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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Friday, June 12, 2015

Unsafe at any speed?

Drivers in the city of Buffalo these days are facing some very odd times. Let's call it the law of unintended consequences at work.

In late May, there was a simply horrible accident on a Saturday on Route 198, the Scajaquada Expressway. A driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road - right into Delaware Park. One child was killed, and another critically injured. The mother also was slightly injured in the accident. It doesn't get much worse than that.

One of the worst parts of the accident is that we all should have seen it coming. Placing a four-lane divided highway with a 50 MPH speed limit in the middle of a park for part of its run, with no major railings, was a horrible idea. The rest of the highway isn't exactly relaxing, either. There's an extremely short merge lane going west of Parkside, and the on-ramp from the 198 to Route 33 is often backed up and features an on-ramp that can require a cross-over technique through traffic that always looks like it could create an accident a day.

Governor Cuomo wasted no time in taking action. He almost immediately ordered the speed limit reduced from 50 MPH to 30. The Department of Transportation was told to take a long-term look at the situation in order to make it safer for everyone. Can't argue with that premise.But it will be a while for a solution is reached. And in the meantime, driving on parts of Route 198 is downright scary.

Ever drive on a road where everyone is going a different speed? That's what is happening in places. There are some posted signs on spots about the new rules. Some drivers are obeying them as soon as touch the road. Some are slowing down a notch to 35 or 40. Then there are others whostill  are going 50 and above. Granted, I don't drive through the park section of Route 198 much, but the end of the highway by Route 33 feels unsafe.

I have heard that speeding tickets are being handed out, which is good. But it's tough to patrol every inch of the highway at all times of the day or night. It's also tough to break an old habit of hitting a particular speed on a highway, no matter how big the signs are. People have been driving at a certain rate for decades. And others tend to believe they have the Constitutional right to drive at almost any speed they want, a philosophy I've never understood.

Again, I don't want to this conversation to diminish our sympathies for the family involved in the accident by the slightest bit. The way we responded - and will respond - to the circumstances involves is what's being examined here. We can only hope that the DOT does a thorough job of investigating the situation, using, ahem, all deliberate speed. In the meantime, if you see a driver who is a little slower than most cars on Route 198 and looks a little nervous about it, well, that could be me.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The second time around

Veteran Buffalo Sabres' fans remember Ted Nolan's first tenure as coach of the Buffalo Sabres. It was one of the oddest times in the history of the franchise.

General manager John Muckler and Nolan were barely speaking by the end. Muckler wanted to fire Nolan in the middle of a successful 1996-97 season, but wasn't allowed to do so by team management. Players on the team were split into sides, most famously in the case of Dominik Hasek (Muckler) and Pat LaFontaine (Nolan). As team member Derek Plante once said, he didn't mind missing his usual soap operas on TV; the drama at the rink each day filled that need nicely.

Muckler was fired right after the 1997 playoffs, and Nolan left after turning down a one-year contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier.

Yet that might be the second-oddest period of Nolan's coaching career in Buffalo. That alone says a lot about what to think about his latest departure, a day after the end of the regular season. It's sure tough to put "Nolan II" into perspective.

To recap, Nolan was brought in as interim coach when LaFontaine arrived as the top hockey executive when Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired relatively early in the 2013-14 season. Fans, who always had a great relationship with LaFontaine and Nolan, reacted in some cases like MacArthur had returned to the Philippines. Yes, the team had a massive rebuilding job in front of it at that point and wasn't going to be good for a while, but having Nolan around made the idea more tolerable for many. Eventually, Tim Murray was brought in from Ottawa as the new general manager.

Then with a month or so to go in the 2013-14 season, LaFontaine abruptly resigned his position. And at that exact moment, Nolan knew that the countdown toward unemployment had begun.

Nolan knew first-hand that general managers want their own people to be head coaches most of the time - and probably for good reason.He went through that when he coached the Islanders, as he and general manager Garth Snow didn't get along philosophically - whatever that means. Come to think of it, if Nolan had taken Regier's one-year contract contract offer, he probably would have exited after the 1997-98 season. Regier obviously valued a close relationship with a coach, and had that sort of friend in longtime Sabre coach Lindy Ruff. Shotgun marriages usually don't work, in hockey and in life.

It's very, very difficult to judge how Nolan did as a coach in Buffalo the second time around. Most of the veteran talent was sent elsewhere for prospects and draft choices, leaving a roster that slowly deteriorated to the point where it often wasn't competitive once the calendar flipped to 2015. We know that Mark Pysyk was kept in Rochester for most of the season against the coaching staff's wishes; we don't know if there were other such disagreements. A few of the kids seemed to take some small steps forward at times, but it's still a little tough to guess how many of them will be part of a better Sabres' future. There's Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen ... well, the Magic 8 Ball replies to those questions about others with "Ask again later." Plus, all the speculation of a deliberate, year-long (or perhaps longer) tank attempt by the front office poisoned the atmosphere.

I've heard that some of the players had mentally packed in the season a few weeks before the actual conclusion, but the team didn't completely fall apart. It almost broke the hearts of some Sabres' fans by not finishing last with a little rush at the end. Nolan is known as a motivator and not an X's and O's genius, but this season certainly tested those skills. Ted is a survivor, and at least seemed to roll with the punches as well as could be expected. Meanwhile, a member of upper management said recently that the season was toughest on the team's front office, which sure sounds like someone who is a little too insulated for his own good. It was tough on everyone, right down to the last fan in the 300 level.

