73. My high school fielded a team for the quiz show, "It's Academic." Van was the host. The taping was held at the Ch. 4 studios on Elmwood Ave. As a high school reporter, I talked my way into joining the studio audience for the show so I could write about it for the school paper. Van was glib and professional as a broadcaster in that role too. I no doubt was too shy to say anything to him at the time, but it was something of a thrill to see a real NFL/NBA announcer in the flesh.

After 1973, I went to college, came back to Buffalo, and started to pop up in local press boxes for games. I went to enough of them to become a familiar face, and got to know just about everyone in the sports media in town. That eventually included Van, probably through my friend and Ch. 4 weekend sports reporter Brian Blessing. It was easy to see that Van had something of an on/off switch. Sometimes he'd be quiet and sit in the background. Of the three TV sports directors at the time, Van probably was the least accessible - with Ed Kilgore the most visible and open, and Rick Azar just ahead of Van. But when the situation called for it, Van could turn on the personality and become the person you saw on the air. When I introduced him to friends, because all of them knew Van and wanted to meet him, he was always friendly and gracious to them.Van would joke a little with the guys and flirt a little with the girls.

When I started working for the Sabres, Van would sometimes call up for information. Let's say there was no other caller like him. I'd pick up the phone and hear, "It's Uncle Van!" I'd laugh and say hello, and then Van would say, "Where are WE practicing today?" Sometimes I'd answer, "I don't know where you and I are practicing, Van, but the team is out at Sabreland in Wheatfield." All in good fun.

One of my favorite Van stories centered on a conversation in the Sabres' pregame media room, where dinner was served. My friend Glenn and I were talking about football free agency with Van over a meal. It should be noted that the media room frequently ran out of silverware, causing some odd eating moments. Well, Glenn made the point that no matter how much money Bills' star Bruce Smith was getting, it was a bargain compared to what he'd make as an unrestricted free agent. Van looked at Glenn and said, "You make a good point for a guy who eats steak with a spoon." We all dissolved into laughter.

One time Van and I were talking when he showed up a little late for a game, and I told him, "It's 2-2, but the game is closer than the score indicates." He loved it - he repeated on the air a few times over the years.

Eventually in the late 1990s, Van started to cut back on his duties. He retired from Ch. 4 in 1998, and stayed on the Bills' broadcasts until 2003. I'd see him occasionally at events, watching the slow decline that can come with moving into one's 80s. The last time I saw him was in 2013, when Larry Felser - whose story parallels Van's for me when it comes to going from larger-than-life figure to friend - died. At Larry's funeral, Van wore a Bills sweatshirt. He's the only one who could get away with it. I made sure to go up to him after the service - "Hi Van, it's Budd Bailey, good to see you again." He said the right things back, but it was tough to tell as he spoke through his personal fog how much he actually remembered.

That's not the way I want to remember him, of course. I can still hear him providing the soundtrack to some great moments in Buffalo sports history, expertly described with genuine enthusiasm. There won't be another like "Uncle Van" any time soon.

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Across the pond

Brilliance of the Seas - home for 13 days for 2,500 cruisers
Our two-week European vacation is over - our first trip together across the Atlantic. We were in eight countries in those 14 days. In my case, that's pretty good for someone who had been in four countries in more than 59 years.

Travel is supposed to be educational, and a trip like this - complete with different languages and strange-looking money - qualifies. You wouldn't think I'd take pride in buying camera batteries in a Helsinki store - but I did. I'll put up pictures and specific comments on my travel blog. In the meantime, here are some of the things that struck me as interesting while serving as a slightly naive European traveler as I went from the United States to Canada to the United Kingdom to Denmark to Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Denmark to the United Kingdom to Canada to the United States:

* Who was the big winner at the end of the Cold War? American business. We walked into a mall in Tallinn, Estonia, a place that has thrived since the Soviets left, and saw familiar stores and brands. With a few superficial changes, the mall could have been in any well-off U.S. area.

That's even true in St. Petersburg. The Cyrillic alphabet does tend to obscure some names, but McDonald's and Subway tended to jump out. There's one word that doesn't need to be translated to catch the attention of Russian shoppers when it is on a billboard: "Sale." And speaking of billboards there, it was funny to see one of the M-and-M characters depicted in that format.

* By the way, we visited six capital cities. I believe each one had an Irish pub, a Mexican restaurant, and a Texas steak house. Nothing says Denmark like some good ribs. 

* It really is true that you can get by in many European cities if you speak only English. That might not be true outside of tourist areas, but many service workers could deal with visitors quite well. I was surprised that many of the kiosks at attractions that had descriptions in two languages usually used English as the second one - even in Russia.

* The oddest scene of the trip might have come at the Hermitage, the famous museum in St. Petersburg. The biggest attraction in one of the zillion rooms in the place was a painting by Leonard da Vinci. Suddenly, a large group of Chinese tourists surged around the painting, leaving me crowded and a little scared. That was a first. I have felt that way at sporting events, but not in an art gallery. According to veteran travelers, life in China is of course overpopulated, and that has led to a different and smaller definition of "personal space" that what the West usually accepts.

* When we were getting ready to enter the Hermitage, it look us a while to cross the square to get to the entrance. Our group was there at the same time the St. Petersburg Marathon was finishing. I recognized the look of those runners who had taken more than five hours to complete the 26.2-mile distance. It's a universal expression.

