03 April 2007

It's official: Buffalo to bid Adieu to the Aud

published at SportsBlurb.com and Sportingnews.com

First, a little video montage to accompany the upcoming nostalgia piece:

Last Saturday night I found myself watching the Toronto Maple Leafs on Carlton St. in Toronto - an event experienced by millions of NHL fans over much of the past century. Unfortunately the major difference I had last week compared to most was that instead of watching the Leafs inside the cozy confines of Maple Leaf Gardens, I was in a bar directly across the street - content to view the old marquee through the window while the Leafs were on every TV in the joint. The venerable building - home to 11 Stanley Cup champions - housed the Leafs from 1931 until 1999, but since progress has no patience a new home was built less than three kilometers away towards Lake Ontario: the Air Canada Centre.

Maple Leaf Gardens (as well as the Montreal Forum which closed three years previously) was only one of many grand old hockey arenas that this generation has seen shut down in the name of progress (or luxury boxes, or concessions, or parking, etc.). And now with only a few first-generation NHL arenas still in use (New York Islanders' and Rangers' Nassau Coliseum and Madison Square Garden respectively) - and The Igloo in Pittsburgh only to survive a few more years - the days of the unique arena are nearly gone.

News out of Buffalo this week was that the old Memorial Auditorium - home to the Buffalo Sabres from their inception in 1970 until 1996 (and the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons for 30 years before the Sabres arrived) - would finally be torn down. And although the inevitability of death hovered around the Aud for much of the past decade, as it lay dormant across the parking lot from the shiny new HSBC Arena, for an entire generation of people who grew up in and around Western New York - including myself - this came as bittersweet news. The Aud was home to some of the most exciting hockey teams in Buffalo's history, including the great mid-70s teams that culminated in a trip to the finals in 1975. Buffalo’s Aud was unique in many ways, but most notably due to its smaller ice surface and often terrifyingly steep seating, which helped to foster one of the loudest and most difficult environments in the league.

So in memory of the soon-to-be-pile of rubble and fueled by a box of Double-Stuff Fudgeeo cookies, I present a personal short listing of the five greatest games in the history of the Buffalo Sabres at the old Aud:

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” – The 1992-93 season was a strange one for the Sabres: although they were able to enjoy their first full season from Pat Lafontaine (finishing second in league scoring with 148 points) and his historic pairing with Alexander Mogilny (76 goals), the overall result was a mediocre 86 point finish and a first round date with the Boston Bruins, owners of the second-best record in the league. However, Buffalo picked the best time of the year to come alive, winning the first three games and looking for the shocking sweep at home. An absolutely electric crowd was temporarily silenced as the Bruins took a 5-2 lead, but Buffalo charged back (led by backup goaltender Dominik Hasek) to tie it in regulation. In overtime, physical winger Brad May cemented his immortality in Buffalo sports history with unquestionably the best ten seconds of his career – gaining a pass from Lafontaine, deking Ray Bourque into Lake Erie, and beating Andy Moog to clinch the series. The famous call of the goal also made a legend of longtime Sabres’ broadcaster Rick Jeanneret.

“The Fog Game” – 1975. The 1974-75 Buffalo Sabres became the fastest expansion franchise to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, making it in just their fifth year (since broken by the Florida Panthers in 1996). Riding the coattails of the famed French Connection line (Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Rene Robert) – all of whom ended the year in the top-ten in league scoring – the Sabres scored 354 goals (with nine Sabres scoring over 20) and had little trouble with the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens to advance to the finals and a date with the Broad Street Bullies from Philadelphia. The Flyers were blessed with talent, and most notably the best goaltender in the league in Bernie Parent who led the Flyers to wins in the first two games. Game three was in The Aud and became historic on many counts: the late May date felt like August in Buffalo as the hot temperatures created a thick fog on the ice all night. During breaks, players had to skate around the ice to dissipate the pea soup hovering over the surface. During one of these breaks, veteran Buffalo center Jim Lorentz took sight of a bat that had been swooping over the crowd all night, and while on the bench took his stick and with one swing knocked it out of the air. And oh, by the way: in overtime with the score tied at two, Rene Robert gathered the puck on his right wing and drove a slapshot by Parent to win the game for Buffalo. As a five-year old burgeoning fan sitting high up in the oranges, I was hooked.

Sabres destroy the Soviet Wings – 1976. It’s hard to impart upon younger fans how different this era is in terms of international competition. In the 1970s the Russians were the great unknown – the famed 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia brought the previously-hidden skills of the Russians to a much wider audience, but it was fleeting. The Russians held a series against the World Hockey Association two years later, and then began sending teams to North America to face off in games against NHL squads. These were no ordinary exhibitions – today these games would be mildly competitive at best but 30 years ago it was imperative to give every effort in beating the “Evil Empire.” The Soviet Wings and Red Army teams were sent on an eight-game tour and after three games (against the Rangers, Penguins, and Canadiens) had won two and tied one before the Wings pulled into Buffalo on January 4th. The crowd at the Aud was thunderous throughout the game, firing up the Sabres who intimidated the Wings all night. The high-flying Sabres were too much for the Soviets who were outshot 46-21 en route to a 12-6 pasting by Buffalo, the worst international defeat by any Soviet team up until then. Footnote: the Sabres were given an ovation the next night for their big win over the Soviets….by Canadiens fans in Montreal.

Gretzky gets the goal record – 1982. Wayne Gretzky was in his third NHL season, and revolutionizing the sport. Having come off a season where – at age 20 – he broke the single-season point mark with 164, he was blowing by his previous numbers in the winter of 1981-82 and was destined to break Phil Esposito’s goal scoring mark of 76 goals – it was just a matter of when. On February 24th of 1982, the Oilers were in Buffalo, Gretzky was tied with Esposito, and the entire hockey world had been tracking his every move for weeks. With Bert Reynolds and Goldie Hawn in the front row (filming the movie “Best Friends”), Esposito in the house, and a crowd buzzing from the opening warm-ups, hometown hero Gilbert Perreault was the early hero with a hattrick – showing the world that he still had the skills that had made him the first pick in 1970. The Great One was held goal-less through two periods but early in the third he got the puck and with a burst of speed took the puck into the Buffalo zone and beat Sabres’ goaltender Don Edwards. The Aud erupted as if the Sabres had won the Cup in a joyous celebration of hockey history (Gretzky would go on to score two more in the third to get a hattrick of his own).

Glen Sonmor loses his mind, King Kong nets a hattrick – 1979. OK, this is a purely personal choice: I was in the lower blues (they were good seats) for this one. Glen Sonmor was in his first season coaching the Minnesota North Stars after three controversial years coaching in the old WHA with the infamous Minnesota Fighting Saints and Birmingham Bulls (in his last year in Birmingham four of his players exceeded 240 penalty minutes. Each in less than 60 games.). My memory is a little hazy as to the exact order of incidents so I’ll just list them: bruising defenceman Jerry Korab scores not just one goal, but three. North Stars’ goalie Gary Edwards crushes Danny Gare behind the net, precipitating a bench-clearing brawl. Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor makes a valiant effort to scale the glass behind the North Stars’ bench to attack an unruly Sabres’ fan. Wholesome fun for the entire family as the Sabres rout the visiting Stars.

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