Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago

Time to weigh in on the topic of this particular day, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with a rather wide brush. 

I am indeed old enough to remember it. I was eight at the time, so it's rather vivid in my mind - in part because it was such a big deal, and I had started to have an interest in public events. I have memories of times before that, but they were more personal in nature.

It starts with a term that I never hear any more: split session. In my New Jersey elementary school, there were more kids than desks and teachers. So the Wayne school district sent some of us to school in the morning, and some of us did their studying in the afternoon. I was in the morning group, so I was home by 1 or 1:30.

My mother was watching "As the World Turns," like she did most weekday afternoons, when the bulletin came on CBS that the President had been shot. We watched the coverage for the rest of the day I believe. I was too young to realize just how novel it was for television to cover a story like this in wall-to-wall fashion at that point. It probably seemed natural.

By the way, I learned an interesting fact about that afternoon many years later on an Internet message board, of all places. We had an elementary school principal at Pines Lake named Mrs. Rodda. Most of my memories of her center on the way she demanded on absolute quiet in the school lunch room whenever she walked in, which seemed unrealistic for children of that age then as well as now. When the news was released that President Kennedy had indeed died, Mrs. Rodda went to every classroom in the building to tell that news to the children personally. Class move.

Oddly, my other vivid memory of the weekend came on Sunday. The National Football League played that weekend; there's an article in Sports Illustrated this week on that decision. We had season tickets to the Giants, so Mom and Dad went. I recall Mom saying that someone who sat next to them complained for the first half that it was improper to play football on such a day. Finally, Dad turned to the guy and said, "Why exactly are you here?" Way to go, Pops. The guy left at halftime, and I believe the Cardinals beat the Giants. When my parents came home, I told them about how the babysitter and I had watched someone named Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live television in a Dallas police station.

The story about the assassination has remained a subject of conversation for 50 years. The history student in me likes to ponder the effects of the events of that day. Still, the talk of a conspiracy that has gone on for 50 years has become distasteful to me.

I can understand some of it. People invested a lot of emotional capital in President Kennedy for a variety of reasons, and those feelings came to a tragic ending. I can imagine that it is difficult for those in that situation probably have had trouble coming to terms with the concept that one lone mentally ill gunman could end those hopes. But otherwise, people are still capitalizing on the idea that Oswald didn't act alone. Been in a bookstore lately? Lots of volumes with the "definitive" answer on the subject.

But let's face it. Have you ever read a conspiracy theory that comes close to passing the smell test? Castro ordered it? The Soviets? The CIA? Lyndon Johnson? And how many "conspiracies" have gone on for this long without someone talking? Maybe the Warren Commission didn't cross every T in its investigation, but I still haven't heard a much better version of what happened.

We're better off pondering how that day changed us in a variety of ways, and hoping that we don't go through anything like it again.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

It was time

Absolute shockers are few and far between in sports, at least off the playing field, but Wednesday's developments involving the Buffalo Sabres certainly qualified. When I saw on Twitter this morning that a news conference had been called by the team, my first thought was that coach Ron Rolston was going to be sacrificed to the hockey gods. The replacement might have been current assistant coach Joe Sacco or former Canadiens coach and current Sabres employee Randy Cunneyworth. In fact, when Cunneyworth was hired a short time ago, I wondered if he was given time to study the organization while serving as an insurance policy in case Rolston had to go.

Wrong. Word leaked out only minutes before the news conference that general manager Darcy Regier and Rolston were gone, and that joining the organization would be president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and interim coach Ted Nolan.

I've written about Regier a lot in this space - I'm the guy who didn't think sending him to a Siberian training camp was a good idea. (Good thing this isn't well read.) He was always a good soldier, who put together a couple of good squads that could have won Stanley Cups over the course of 16-plus years. Regier also had some unusual circumstances over his tenure, with drastic changes in ownership philosophy.

What went wrong? A couple of points come to mind. The Sabres got caught in the middle of the standings for many of the past several years. That meant they didn't get many top 10 draft choices, where the good players are. It's tough to get off that treadmill of mediocrity.

It's also easy to second-guess some of the roster moves, such as the signing of free agent Ville Leino and a big contract to Tyler Myers, whose game went straight downhill. When the Sabres didn't improve, some of the veterans (and the front office) saw the writing on the wall and they headed for the exit one way or another. The last playoff team for the Sabres came in 2011, and names such as Vanek, Roy, Pominville, Gaustad, and Leopold were on that roster but are gone now. I looked at the line combinations the other day and said to someone, "They don't have anything left, do they?"

I heard conflicting stories about Regier personally. Some people I trust said he was a first-class person whose attributes didn't really come across in public well. Others I trust said he kept an unnecessary distance and was a reason why players didn't want to come to Buffalo. What's the truth? Maybe a little of both, and probably I'll never know.

But rather clearly the fan base had had enough, and certainly was ready to start voting with their wallets about the situation. A dreary start definitely looked like it was going to be a dreary season, and it was time for a move.