No one should feel too sorry for Nolan. He walks away with a nice golden parachute of a few million dollars for his efforts, paid out through 2017. Consider it a lofty 401K payment.

Nolan also leaves as someone who has gone 0 for 3 in terms of getting along with his boss at the sport's highest level. It seems unlikely that he'd get a fourth chance somewhere.I'd argue that the Sabres' front office probably got good value for what it paid, and will pay, Nolan. I'm not sure anyone else could have calmed the fan base that much during the past two years of losing. People still came to games throughout the season and watched on television.

Now that the page has been turned, though, it's fair to say the Sabres had better swing for the fences, to borrow a baseball phrase, when it comes to hiring the next coach. Teenagers Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can't be expected to do all the work concerning good will around here. After all the talk about the Sabres being deliberately bad, a "name" coach would go a long way toward putting a bizarre and often unwatchable season behind them as quickly as possible.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tanks for nothing

There's one last point to make about one of the strangest and ugliest hockey seasons in recent memory.

It all could have been prevented by changing the draft lottery just a year sooner.

The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes play on Thursday night here in Buffalo. If the Sabres lose in regulation, it will be very difficult to catch the Coyotes in the overall standings, which means Buffalo probably will finish last. This pleases a segment of the fan base, which wants to see the team grab one of two potential stars in the summer draft in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. So you'll probably hear some people cheering Thursday in Buffalo when/if Arizona scores.

It's part of a very odd year. Let's count the ways.

The Sabres organization has been accused of writing off the entire year in order to get a shot at one of the stars. The fans aren't sure how to react, and it may depend on whether you are willing to donate thousands in season-ticket payments for the chance at better times in the future. The players know that there are a bunch of prospects waiting to grab their seven-figure salaries, and thus have the usual incentive to play hard to stay in the league. The general manager signed several free agents last summer who haven't helped much. Did the team look for players who weren't too good and who could simply fill up a salary cap minimum without helping the team much, or does the hockey department have people who aren't good judges of talent? The coach realizes that this season hasn't been exactly a fair test of his abilities, and that he could lose his job at the whim of a general manager who was hired by an executive who is no longer with the organization ... and who hired the coach before that general manager. The coach wants to win games; does the front office want him to do the same? Sometimes players and coaches love to play the "us against the world" card. Usually it's silly, but in this case it might be true.

Oh, one other point. When Toronto comes to town later in the season, many Maple Leaf fans will be showing up as usual. Will they be rooting for the Sabres to win, so that Buffalo has less of a chance of getting McDavid or Eichel and then be better in the future (plus perhaps give a slightly better chance statistically to the Leafs of winning the lottery)? Would that be the strangest moment in a good-sized, old rivalry?

I think that covers it, more or less. Yes, it's complicated. There's probably an Arizona version of that list, but I'll leave that to a Coyotes' watcher.

The problem is the system. The National Hockey League set up a draft lottery a few years ago to prevent this sort of season. The idea was that last place would not be any sort of guarantee of receiving the first draft pick. The 30th-place team right now has a 20 percent chance of going first in the draft. Who would throw an entire season away, and possibly anger the fan base, with an 80 percent chance of not getting the top pick? No one. But what happens when there are two really good players coming into the league?

Since only one team could move up in the draft lottery, the number 30 team in the standings was assured of going second in the draft. Therefore, that team would definitely get one of the two top prospects. That created an award for finishing last - which the lottery tried to avoid, and is exactly what shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Even the 29th-place team has only a 33.5 percent chance, more or less, of getting one of the two top players - 20 percent of the No. 30 winning the lottery, and 13.5 percent of moving up a notch. That's quite a difference.

Next year, however, there will be a lottery for the first three picks in the draft. There will be no guarantee that the worst team in the league will do better than the fourth pick overall. It seems like it will prevent this sort of season. That's the way it works in the NBA. Admittedly, some years lately there hasn't been one franchise player out there, let along two or three. And it doesn't stop teams from stocking up assets for the future, as the Philadelphia 76ers have been doing.

But at least their fans know who to root for during the course of the season. And they know that management has the same goal as the coaches and players. Not so in hockey this time.

It's been a mess of a season, and I don't want to see its likes again.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Our hostess

I took a trip back to the Seventies today while going to the barber shop. While waiting for my turn in the chair, I picked up the Clarence Bee - the weekly of the town where I lived in my high school and college days - and unexpectedly came across the obituary of Mary Hormell - the mother of some good friends of mine from that era. Once I got past the initial shock, memories from a distant era quickly came back.

Did you ever wonder about how and where kids gather? The dynamics probably change from case to case. But when it came to the Hormell family, it was easy to see why the house was such a magnet. Mr. and Mrs. Hormell had two sets of twins - Dave and Debbie, Peter and Tish - who were two years apart. Since they lived only a couple of blocks from high school property, the house could have a crowd of teenagers just by leaving the front door open. Still, in spite of what the real estate agents tell you, location isn't everything in such matters. A welcoming presence by the people with the keys to that the front door is a necessary part of the equation. The Hormell parents didn't just tolerate the friends of their children (which usually is the way it works), they actually seemed to like them.