Speaking of running, I did it a few times on the ship. On the first sail day, I used the treadmill - and was reintroduced to the concept of running on a platform that swayed with the waves. The running track was better, even when fog made the top of the ship a bit blurry when I looked at it.

* The best pre-trip advice I received was from someone who said not to worry too much about money. The ATMs generally are all connected, and credit cards are accepted in most places. I didn't have the chance to do much shopping in Russia, but the one souvenir store I entered took dollars, Euros, and credit cards. It really is a global village in some ways.

* In most of our European stops, we saw traffic lights that went from red to red and yellow, quickly followed by green. The only other time I've seen red and yellow on together was in New England, where it was used for pedestrian crossings. (It still may be, for all I know.) In Europe, it's almost like it's a signal to start revving the engine.

* There's a major business opportunity in Europe for a good shirt designer. Most of the souvenirs we saw in that area were rather boring. The exception was in Skagen, Denmark, an artsy resort area that had some specialists in that area and were rewarded by a brisk business.

* I think it's fair to say that it looked as if more people in Europe smoked than they do in America, but it didn't look like an overwhelming edge.

* Odd cultural moment: a small band greeted tourists at Catherine Palace. The song of choice: "Yellow Submarine." 

* I can't say I ever thought of the Baltic Sea as an Interstate Highway for ships before this, but it was true. At any given moment, we could see another big ship - usually a barge - in the distance.

* Cruisers (my shorthand for people who travel this way a lot) love to talk about the differences in ship lines, but - based on two experiences, Holland America last year and Royal Caribbean this year - the similarities are far greater than the differences. Our stateroom was almost a carbon copy of last year's home. The companies both made plenty of suggestions to drink, gamble, buy jewelry, and pose for photographs. Royal Caribbean might have been a little louder when it comes to promoting its upscale restaurants, ones that charge an extra fee for dining. Holland America does get credit for handing out a daily news summary from the New York Times. Without signing up for Wifi services, which is pricey, it was impossible to keep up with the outside world - so we didn't.

* Last year we couldn't imagine what it was like to be on the same boat with 1,200 people. This year we were on a boat with about twice that. That thought was a little scary, but Royal Caribbean did a good job of keeping the size of the lines for goods and services down. A little wait is to be expected at times like getting on board or getting luggage, but realistically that part was smooth. I will add that the food seemed a little better on Holland America. I would think feeding half as many people would provide a bit of an advantage in that department.

* The cruise lines try to keep the customers occupied when they are on board, particularly during "sail days" when the ships don't go to port. We often showed up for trivia games, and got to meet some nice people that way. Those contests were pretty tough to win, and not just because a few people might have used their phones to look up answers. With the United Kingdom and Australia well represented on board, some questions were geared in their direction - leaving some Americans stumped.

At one point in a game, I asked myself the question, "Do I really want to win a game about identifying disco songs?" I need not have worried, finishing well back in the pack. There was no such ambiguity about winning a game all about American history, particularly when it was played on July 4.

*  Most of the time it was hard to know that there were people with some serious money on the boat, even though you might have guessed that about people who were more than willing to pay $14 for a mixed drink. However, at certain points in the cruise economic class became apparent. That was on the so-called formal nights, when everyone was told to dress for dinner. Suddenly the children on board, who looked like typical kids the rest of the time, were in obviously expensive suits and dresses.

* The first show I saw on our ship featured an ABBA tribute band. I should have seen that coming. After all, this was a trip that featured a stop in Sweden, and ABBA made substantial contributions to the Swedish treasury over the years through record royalties. Besides, ABBA was popular starting in 1977, which means those in their late 50s know the songs well - and that's the start of the sweet spot of the cruising demographic. ABBA songs popped up at other times during the trip as well.

One act prompted some lively discussion after the show. Was the guy portraying Elton John in a tribute band actually playing the piano, or was the guy in the back row doing the work for him? Since "Elton" wasn't touching the foot pedals, most people guessed he was faking it. The entertainment star of the trip was a "comedy mind reader" named Mike McClean, who was quick and clever throughout his act.

* We had only been on a cruise ship once before, and the crowd on the Alaska trip last year was mostly American. This featured more of an international cast. It's hard not to bump into strangers on the big ships, if only because seating at the buffet restaurant is limited and you have to take any available seat. That means conversations can go in unexpected directions.

For example, I got plenty of lessons about immigration within the European Union. A worker from Poland can do better in the United Kingdom than he can at home, even if he takes less than the going rate for a skill. That's led to some hard feelings. I asked how Northern Ireland and Ireland were getting along these days, and was told that while the people didn't exactly trust each other, it was in their best interests to get along and so they did so - a little grudgingly.

The conversation could go the other way too. A couple of Europeans had followed the shootings in South Carolina, and wondered why Americans didn't do something about this obvious problem. It was hard to explain to them why American politicians used the mass killings as a launching point for a discussion about ... the Confederate flag. My guess is that the political leanings of the group as a whole are more conservative than the population at large. It costs a good-sized amount of money to travel this way.

Generally, though, the conversations stuck to travel. The cruising population is pretty well off and has seen a lot of the world. That often gives them a perspective and curiosity that doesn't come with day-to-day life for most. They helped make the trip a memorable experience.

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