Was this the right move? It certainly was in terms of public relations, a grand-slam homer with that same fan base. LaFontaine is almost as popular in Buffalo as David Ortiz is in Boston, meaning that LaFontaine probably could have finished third in the mayor's race here like Ortiz did last week in Boston. Nolan isn't far behind. The move may not produce many wins, but it buys the team time with the fans. The Sabres have bought themselves a honeymoon period with the two newcomers, and Nolan certainly will motivate the players the rest of the way so that the product ought to be more entertaining.

Still, there's so much that we don't know right now. Starting at the top, is this a sign that owner Terry Pegula is learning about the hockey business, or that he made this precise move for the wrong reasons? Regier wasn't the only one in the Sabres' hockey department, and LaFontaine will have to figure out what sort of moves will be needed. His first action probably will be to hire a general manager, which should be revealing, They both will have to figure out how to deal with Ryan Miller's situation, the last big piece left on the roster. Plus, that general manager no doubt will wonder how much authority he has to switch coaches - either in the summer or later - under this set of unique circumstances.

And, somewhat ironically, the Sabres won't have much choice but to follow Regier's plan for rebuilding. It's tough to picture Buffalo shipping all of those draft choices from the next couple of years for veterans who can help now, although some minor deals for fringe players who can help a little now probably might not be a bad idea. Remember when Nolan asked general manager John Muckler to give up a pick for an unknown defenseman named Bob Boughner, who proved helpful for a few years? The current teens on the roster will have to grow up and improve, and the ones who enter the organization in the near future must come through.

But the Sabres now can afford to stay the course. Before Wednesday morning, the team was bad and boring. After Wednesday morning, it became bad and fascinating. That's not a bad day's work before lunch.

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Monday, November 04, 2013


There are years when there are Presidential elections, when the nation pays attention to every detail of the campaign. There's an off-year election two years later (or earlier), when we elect some national representatives as well as some state and local ones. And then there are the off-off-year elections, in which hardly anything happens.

Welcome to the 2013 off-off-year election. The golf tour has a name for its end-of-the-year events about this time. The golfers call it "the silly season," because there are a variety of odd little closed tournaments that offer plenty of money for not-so-much work. The politicians could use the same phrase to times like this.

However, the sense of the absurd certainly does help in looking at the races of the moment. The odd local campaigns would get overlooked with a Presidential race looming. We have two examples here in Western New York that are obvious; I'm sure there are others.

The oddest situation concerns the battle for Erie County Sheriff race. This usually is not a position of interest to most people. As I recall, most people in my generation only paid attention in the Seventies when the office-holder used to brag about how many drug busts there were after concerts at then-Rich Stadium. They rushed to the polls that off-off-year in order to kick him out of the job.

This time, Republican Tim Howard currently has the job. The Sheriff's office has had some problems during his time there, such as escapes and suicides. But even more oddly, Howard announced that he wasn't exactly in a hurry to enforce the SAFE Act on gun control in Erie County because it wasn't constitutional. Who knew that the Sheriff was also a Supreme Court judge who only paid attention to laws he liked?

When Dick Dobson defeated Bert Dunn by a whisker in the Democratic primary, it was easy to wonder what might happen in the two-man main election. But Dunn formed his own political  party, got out the family checkbook, and is running on a third-party line. He's spending plenty of money on ads; well, it is his money. There's always something of a spoil-sport strategy to that tactic, because of the risk of splitting the vote of one party and guaranteeing a victory by the other party's candidate.

There's not much polling out there about a Sheriff's race, so it will be fun to see who wins the election for the county's top Constitutional expert ... I mean cop.

There's the Erie County Comptroller's race. The office is filled two years before and after the County Executive race. I haven't done any research on this, but it seems like the Comptroller usually is from the opposing party than the County Executive. The Comptroller's biggest job seems to be to shake his or head sadly when discussing the fiscal policies of the County Executive.

The person in the job is Republican Stefan Mychajliw, perhaps best known as a local television reporter. But his opponent is the more interesting case. Democrat Kevin Gaughan has spent a lot of his free time over the past few years trying to cut down on New York State's many layers of local government.

However, he probably should have looked at the incoming mail when he was doing all that pro bono work. Gaughan had a good-sized tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service - well, $22,000 is good-sized to me - which he blamed when he paying attention to his ill mother. The Republicans quickly jumped on the issue, asking the question - if a guy can't pay his taxes, should he be trusted to worry about an entire's county finances. Gaughan criticized the "party bosses" for taking that stand.

The Buffalo News - my employer, for the record - started its endorsement editorial by saying neither candidate would be chosen by a company to watch over its finances. It opted to essentially hold its nose and endorse Gaughan.

There are plenty of other races out there that will be decided Tuesday, but most of them figure to be called by the experts at about 9:02 p.m. Can't wait to see how these two turned out, though.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

Uncle Milton

How many of you have the chance to work along side of a Hall of Famer almost every day? Not many, I'll bet.

I do. I work with Milt Northrop. Just to make sure there's no confusion, he's the one on the right in the picture.

Usually Hall of Famers are retired from their chosen profession and have moved on to other things, usually golf or gardening. Milt is 76, and he's not going anywhere. When it comes to journalism, the man is a lifer.