The house became a frequent collection point for me and some of my friends by the time my senior year of high school rolled along as I got to know classmates Debbie and Dave. Then Debbie and I went to Syracuse together where we worked on the school newspaper, broadening our ties. And then Debbie and I worked together briefly after college, extending the base of friendship even more. Dave and I maintained connections through sports; he kept insisting that the upcoming season would be the one that the Bills would win a Super Bowl in spite of the obvious evidence against that prophesy in a given year.

Every so often, a party would break out - either planned or unplanned. Everyone would have a fine time, staying later than they planned. I think I set a personal record for my latest night out while visiting the Hormell residence one year. It was New Year's Eve, and they were having a party. I had to cover a Sabres' game (remember Tux 'N Pucks?), so I didn't get to the party until about 12:30 a.m. Well, I believe I got in the car to leave around 5:45 a.m. The reason I know that is I listened to my own taped report on the game on my radio station on the drive home, which - trust me - is an odd experience.

Debbie once reminded me of another story from those times. Mom had instructed me to pick up the proverbial quart of milk to bring home for someone's breakfast. I stopped on the way to the Hormells and put it in the refrigerator for "safe keeping." Well, at some point the milk was desperately needed for a purpose that has been lost to history, although it probably was used as a mixer with an alcoholic beverage. Debbie remembers me stumbling around after it was consumed saying, "What am I going to tell Mom?"

I have two specific memories about those gatherings in general. One, there were people in the living room. This was almost shocking. When you grew up in the suburbs, you learned as a child that the living room was filled with "good furniture." That translated into furniture which was too good to actually use, especially by children. Yet the Hormells actually let their children's friends sit in the living room for long periods of time. For whatever reason, that really made me feel welcome.

Then there was a fact that a regular participant in these gatherings was Mrs. Hormell. I don't want to imply that she was crashing any parties, or trying to act 19 years old or something. She'd simply be around, and start conversations with her children's friends. Mrs. Hormell was obviously quite interested in what those friends were like and what they were doing. I'd walk in the house, and Mrs. Hormell would be at the dining room conversation, chatting with a 21-year-old as naturally as could be. That was very unusual. Looking back, it is obvious how she set a comfortable tone for all who entered the house.

That era came to an end as the 20-somethings moved on with their lives, which in some cases took them out of town or at the least out of the house. I'll bet Mrs. Hormell missed those gatherings as much as we did in some ways. In looking over the obituary, it was striking how little I knew about Mrs. Hormell - her first name, for starters. But we all knew what a kind, nice woman she was, and hope she realized how much we appreciated her hospitality and interest in our lives.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The alma mater

We're all used to seeing universities receive penalties and go on probation for some sort of violation with the NCAA. If we've learning anything over the years, it is that the rule book is incredibly large and difficult to comprehend, let alone follow to the letter. In addition, we all know that if some booster wants to give a $100 handshake with a player on the basketball team, well, it's a little tough to enforce.

We're also used to see some schools cut some corners when it comes to recruiting these days. The idea of a student-athlete is a romantic one. But realistically, being a college football or basketball player is essentially a full-time job these days, and that doesn't include study time. Not too many young people can balance the workload easily, and - as one coach once said - those people go to Duke or Stanford. When the rewards of success are considered, it's easy to understand why teams might take a chance to keep a talented quarterback enrolled and eligible.

Athletic programs have gotten so ridiculously big, and the amount of money involved has gotten so large, that it's difficult to wonder how our universities got so far away from their original mission statement of educators first and providing extra-curricular activities second. It's particularly true when it's remembered that most university athletic programs lose money; places like Texas and Alabama are the exceptions.

That brings us to Syracuse University's latest programs. Just for the record, that's of interest to me, a Class of 1977 graduate. That's so long ago that I still covered Jim Boeheim's introductory news conference from his hiring in 1976. Since I'm in the sports journalism business, I'm still something of a fan of the Syracuse sports teams; it's a good way to feel a connection to some good times and good people from my past. But I'm also a fan of the university itself, and have something of a stake in its reputation. When the athletic department breaks the rules, all graduates, students and staff members suffer consequences in a sense.

Syracuse doesn't exactly have a history of innocence here. The school has been on probation in the past. Still, this particular incident has a really odd feeling. Not only did it take forever to investigate, but a description of the offenses sounded worse than the actions themselves.

For example: it's never good when a booster is charged with paying players. In this case, a few football and basketball players and athletic staff members earned a few thousand dollars for so-called volunteer work. That's not a good idea, but I've heard of far worse.

For example: the director of basketball operations tapped into players' email accounts in order to check on academic progress, and may have even attached some revisions to course work that way. Of course, if you recruit student-athletes who have trouble with the student part, the pressures build all through the system.

For example: the athletic department didn't follow the written guidelines for a drug testing policy. Apparently some first violations (probably involving marijuana) was supposed to be reported to parents and weren't. Again, it's not a good idea to follow the guidelines, but players weren't exactly completing drug deals at halftime. 

