I was hired to work for the Buffalo Sabres in October 1986. I really wanted to work for them just on April 1.
That's because of April Fool's Day.
The Sabres had established a reputation throughout professional sports for practical jokes in the previous several years. Paul Wieland was the mastermind of the projects. Every year he'd send out a release that stretched the limits of credibility.
One year the Sabres were officially pronounced America's team, complete with a White House letter from the President and fake magazine cover. One year the Sabres had rented a battleship for training camp; the ship would go up and down Lake Erie as the team worked out on it. One year the team announced the invention of artificial ice, "Sliderex," which would be installed in Memorial Auditorium.
The news releases were faithfully mailed out, embargoed for April 1 release. Most simply laughed at the jokes. One local reporter, so excited about the news of Sliderex, broke the embargo to breathlessly report it the night before. His reputation has never quite recovered.
I think I helped write the first release during my tenure with the Sabres. The team had taken over a practice facility in Wheatfield called "Sabreland," and it seemed logical for it to expand its holdings that way. Therefore, the team announced a housing complex in Wheatfield called "Sabre Meadows." I believe it was supposed to have 47,000 units, which you have to admit is a lot of houses for Wheatfield.
I received a call from a reporter at one of the local radio stations that afternoon. I didn't really want to go on the air with him and ruin his credibility, so I started asking questions. "Did you read the release closely? Don't you think 47,000 units is a lot? And what day on the calendar is it?" Finally, he got it.
Future projects were placed on television as Wieland's responsibilities shifted, but we tried to do something every year. One time a friend from the Washington Capitals called, and I said, "I'll call you back. We're planning our April Fool's Day TV show." He was ready to switch jobs that day.
We came up with interactive television one year. We asked a question per period, and had an alleged fan vote. In the first period, the question was "Should the Sabres change their lines more quickly?" The fake response (the phone number flashed was in the Sabres hotline recording) was posted: an emphatic yes. Announcer John Gurtler was shown going into the Sabres' coaches office to tell them the fans' decision ... only to reveal Ted Sator and Barry Smith playing table hockey between periods.
In the second period, the question was whether Mike Robitaille should interview Christian Ruuttu, but have Ruuttu answer in Finnish. Not surprisingly, the yes responses easily won. So Robitaille asked a question in English, and Ruuttu responded in his native language. Robtaille was shown shaking his head up and down every so often, as if he knew what Ruuttu was talking about. Once he added, "So when you say that, it follows that ..." I asked Ruuttu later what he had actually said; I believe it was something like "That's a really ugly suit, but I really like your haircut." I'm sure the Finnish audience loved it.
The best one, though, was the Sabres' Shopping Service. I must have spent a month trying to come up with a series of items to sell. We had Wowie Housley Cola, J.F. Sauve game-used sticks (he was the smallest player in the league, so the stick was a foot long), Benoit Hogue-ee sandwiches, and the Daren Puppa Scoopa. Gurtler transformed himself into Wink Dickerson, talkative host and ultimate salesman. He was assisted by my friend Andrea, who became Andrea Hedberg (in honor of the ex-pro star). Talk about bringing material to life -- Gurtler deserved an Emmy that night.
Toward the end of my time with the Sabres, I could sense that the organization was starting to lose its sense of humor about such projects, even though such stunts seemed to help the team's image. Why a fan or two might be actually fooled! Wieland left in the mid-1990's, bringing his bag of pranks to other jobs.
Pro sports has grown dramatically in the past 20 years on the business side, and it's lost some of its sense of fun along the way. That's inevitable, but still a little sad. It's not allowed to be foolish even one day a year.