Thursday, May 04, 2017

Character

From the Buffalo Sabres' 1970-71 media guide
If you follow the world of fun and games long enough, you'll know that every coach will say at some point that sports build character. Me, I'm more out of the school that sports reveal character. But, more to the point here, they create characters.

And if they ever get around to building a Hall of Fame of Memorable Characters, Paul Wieland should be in it.

Paul finally and allegedly is retiring from the working world. "Professor Wieland" has been teaching communications at St. Bonaventure for the past several years. While I'm sure he was a wonderful teacher who cared about his students deeply - I've heard about some of the great feedback that those students have offered - in some ways Paul is still the Merry Prankster that probably terrified and delighted all those he encountered throughout his life.

In other words, he may have grown older, but he never completely grew up. 

Wieland's long list of professional stories begin for me when he was at The Buffalo News in the 1960s.  I remember him telling me about the time the phone rang one day at the News office. The person who answered the phone yelled out, "Does anyone know what the world's longest river is?" Paul said, "Transfer that to me," and answered the phone, "River Desk." The caller repeated the question, and Paul quietly had someone get an almanac while he stalled. "It's really nice of you to call us today. I don't get too many calls about the length of rivers here at the River Desk. The Missouri, of course, is the longest American river ..." For the record, that job at The News has gone unfilled since Paul left.

From The News, it was on to General Motors. I'm no business major, but if there's a better example of straight-laced organization and structure in a corporation than General Motors in the 1960s, I can't think of it. In hindsight, Paul was either the one breath of fresh air in the entire corporate structure, or an outsider who the guys in the red ties and blue suits just couldn't understand. It must have been an odd fit.

But the hockey business - that was different. Paul was an amateur goalie and loved the game, and had the chance to jump to the Buffalo Sabres when they were just getting started in 1970. Get in on the ground floor of a pro sports franchise? How could he resist? The photo above is from the first Sabres' media guide for the 1970-71 season. Not only does it display the young and good-looking assistant public relations director (I think he used that photo for the next 25 years in the annual guide, thus becoming ageless), but it also has him above comptroller Bob Pickel on the page. That probably wasn't a wry statement on the front office, but it should have been / could have been.

That first year offered a couple of unique attractions for a young business professional/goalie. The Sabres had a veteran in the nets in Roger Crozier who was good when he was healthy, but he frequently wasn't healthy. It was always handy to have an extra goalie around the office who could be the equivalent of a tackling dummy in practice when needed. Paul even made a save or two on Gil Perreault every once in a while. Besides, as Paul pointed out, the early Sabres weren't too good ... but they sure could drink after practice. "How was work today, honey?" "Same old, same old."

You've heard about some of the stunts that Paul pulled. He had a willing partner in general manager Punch Imlach, who would go along with anything as long as he had a little notice. When the 1974 Entry Draft threatened to go so long that it would delay the start of the regular season, Wieland helped create a fictional player, Taro Tsujimoto, who was drafted by the team. The Sabres even set up a locker for him in training camp. Interestingly, a couple of decent NHL players were drafted after Taro - Dave Lumley and Stefan Persson. You still see people wearing jerseys with Tsujimoto on the back.

I stole this image from a Sports on Earth article,
which stole it from Time magazine.
Then there were the April Fools' jokes, planned better than some military adventures - and more successful. Thus the Sabres were involved in Sliderex (plastic ice), the purchase of a battleship as a training vessel, and the naming of the Sabres as "America's Team" by the White House. Later I heard about when the Sabres' hockey department was acting, um, defensively toward everyone, so Paul bought toy plastic soldiers that were placed on the top of the department's office dividers - with the rifles aiming out at the rest of the staff. By the early 1980s, I had figured out that Paul was a kindred spirit, and got to know him a little bit in my days as a radio reporter.

Besides all the laughter, though, there was a rather sharp businessman lurking in Paul's head. When the Sabres were selling out their building every night, he and vice president Dave Foreman worked on bringing the home games to cable television. It worked, and it could be said that their actions helped to revolutionize professional sports. Think of what a revenue stream that single idea created. It probably should be in the first paragraph of his obituary, whenever that day comes - it really changed the industry. Paul's responsibilities concerning the television seemed to grow by the year.

By 1986, I had more or less figured out that the radio business was not going to work for me, and Paul threw me a life preserver with a job offer in public relations. There were even benefits to the position - such as health insurance and working with Paul every day. Who could resist a job where you couldn't take calls because you were giving a presentation about the next April 1st stunt? Who else would order you to leave work early to fill out a doubles tennis match in Snyder? But around the office, Paul was always willing to listen to an idea, support it when appropriate, and give you the credit when it succeeded. You couldn't ask for more from a boss.


Paul didn't always laugh at everything. When annoyed by something that went against his principles, Paul could argue with the best of them. For example ... there was the time he was ordered to dump out of a Sabres' broadcast early so that Channel 49 could join a showing of "Gomer Pyle" already in progress. That was the moment when WNYB-TV forever became "The Gomer" around the office.

(Tangent: I was put in charge of the Sabres media guide, which always included some sort of joke on the media information page. One year featured this line: "Press box seats will be filled on an as-available basis. Gate crashers in the press box will be forced to watch reruns of 'Gomer Pyle' for four hours.")



You never knew what might happen in that office, which also featured another memorable character in John Gurtler. One time Paul was sitting at his desk when Seymour Knox III walked in. "What are you doing, Paul?" "Planning the parade, Seymour." "What parade?" "Well, if we win the Stanley Cup, we'll have a parade, right?" "Right." "And if we have a parade, we need to plan for it." "Good work, Paul."


By the late 1980s, Paul spent more time in the television business, having little oversight on the rest of the communications department. Our loss, as others like to stick their noses into the operation for better or for worse.

And by the early 1990s, he was starting to become a little unhappy at times. He grew to enjoy the TV business, but he was the first person I know to recognize that professional sports was losing its sense of humor. His stunts, such as making up a "Buffalo Sabres Universally" car sticker, had only improved the Sabres' image in the community. But by then the money had gotten more serious, and so the people took themselves seriously. Too seriously.  I remember how Paul talked to a Sabre marketing person once who couldn't understand why the fans went home unhappy after a game, even though the team lost that night.

And so, after I left the team, he was off to Massachusetts for several years to work in cable television, where he learned to understand my affection for all things Boston Red Sox, and then he returned to Western New York to work at St. Bonaventure. I have been to the house in Great Valley once, and I have no confidence that I could find the place again with a dogsled armed with a GPS unit. We try to get together once in a great while for a leisurely lunch - two old friends discussing a variety of subjects old and new. It's the best possible conversation. I'm the one trying to age gracefully; he's the one who still sounds like a fired-up junior in college when discussing the latest bizarre development in politics.

It's always good to see someone reach the finish line of a professional career like this, even if he did take a few extra laps than most. The thought of Paul with no work duties, however, is an interesting one. How will he get into mischief? Luckily, our professional sports teams don't seem to have lost their ability to self-destruct in spectacular and imaginative ways. He'll have plenty of bubbles to burst with his mouth and his keyboard, and we'll have plenty to discuss over lunch.

Sports really did reveal a character in Paul Wieland. I'm so glad I got to come along for part of the ride. May he have a long and happy retirement.

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1 comment:

Bob F. said...

Thanks. Much needed diversion from "the latest bizarre development in politics."
Congrats to Paul!
Bob Fischer- Washington, DC