Let's say you were the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, and certain violations of a comparable nature popped up. Mr. or Ms. CEO would call someone into the office, and promptly suspend the culprit until he or she could be suitably fired. The regulations in college athletics might be different, but the goal should be similar. The coach has to set the tone for the entire program, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Based on the NCAA report, a few people weren't even reading out of the same book. It's tough to know how often Boeheim acted like a CEO and how often he acted like "just another employee" here, but the NCAA obviously believed there was too much of the latter.

Syracuse received some punishment for its actions from the NCAA. The basketball team will lose scholarships after the coming year. Even in a world when a team has something like 15 scholarships but only plays eight guys regularly, the cuts will make an impact on depth and make it difficult to compete on a national level. A five-year probation shouldn't matter, as long as things in the department get fixed. Boeheim will sit for nine conference games next season; well, potential coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins will get some on-the-job training that way. And Boeheim and the university will have to vacate 108 wins, which always seemed like an odd penalty that only matters to the historians.

The other shoe dropped on Wednesday morning. It was announced that athletic director Daryl Gross has left that job in favor of moving on to other responsibilities at the university. I can't say how much Gross had to do with any of this, but he seems to be taking some blame - fairly or unfairly. Gross might be feeling like a bit of a scapegoat, although you probably won't get him to say that. Then the school announced that Boeheim would retire in three years at the latest. The longtime coach will be around through the scholarship limits and thus hand Hopkins a program with fewer worries and restrictions in 2018. Boeheim did reserve the right on Thursday to retire when he saw fit.

I'm just a long-distance observer here, but it's easy to guess that the Syracuse athletic department has pressure - pressure to win games, pressure to sell the 30,000+ tickets in the Carrier Dome. They've done rather well over the years, which might have led to some institutional arrogance on the basketball side. (I would guess that there might be even more pressure on the football side, because they've been mediocre at best for quite a while and could REALLY use wins and filled seats ... but that's for another time.) Considering the charges from the NCAA, it's a small stretch to think that a complete housecleaning was in order - although business as usual isn't going to cut it any more.

Still, Boeheim's reputation certainly feels a little tarnished. He's still the most important person in history of Syracuse basketball. He's still a respected voice on the sport. But Boeheim is still at times a bit on the prickly side, particularly in a public setting. That combination has made him easy to respect, but tough to love.

Well, he's got three years tops to complete the book on a legendary career of coaching. He doesn't seem too concerned with his legacy. He's certainly done a lot of good for the university and for the community. Still, you'd think he'd have an interest in righting the ship before he goes. It might make a disproportionate effect on how he's remembered.

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Friday, March 06, 2015


Let's forget about the endless arguments about tanking by sports teams for a moment. As I've said before here, it's more of a rhetorical matter anyway.

Instead, let's talk about a related problem in a couple of sports that no one is really discussing.

It's become standard practice in baseball and hockey for teams who are doomed to losing seasons to sell off their assets - usually in the form of free agents to come - to contenders. In baseball, the trading deadline is at the end of July, although other deals can take place through the end of August. In hockey, the deadline is final - in this case, on March 2.

Yes, if you were a general manager, you'd probably do the same thing. Why let a free agent walk away without any compensation? A team can get a draft choice, prospects, etc. (depending on the circumstances and the sport) in return for someone who is departing. Fans of contenders can't wait to see if their teams fill some holes for the stretch run and playoffs, while fans of non-contenders see what sort of ransom those players can bring. I could argue that in a perfect world teams should have a similar roster at the end of the season to the one that started it - in other words, no loading up for the final weeks plus playoffs. But fans like to see wins, and championships.

Here's the catch, though - if you were an employee of major league baseball or the National Hockey League, you might have another reaction. Is all of this really in the best interests of the sport?

The Buffalo Sabres, in this case, are exhibit A. They completed several deals short of the trading deadline. In the biggest swap, several assets were shipped to Winnipeg for a respectable defenseman and a power forward who will not take a single shift for the team this season. While it's tough to know who will "win" that deal in the end, few would argue that the Sabres had a better big-league roster when it was completed. In addition, the No. 1 goalie, Jhonas Enroth, was set to Dallas for a backup goalie and draft pick. Then on Deadline Day, the Sabres unloaded four players for draft choices and a couple of players.

When the dust had settled, the Sabres had two goalies who had enjoyed almost no success lately in the NHL before turning up in Buffalo. They also had lost some other forwards and defensemen. The roster as presently constituted is a long way from being competitive for the rest of the season.

The unspoken question, then, boils down to this: How would you like to have bought tickets for games in the next few weeks, and now realize the chance of your team winning has, um, dropped considerably? Would you take it like a fan, say that it's all part of the rebuilding process and hope for the best? Or would you start asking lawyers about class-action suits?

It's not just a Sabre matter. The Arizona Coyotes moved some of their assets as well in the past few weeks. The Edmonton Oilers have been doing this for a few years, it seems, and they don't seem to be making a whole lot of progress. Remember, this isn't just about the first overall pick. Some sellers won't come close to the bottom three in the standings, so their chances of getting a top 18-year-old are pretty small.