What's more, Milt carries large amounts of passion with him wherever he goes and whatever he does. It was evident in one of the first times we encountered each other. Naturally, it was on the softball field in the local media league.

I was pitching for WEBR, and Milt was playing for one of the News teams in that league. Milt hit a ground ball to second, I believe, and I went over to first base in case I was needed on a play. Now this being slow-pitch softball, and this being WEBR, we usually didn't have the depth to put someone at second who could actually field a grounder consistently. So I didn't bother to get particularly near the bag after the ball was kicked into right field.

Out of nowhere, Milt said something like, "Get out of my way, or I'll knock you over!!!!" I thought to myself, if this guy is like this when he is going to first base, what's he like when he's pursuing a story?

I found out at a Bills' game a short time later. One time Milt was interviewing someone in the Bills' locker room by himself. A television interviewer came along, and steered the player away from Milt and toward himself. Milt patiently waited for the TV interview to end - and then exploded at the guy.  Trust me, the TV reporter had it coming.

I eventually discovered that those explosions were quite infrequent, and that Milt was actually pretty charming most of the time. What's more, the man was a walking encyclopedia on anything connected with sports. One year at the Bills' draft, he and I were sitting around with a few others covering the  the draft at Rich Stadium's media room. Now in those innocent days of the early 1980s, we needed to look up a guy in Street and Smith's magazine when anyone got taken after the first round.

New Orleans had a third round pick, and selected Eugene Goodlow, a wide receiver from Kansas State. Milt looked up from his work and said out of nowhere, "Didn't he go to high school at Williamsville South?" Indeed, he did - attending the suburban Buffalo school for a couple of years before moving. Only Milt would know that.

Milt showed his versatility one December day in 1981. The Sabres had completed one of the biggest trades in their history, sending Jim Schoenfeld and Danny Gare among others to Detroit for Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson. With my usual sense of timing, I had arranged the Buffalo Evening News football writer - Milt - earlier to be my guest on my talk show. He arrived and I told him we couldn't talk about football on this particular night, and he was welcome to leave (I couldn't reach him by phone beforehand). Milt stayed for an hour, adding good insight into the deal. That was and is Milt - you couldn't stump him. Talking to him was like having the Internet at your disposal without the clumsy sign-on.

It was a skill that proved to be handy some years later. WGR had a trivia show with Chuck Dickerson about four times a year for a few years. We - Milt, Mike Haim, Mike Harrington, Bob Gaughan and I - would take questions, and Milt was always good for coming up with obscure answers. My favorite moment on that show was when someone called in a question about a 1930s hockey player. Since Milt was the senior member of the panel, we liked to kid him about his age. "You covered him, Milt - what sort of player was he?" I asked in a smarty-pants tone. Quick as a flash came the perfect answer - "Good face-off man."

Speaking of stories about talk shows, someone told me how Milt turned up on some radio show a while ago and started telling stories on the air. A listener was on his way to some business appointment and got caught up in the show. After a while, said listener decided that this was more interesting than the guy who was waiting for him. So the driver pulled over, called the office and said, "I'm having car trouble, I'll be there as soon as I can." Then he turned up the radio and listened to the rest of the show. That's Milt - get him going, and you can be spellbound.

When I got to the Buffalo News as an employee in 1994, I had the chance to work with Milt regularly. He had been there for more than 25 years already. We both covered the Sabres for a few years, and we've both been in the office for much of the past 12 years or so. What's more, let me assure you that he still carries that same passion he had the softball field. Sometimes it is revealed when one of the office computers acts up, which is good for the occasional scream and slam. Sometimes it comes out when someone makes a mistake about the spelling of a name in the high school report. Sometime it's about an article in another section of the paper that he perceives is showing more than a touch of liberal bias. Anytime anyone says that the media is filled with liberal thinkers, I point quickly to Milt as one of the examples of someone rooting for the other side. (There are several others by the way, even in the news department.)

And Milt still remembers everything. Sometimes I'll mention some obscure NBA backup center from the 1970s, when he was covering the Buffalo Braves, and I'll get a biography off the top of his head. The other day the name Carl Mays came up at work, as he was the winning pitcher when the Red Sox last wrapped up a World Series at Fenway Park. Milt had a sly little smile when he said, "Hey, Budd, what else was he known for?" Usually I'll answer such a question with a kidding "You are old!" But this time, I knew the answer - he was the pitcher who threw the ball who killed Indians infielder Ray Chapman around 1920. It's tough keeping up with Milt in such matters, so it was nice to be lucky this time.

You put in almost 50 years telling people what's going on in the sports world in one place and a high level of professionalism, and you deserve to be recognized. Milt's day came on Wednesday, when he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He complained, a little, that such Halls are for the athletes, but didn't put up too much resistance. In other words, I'm sure it was quite a night for him.

Usually tributes to veterans in the business come in the form of obituaries. It will be comforting, then, when Milt and I work together again this weekend. He'll still be the fastest typist I've ever seen in a sports department, still yelling every so often, still making phone calls to collect information. In other words, he'll still care. Hopefully, he'll be showing that quality to our sports department for quite a while longer.

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