|I'm with Paul Wieland and Seymour Knox IV here.|| |
The many friends of Paul Wieland probably all had the same reaction when they heard the news of his death earlier this week. They were saddened, of course, over the loss of someone so vibrant and memorable. But then, the stories about Paul came to mind … and it was hard to do anything but smile at them.
You see, Wieland grew older, but in many ways never grew up. He always could go into something of a rage over a perceived injustice, yet still see the humor in any situation. We all should be that lucky to have a friend like that.
Paul grew up in Buffalo, attending Bishop Timon High School, and attended St. Bonaventure University. He learned to love college basketball while good-naturedly hating the other Little Three teams (Canisius and Niagara) in the process. After graduation, he had some odd jobs before landing at the Courier-Express. Then Paul moved down the street to the Buffalo Evening News. I don’t remember hearing much from him about those days, although Paul was quite descriptive about how intimidating a meeting with the bosses there could be.
But one story always stuck with me. Back when newspaper newsrooms had actual people in them (as opposed to the remote staffs of today), people used to call and ask for random bits of information. One time, Paul overheard a call asking about the nation’s longest river. Was it the Missouri or Mississippi? Wieland asked to have the call transferred to him. “River Desk,” he said solemnly. The question was repeated. While looking up the answer, Paul stalled for time by saying it was nice to get a call because so few people wanted information on rivers.
Wieland probably would have been happy working at The News for life, adding a touch of whimsy to the paper’s output as well as to the lives of those at the paper whenever possible. Then he found out that one of his bosses had inserted a made-up quote into one of Paul’s news stories, crossing a major line of behavior. That started him job hunting. While he was offered positions at some other newspapers, taking them would lead to a pay cut in a sense since other cities had higher costs of living. So he accepted a job in public relations for General Motors. It’s hard to imagine Wieland in the stuffy corporate world, but the job came with more money and a perk – a company car. Done.
Sure enough, Paul lasted two years with the suits. Then he heard that the new NHL team that planned to play its first season in 1970-71 in Buffalo was looking for a public relations person. Chuck Burr was the original PR Director, but the Knox brothers (who led the team’s ownership group) thought that wasn’t working out. Wieland accepted the job on one condition – a company car. Done. If you look at the Sabres’ first-ever media guide, Paul is listed as the assistant PR director … but he soon moved up a step.
There he bonded with new general manager and coach Punch Imlach, who soon had a problem that needed solving. Roger Crozier often missed practice with stomach problems, and the team needed a spare goalie. Wieland, a beer league goalie in earlier days, stepped in as a replacement. Paul’s worst moment came when he went to make a poke check one time, and accidentally tripped Gil Perreault. The young star went crashing into the board, and Wieland had instant dreams of ruining the rookie’s career before it got started. Luckily, Gil popped right up … and beat Wieland on his next 10 shots during practice. As for after practice, Wieland learned a lesson about his “teammates” – “They weren’t too good, but they sure could drink,” he said years later.
Now comes the part that would be the lead to any story about Wieland’s life that’s not personal in nature. The Sabres had a problem in the 1970s – all of their tickets were sold. That meant the house was filled with the same people night after night, more or less. That’s not a long-term formula for success. Besides, it also meant revenues would be flat with little room for growth.
Owner Peter Gilbert of International Cable proposed that his outlet carry a few Sabre games on his system. The Sabres agreed, but they didn’t want the broadcast to look like the primitive coverage that was used for, say, high school games. Therefore, they wanted to produce their own broadcasts – and Wieland would head up the operation. Gilbert agreed, and the broadcasts were instantly popular. You can connect the dots from there to the point where major league teams in all sports became involved in broadcasting directly. That led to the creation of regional sports networks, which became a huge business. The model is still evolving today, and it all started with the Sabres.
Paul made NHL history in 1973 when he became the first PR director to draw a penalty on the opposing team in the playoffs. The goalie in him thought Ken Dryden’s pads were too big, so he quietly strolled into the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room and personally measured them. Yup, too big. He told the Sabres’ coach Joe Crozier to save the information for the right time. That turned out to be near the end of regulation time in Game Five, with the score tied. Referee Bruce Hood didn’t like it, but a rule was a rule – and the Canadiens opened overtime shorthanded. Alas, Buffalo didn’t score on the power play … but the Sabres did win the game on Rene Robert’s goal.
Wieland’s wit moved front and center in 1974, when the NHL draft was taking place in Montreal. The proceedings were threatening to drag into infinity, and boredom always was Paul’s enemy. Imlach asked what he could do to annoy NHL President Clarence Campbell, and the answer from Wieland was to draft a player that didn’t exist from an unlikely country. Thus, in the seventh round, the Sabres selected center Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas (swords). The joke lasted through training camp, and Taro probably will be part of Sabres’ history forever.
Wieland’s sense of humor soon became famous around hockey circles as well as Western New York. I’ve written about Paul’s famous April Fool’s Day gags that usually were treasured by those who knew him. Here’s the story:
There were other instances where his wit popped up. A tradition started in 1976 that featured an extra paragraph, silly in nature, in the section of the press guide that dealt with media services. In 1977, it read, “Because of the extreme height of the press box, there are skydiving exhibitions on the eves of holiday games. Special arrangements can be made for such exhibitions by calling the Sabres public relations office at least 48 hours in advance of your visit.” (Footnote: When I started writing the Sabres’ media guide in 1987, I made sure to continue that tradition. In 1988, I wrote, “Press box seats will be filled on a space-available basis. Gate-crashers in the press box will be forced to watch reruns of ‘Gomer Pyle’ for four hours.”)