And it's not just a hockey matter. Baseball's Boston Red Sox tore apart the roster in midseason when it was obvious that repeating wasn't going to happen. Most of the pitching rotation went elsewhere. To be fair, the Red Sox made their moves with 2015 in mind, and have been busy since then in putting together what appears to be a competitive team. That didn't help much when fans were watching the 2014 team in August and September, especially at some of baseball's most expensive prices.

Solving this problem isn't particularly easy. Yes, the trading deadline could be moved up to earlier in the season. That would make it more difficult for teams to figure out if they are out of the playoff race, and thus less tempted to have a clearance sale. But it wouldn't affect a team like the Sabres much, since their fate has been sealed for months. In the meantime, the status quo is pretty ugly.

And so we watch the real value of tickets drop - StubHub has some Sabre tickets barely above $10 for some games the rest of the way - and we guess that the no-show numbers will rise (which means less money in the form of concessions, souvenirs, etc.). And we wonder, is the well of patience and loyalty by fans really as bottomless as teams hope it is?

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Friday, February 27, 2015


Ever have something come out of nowhere to remind you about the relatively distant past?

Let's hope so. Otherwise, this essay may be pretty boring.

This just happened to me while looking over Grantland the other day. The website had an article on Sports Phone. As the article states, this service definitely was a Eighties way of catching up with sports news. It was also my employer, on a part-time basis, for six years.

If you don't know much about the concept, go ahead and read the story. I'll wait.

As the article mentions, this was something of a New York City invention that at its peak received zillions of calls. I'm sure the peak hours were at night and on the weekends, particularly NFL Sundays, when sports fans (and especially gamblers) had no other way what was finding out what was going on. So they paid a few cents per phone call to hear the latest scores.

Left out of the story was the Buffalo connection. Since the service was doing so well in New York City, New York Telephone asked Phone Programs Inc. (the company that supplied the service) to do a Buffalo version of it. To do that, it needed some sort of Buffalo sports reporter.

I'm not sure how Phone Programs found me, but I was certainly available. I was working part-time in radio, as a job at a suburban newspaper had fallen apart and I could use the work. I don't recall the interview process too well, but I don't think there was much to it. Soon I became the Buffalo bureau chief ... heck, I was the Buffalo bureau.

The work was rather straight-forward. I was expected to give short (30 seconds) reports on the news of the day - Bills and Sabres mostly. I believe I received $5 for each of those reports. That meant I needed to grab the morning paper minutes after waking up, type up the report, and read it to someone back in New York. He'd record it and put it on the service shortly after that.

I was assigned to cover every Bills and Sabres home game. Phone Programs paid to install jacks in the two press boxes, so each game I would bring my phone in a small tote bag, and plug it in. I called in updates on scores and quarter ends, and then collected a few sound bites through interviews for transmission back to the home office. That was good for $35 per game. I also did some local college basketball games, but that was simply updating scores every so often for $10 per game. I recall going to a game with some friends once, and excusing myself every so often to run to a pay phone at Memorial Auditorium. I explained it, but they probably still thought it was odd. Sports Phone didn't want anything on the Stallions or Bisons, probably because not many people were betting on indoor soccer back then. Or now.

Sometimes during hockey season, Sports Phone didn't have anyone in the hosting city of a Sabres game, so I was charged with phoning in the updates. One time the Sabres played a 0-0 game in Quebec, which meant I made $10 for making three phone calls - one after each period. Nice work if you can get it.

At other times, there were conflicts, and I couldn't be in two places at ones. So I farmed out jobs to friends. Since virtually any sports fan could call in the score, I'd make some calls and find someone, anyone, who could listen to a Niagara basketball game while I was at the Sabres game. Or, if I just wanted to go to a movie for a change. Because I saw a lot of games in that era.

When I counted up everything, including Stallions and Bisons games I covered for WEBR, I believe I saw something like 132 sporting events in Buffalo one year. That may be the all-time record; at least I haven't heard of someone who has matched it. The money added up by my standards at the time, as I made something like $200 a week on the side during the busy season (December to March). That gave me a quick lesson in the area of "estimated taxes."

Every sports fan had heard of Sports Phone, thanks to some advertising. When I mentioned I worked for it to a college friend, he answered, "I call them when no one else will talk to me." But while friends knew I worked for it, I can't say I remember a single person who mentioned hearing me on it.

This job lasted a few years, until somewhere in the 1984-86 range. I started to hear stories that Sports Phone was having financial difficulties, although it's not like I had a boss who checked in with me regularly. But one summer day, the man who hired me called to say the Buffalo service was coming to an end. He still wanted me to cover games involving New York teams, but the "gravy train" was essentially over.

The story from Grantland actually filled in a few gaps in my knowledge of the organization, and the history of Sports Phone. I had no idea that Gary Cohen, Howie Ross and Al Trautwig were fellow alumni, and I had fun reading about Andy Roth - whose name I remembered from those days.

Looking back from 30 years later, my memories of Sports Phone are generally good ones. I hung out with a lot of good people in the form of sports journalists, saw many good games, and got a graduate course in the business. The money, such as it was, even paid some bills. I guess you'd call it "paying your dues" now, but in hindsight it sure seemed liked I was getting paid for something I liked to do.

That's still the case now most of the time. Maybe Sports Phone is a reason for that.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The bunny hop

The view down the street tends to be obscured by the mountains of snow
that have piled up in space between the road and the sidewalk.
Let's start with the rabbits.

You can tell they are around. Their footprints show up in the snow, often overnight. Traces of their visits used to be seen in the area, but that's getting tougher to find as the snow piles up. Mostly they are hiding, trying to find a small corner of their world to keep relatively warm.

But let's face it: just about everyone in Western New York has become a member of the rabbit species in a sense.

We've had an odd set of circumstances here in the last couple of weeks. After a relatively calm stretch of weather for more than a month, the entire area went into the freezer. Yes, that can happen here. We've also received some snow in that time - a few inches here, several inches there, and so on. One key point is that Lake Erie has frozen over; it's the only Great Lake shallow enough to do that. So most of the snow has been widespread and not arriving in bands, like it did for the Southtowns when it received 79 inches in November.

The catch is that none of it has had the chance to melt. So, when the shovels, snowblowers and plows attack, they push and throw the snow ... somewhere. It piles up, and up, and up. Until it's difficult to find a free spot to put it. I believe I have shoveled for the last 14 straight days. I think that's a personal record. The snow pack has been above 20 inches for most of that time. If you are ready to say it's always like that in Buffalo, well, no, it hasn't been like this in at least 13 years. The statistics on this run of frozen weather keep changing, so it's difficult to keep up with them.

When this happens for several days, you have a mess - not an emergency mess for the most part, but a mess. Driving becomes an adventure filled with uncertainty. It starts with just getting out of the driveway, which comes with the knowledge that you might not even see an oncoming car because the view is blocked by snow. Once on the road, will there be space on a sidestreet for two cars coming in the same direction? Will the car get stuck somewhere? How long will a 20-minute drive take? That makes each car trip mentally tiring. I have been able to get around when necessary, but I'm not in a hurry to do so.

Adding to the trouble is the inevitable wind that blows some snow right back where the old snow was. Then there are the plows, which clear frozen material out of the street and deposit it on the side of the road, including the entrance to the driveway. By the way, street-cleared snow comes in boulder-sized chunks, so snowblowers are useless there. The stuff has to be cleared by shovel. I appreciate those plows ... after I'm done shoveling.

Driveways and sidewalks resemble bobsled runs. When pulling the car into the driveway, the best approach is to simply aim it up the middle and hope you don't skid too much. There's a chain link fence in my backyard. At least there is at the moment. Some of the drifts have just about reached the top of it, and we're probably a storm or two away from covering up most of it.

This weekend provided something of a cruel joke for the entire episode. On Friday morning, temperatures plunged to minus-5. Usually when we hit negative numbers here, it's because there is no cloud cover and the heat rises up and goes straight to Venus or something. Yet we had a little snow that day, dry and fluffy stuff that blows around easily. On Saturday, temperatures rose to 20 degrees as a front came through and deposited about four inches to mess things up a bit more. It made for an interesting drive to lacrosse practice.

And today, the forecast is for the coldest day in Buffalo history. I'm not sure how that's figured, since we aren't going to come too close to the record of minus-20. But we're scheduled to be below zero for virtually all day, hitting bottom at minus-12 early Monday morning. When exactly did I move to Winnipeg? It will warm up after that, sort of, but some single digits are still looming in the days ahead.

One of the odd parts about all this is that the cold spell dominates conversation as well as the news, but it's rarely been "don't even think about going outside" bad. (Admittedly, today is not the day for a leisurely walk through the park, with below-temperatures and a strong wind combining for a dangerous windchill.) Generally, it's just been tiring and inconvenient.

Yet life goes on. While driving on Saturday morning through the snow burst, one of the downtown streets was closed to traffic. Was there an accident? A snow drift? No, it was a 5-kilometer road race. I'm not sure how many people took part in the event, or in the 10-mile run in Lockport, but I salute all those that did.

I'm certainly not willing to trade this sort of weather for Boston's, which is working on its second blizzard of 2015 and has already broken the record for snow in February. And it's only the 15th. When I consider that city's street grid, laid out in the 1700s, I can't imagine what life is like there.

So, we trudge on. We pack an overnight bag when traveling, just in case. We wait for a 35-degree day after which we'll be able to see pavement again.

And we stay under cover and munch on lettuce. Because we're rabbits, for the time being.

(Late update: The high on Sunday apparently was plus-2, set at 12:20 a.m. The number sung into negative numbers pretty quickly and stayed there for the rest of the day. So we didn't set the record for the lowest high temperture in Buffalo's recorded history of about 150 years - merely for the lowest high figure on Feb. 15. So that's certainly a sign that things aren't THAT bad.)

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Question time

An article on recently got me to thinking ... and it may have the effect of making me a slightly better reporter.

The article was called "The Worst Question in Sports." For those who don't want to go through it all, the worst question is not a question. It's the reporter saying "Talk about ..."

The next time you listen to an extended news conference, see if you'll hear something along those lines. The odds are pretty good that you will.In fact, the odds are almost as good that you can listen to long periods of those news conferences waiting for a question to be asked ... and one doesn't come along.

What's going on here? A number of things.

Sometimes it's just a matter of wording. "Talk about your goal" can be instantly transformed to "What happened on your goal?" It's a pretty simple fix. Bad questions like "How frustrating was it to lose to the Fighting Spiders again? (the answer is always "very") can be changed easily to a slightly good-natured "Are you sick of losing to these guys again?"