Paul’s habit of playing a role in odd times in Sabre history continued on February 12, 1977. Goalie Gerry Desjardins was injured, so the team recalled Don Edwards from the minors … and Imlach ordered coach Floyd Smith to start Edwards. That didn’t sit well with backup goalie Al Smith, who skated on to the ice, waved at Seymour Knox and said, “See ya, Seymour,” and left the building.
Assistant general manager John Andersen put out a call for Wieland, who was planning on broadcasting the game on cable as usual. Wieland signed an amateur tryout contract and began dressing for the game as Edwards’ backup. But the team couldn’t get all the details done before the lineups were signed, thus ending Paul’s NHL career before it started. That was OK with him. "Can you imagine if I had to go out and play against NHLers?” he told me years later. “I was just a beer-league goalie. They would have really embarrassed me.”
One time Paul noticed the college stickers that adorned the rear-view windows of cars. He saw a financial opportunity, and had “Buffalo Sabres Universally” stickers printed and sold. He once told me, “I can’t believe that I can come up with an idea like that, and the Knoxes will say, ‘Go ahead and make them.’” During a really boring preseason game in the early1980s, Paul started writing fake and silly coupons on paper and throwing them over the front of the press box into the crowd. Fans took them to the concessions stands and asked for their redemption, drawing stares from the workers and head-shakes from their bosses. I should know. I sat beside Wieland that night, writing and throwing.
I was hired for the Sabres’ public relations department in 1986, with Paul’s stated reasons for hiring me ringing in my ears for days: “You’re a good writer, you know hockey, and you’re bleeping nuts.” High praise indeed. Working on television production was becoming a full-time job for him, so he was more of an overseer of the communications department rather than my direct boss. In other words, I was allowed to say no sometimes when Wieland asked me to take the afternoon off because he needed another player for a doubles match in tennis.
Still, everyone in the Communications Department including new PR director John Gurtler bonded pretty quickly, establishing friendships that would last for the rest of our lives. We chuckled together about some of the absurdities of life in the NHL, and complained when the City of Buffalo turned off the heat to our offices once the playoffs were over – usually before the end of April, unfortunately.
Paul eventually spent more and more time on the television side of the hockey business. At one point the Sabres' games were on Channel 49, which was owned by the team. One night, the hockey game ended at 10:20 p.m., and Paul figured he'd have the announcers fill time until the bottom of the hour. But no - he was order to dump out immediately and go to local programming. Wieland was absolutely horrified to hear a recording saying "We now return to our scheduled programming" - in this case the last 10 minutes of "Gomer Pyle." Paul was outraged: "This is a bleeping Gomer Pyle station!" From then on, Channel 49 was always called "The Gomer" by Wieland. It caught on, at least internally.
By the time the early 1990s arrived, things had started to change in
the hockey business. The money involved was rising rather quickly, and
everyone was starting to take things more seriously. The staff grew in
size, ending some of the intimacy that Paul had enjoyed in the Sabres’
early years. That seriousness put pressure on the entire Sabres
organization, especially as the first-round playoff losses of that era mounted,
which meant the team’s fabled sense of humor that Wieland had created
was at risk. “All the things we did only enhanced our reputation in the
community,” he told me once. “We never took ourselves too seriously.”
The April Fool’s Day broadcast soon became one of the casualties. Boo.
It might not have been the last straw for Paul, but maybe the company
car was. Gone. He also had some problems with some of the ethics of
team leadership, just like he had at The News in the late 1960s. It was
time to get out of the hockey business. Paul was off to Massachusetts to
run a public television station for six years, where he did some
production work for some major outlets on the side and watched his Boston Red Sox during free time in the summer.
But when it was time to retire from that job, Wieland saw it as an opportunity to move back to the Buffalo area. He landed a job as a teacher at his beloved St. Bonaventure, working for Dean Lee Coppola – better known as “Mel Moonlight,” a nickname given by Paul for all of Lee's freelance work involving the Sabres back in the 1970s. Based on the social media postings I’ve seen lately, Wieland touched a lot of lives as a faculty member. I remember him excitedly telling me early in his tenure, “One of my kids said in a survey that I was his favorite teacher of all of his instructors at St. Bonaventure. That’s quite a compliment.”
Paul finally left his teaching job in 2017. I remember writing up something of a tribute to his career for the party that was held in Ellicottville; such messages are always better when they get to be read by the subject while they are around to see it. We met for lunches and bumped into each other every so often, such as when he had a book signing of one of his literary efforts. My last encounter came on my birthday in 2021, when I happened to spy an extra seat next to him at the induction ceremony of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. It was a great present. He was in considerable pain at that point due to a variety of ailments, and was laughing about the idea that he was allowed to smoke medical marijuana for relief. I asked about another lunch meeting during 2022, but he wasn’t up for it immediately. “I’ll let you know,” he wrote.
The news of Wieland’s death was shocking and sudden, then, but not surprising. No doubt all of his other friends, like me, were left wishing for one more two-hour lunch to share some laughs and review good times. Paul combined smarts, humor and wit to carve out a unique niche in the local sports community. That’s an act that’s impossible to follow.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)