It can be a case of different media outlets requiring different answers. When I was in radio, I didn't often care what people said into the microphone ... as long as they took at least 10 seconds to say it. That meant I had to ask about more general material, which could be worked into a story later, or I didn't even bother asking anything - allowing others to do so. When I moved over to newspapers, I had much more specific needs in mind when I was preparing to write a story. 

Often it's simply habit. Conversations with friends, etc. aren't filled with questions; they often are an exchange of informational statements - one after another. Many athletes, especially the pros, know what is expected of them in interviews, and have an answer of some length ready. An interview is a more formal situation, but it's not necessarily adversarial. Exchanging statements can seem to make it a little more friendly.

Finally, and least common, is the story where the reporter is busy trying to impress the interview subject with his knowledge. "You did a nice job of penetrating their defense with quick breakouts from your own zone that didn't allow them to get their best players on the floor." Pause. There's not much room for the subject to go somewhere with an answer. It would be nice to hear the response of "You're right" or "Thank you." But usually the answer is more generic and polite than that. Apparently, some people forget that the smartest guy in the room about a particular subject is the one answering the questions.

I'm willing to admit that in some cases, nerves play a role in all this. Most reporters don't want to ask a really stupid question and embarrass themselves in front of the people they cover and their peers. My tendency is to sometimes ask a question, and then clarify it with background information due to a mild case of nerves over not being clear. ("Can you catch these guys? You're not mathematically out of it but the numbers are daunting now.") Better to turn that around and ask the question last.

After reading the Grantland article and listening to tapes of news conferences lately, I plan to try to do better. Maybe I'll get better answers that way. Hope so.

Later on, someone can say to me, "Talk about your attempt to be more direct in your questioning..."

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tanks a lot

The Buffalo Sabres are on holiday these days, enjoying a long All-Star break.

Good thing. The people covering team need to figure out new ways to describe losses. Eleven straight regulation defeats will do that.

The latest skid has put "tanking" back on the table as a discussion for discussion. That's when your team more or less gives up on a particular season or two in order to get the best available talent in the draft.

Sometimes, a team picks the correct year to lose. In basketball, the former Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) went first to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and he turned that team into a champion in short order. In hockey, Mario Lemieux needed a few years to get a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh ... but he got them there. The Penguins, you'll recall, didn't exactly load up with talent the season before the draft in order to avoid the chance of getting him in the draft.

On the other hand, there are no guarantees. The Edmonton Oilers have had a bunch of high draft choices lately. Yet they are still at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Philadelphia 76ers have had some good picks in the NBA draft too, but haven't quite found the combination yet to change their fortunes. They remain awful.

The Sabres had a hot streak in December that got them well out of the basement. But this poor run on losses in 2015 has put them in the basement and renewed the talk of tanking, frustrating players and front office members alike. After all, who wants to be associated with losing in that way?

Let's look at the Sabres situation. How do teams that are in losing streaks react? Usually, they follow a series of steps.

First, they look to the minor leagues for reinforcements. The Sabres have done some of that; most of the best players in Rochester have had at least the proverbial cup of coffee in Buffalo. You could argue, and some have, that there are players like Mark Pysyk who are better than guys in Sabre uniforms. But there is something to be said about giving players time in the minors to grow and mature - particularly defensemen. Others have come up and shown little.

Second, they make trades. Yes, most (all?) of the phone calls to general manager Tim Murray no doubt are about young players. No doubt, they are also one-sided offers. Even so, teams often trade "my fringe player for your fringe player," just to shake things up. That hasn't happened. The Sabres did add some players in that sense last year, but so far it's been quiet. In fairness, it's tough to know what's possible and what's not in such areas.

Third, they fire the coach. Obviously, that hasn't happened here. Ted Nolan signed a three-year contract last summer, I believe, and he still has plenty of good will among members of Sabre Nation. When the team is in 30th place overall, you should save all the good will you can.

Yet, both Nolan and Murray are operating under an odd situation. They were both hired by Pat LaFontaine, who later, um, vacated the premises. That means Nolan wasn't hired by Murray, an unusual situation for a coach and general manager. Since LaFontaine wasn't replaced, no one can be sure what it would take to send Murray or Nolan to the unemployment line. Owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black could order such moves, I guess, even though it would be odd for someone to be fired for following the overall blueprint for rebuilding.

Add it up, and the Sabres have been on the quiet side in reacting to the situation this season. Meanwhile, what constitutes a tank anyway? Most non-playoff teams in hockey usually trade their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents for prospects and/or draft choices in order to get better in the future. Clearly, trading Ryan Miller last year meant the Sabres did not have short-term interests in mind. But most agree that the deal probably was the right idea under the circumstances. It's difficult to find good free agents to come to a team at the bottom of the standings; sometimes even overpaying them isn't good enough. So is collecting young players proof of tanking, or do you have to find a cliched "smoking gun" document that says "let's lose as often as possible so we can get Connor McDavid"? Depends on your definition, I guess.

The Sabres can't exactly sell the present to the fan base. But they can sell hope - hope that better times will be coming. It shows the passion of those fans that many are willing to watch the team lose - yes, even root for losses - if it means a superstar in the form of McDavid is coming. That puts them on opposite sides from the current group of players, who obviously have an interest in doing as well as possible.

It's an uncomfortable situation for everyone, and it will test the patience of those involved - from ownership to fans in the 300 level. This is a new situation for all concerned, since the Sabres haven't gone through many long droughts in their history. We're likely to learn a lot about those connected to the team in the coming months.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Something in common

Great coaching performances in professional sports usually are discovered in hindsight. We have to look back and see what sort of material a coach had at the time in order to gain perspective on what was accomplished.

I think of a couple of specific coaching performances along those lines. In 1996-97, the Buffalo Sabres' leading scorer was Derek Plante, followed by Brian Holzinger. The top goal-scorer was Jason Dawe. Those were three decent NHL players, but they would be the first to tell you that they weren't Crosby or Ovechkin. Ted Nolan won a division title and a playoff series with that lineup.

In 2009, the New York Jets had a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez. He threw for 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions ... and the Jets made it to the AFC Championship game under rookie coach Rex Ryan. A year later, Sanchez was a bit better, but not brilliant - 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Not bad, but no one was comparing him with Tom Brady yet ... and at least from a 2015 perspective, they never will. Again, the Jets reached the AFC Championship game.

There obviously were other factors involved in those seasons. For the Sabres, Dominik Hasek was at the peak of his powers, playing at an MVP level. The Jets, meanwhile, had an excellent defense - especially in 2009. That unit played a big role in winning four road playoff games in two years. Few other teams have done that. Nevertheless, the coaches get some credit when things go well, and the blame when they don't.

It appears that Nolan and Ryan will have something else in common in the near future. Ryan is about to take over as coach of the Bills, while Nolan is "back" with the Sabres. That means both will be drawing paychecks authorized by Terry Pegula.

If Pegula wanted to serve notice that "things have changed since I took over the Bills," hiring Ryan is far better, and much louder, than issuing a news release.

For some reason, Ralph Wilson soured on big-name coaches, and paying them big-time salaries, at some point after Chuck Knox left after the 1982 season. It's certainly been a mixed bag since then. The best pick was obviously Marv Levy; Bills' fans probably can come up with their own pick of who their least favorite coach of the past 32 years is. Wilson never would have hired Ryan, and never would have paid him $27.5 million over five years.

Speaking of differences, Ryan has more personality than the last few Bills' coaches combined. How many of those non-Levy Bills' coaches over the years gave the impression that they'd be interesting dinner companions, let alone quotable in a football setting? Ryan gets two checks there as well. He is bound to attract national attention and put the Bills back on the map in that sense for the first time in years.

The hiring answers one major question, but the Bills' short offseason has produced plenty of others. Jim Schwartz has a great reputation locally after one very good season as defensive coordinator here; he and Ryan do have different philosophies (4-3 vs. 3-4, for starters) and it's easy to wonder if they can coexist. The Bills had talked to Bill Polian about a senior adviser's role; Ryan's hiring might change the need for such a position now or its role. If team president Russ Brandon is sticking to business matters, as he said he'd do at the end of the season, then the chain of command around Ralph Wilson Stadium looks, um, unclear.

The biggest unsettled matter, of course, remains the quarterback. EJ Manuel was thrown back into the spotlight by Kyle Orton's retirement. The Bills say they haven't given up on him, but someone else certainly is needed for competition's sake at the position. It might be an overstatement to say, no matter what else happens in any aspect of the job, that Ryan's level of success might be determined by how the quarterback position works out in the next few years. But it wouldn't be a big overstatement.

I'm not going to claim to have any special insight into Ryan's chances for success. My impression from a distance is that for years the Bills' front office members haven't all been rowing in the same direction, making it difficult for any coach to succeed. It sounds as if Doug Marrone tried to change of that, and created some enemies along the way (as well as for some other actions). Now, the Bills' entire organizational culture is in the midst of a huge change. Until we see what emerges from that rebuilding, it's tough to know if anyone can thrive in the new environment. The Sabres have gone in the wrong direction since Pegula took over there, but it's really not fair to judge that situation in such a relatively short period of time.

Plus, it's never easy to determine who the next great coach might be in the National Football League. The Bills, like other NFL teams this offseason, have talked to a variety of successful coordinators in the past couple of weeks in search of someone with the required magic. Some will land head coaching jobs elsewhere. Will one of them be another Bill Belichick, who went from the Giants' defensive guru to a great coach with New England, albeit one with a brief failed stop as a head coach in Cleveland? Will another be more like Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the legendary '85 Bears team and father of Rex? Buddy was unable to duplicate his success with the Bears after becoming a head coach, winning no playoff games in seven seasons.

Before he came to the Jets, Rex Ryan was one of those "hot coordinators" after a good run with the Baltimore Ravens. He's got a reputation for being football smart, and he's certainly bright enough to have learned some things about being a head coach. Ryan was in demand with other teams, if interviews are any indication. In New York, Ryan was popular with the players, and popular with the fans. That gives him something in common with Levy, and something that sets him apart from Marrone. He walks in the front door with something of a head start.

Add it up, and Ryan has a good chance to be a good choice. Which is about all you can ask in such times.

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