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2013: The Year in Sports

HarborCenter

Has Buffalo become the most tortured city when it comes to its sports teams? Just a few years removed from visions of Stanley Cups, the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes hit rock bottom coming out of the lockout, and their longtime coach and their general manager are both gone. Over at One Bills Drive, it is now 14 years and counting since the Buffalo Bills have participated in the NFL playoffs.

The descent of the Buffalo Bandits became complete when they earned the dubious distinction of being the only team in their league not to win a playoff berth, and the long overdue firing of their coach finally happened. The Buffalo Bisons made some noise with their new Major League affiliate and new manager, but the August pennant chase ended in disappointment. On the college circuit, there was no local representation in basketball’s March Madness, but in football the UB Bulls made it to a postseason bowl game—the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Yeah, how did that turn out?

So we all ask if 2014 can be any worse. Highly doubtful. The cheers and the roars are back at First Niagara Center and fans are quickly falling back in love with their Buffalo Sabres and coach Ted Nolan. The Buffalo Bills are finally putting the pieces together for what could become a contender in the NFL. And check out Canisius college hoops—can this be the year they take the MAAC and head to the NCAA tournament?

Another year at the Artvoice sports desk. We are so grateful to our readers, for our fellowship with the sports media community, and to our families and our friends who continue to support us, as we make our way to destinations near and far on our ongoing Ultimate Sports Road Trip journeys. Here’s to a great 2014!

And now a look back at some of our signature moments and best sports stories of 2013:

The Bills Get a New Coach

It didn’t take very long for the Buffalo Bills to find their guy. Right after the New Year, it was announced that Doug Marrone would become the 16th head coach in team history, replacing the fired Chan Gailey, and there was an immediate buzz in the air.

Marrone was well known to Syracuse Orange fans—he had led their program out of the abyss, winning twice at the postseason Pinstripe Bowl, and even securing four wins against top 25 opponents.

Team president Russ Brandon admitted that the franchise had a “tarnished reputation,” having missed the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, and going through four coaching changes in 12 years. “We went through an exhaustive and exhilarating search in hiring the right man to build the future and culture of a winning franchise,” Brandon said, noting that the Bills and Marrone met as many as five times over the past week. “And we believe we just did that.”

With Buffalo concluding another losing season and its 14th straight without a playoff appearance, there is consensus that the team’s worst days are behind them. This time it’s different. “It’s an honor to be on the sidelines and watch those guys perform,” said Marrone after watching his team thrash the hated Miami Dolphins, 19-0. For the first time in how long, Buffalo fans can embrace real hopes of a contender.

The Sabres Part Ways With Lindy Ruff

As he stood before the press last February after another awful loss, this time to the Winnipeg Jets, Lindy Ruff looked like a beaten man. And a man who had no more answers.

The following day, the Sabres dismissed the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, and someone who had spent just about his entire adult life as a Buffalo Sabre—10 years as a player, then 16 years as the head coach.

The Sabres had missed the playoffs for four of the past six seasons. There was a growing chorus that something had to be done and the blame was being placed on Ruff’s head. Yet when it finally happened, the reality sank in like a punch in the gut. The consensus on radio call-in shows, media reports, and blog posts was that yes, Ruff had to go, but he was a good man who gave his all for the City of Buffalo and his beloved Sabres.

For Ruff, it took a while for his dismissal to sink in, as he just drove around town, as if to have one long last look. “I cleaned out my office and grabbed all my notes, the game notes,” he said. “I’ve looked at all the games. I looked at chances. I looked at how we lost. It’s like I’m driving myself crazy. But when I was done I said, you know, we gave three games away. We could have been at 9-7 and in a pretty good place, and instead we’re at 6-10. I’ve said this: It falls with me.”

Ruff returned in October, now coaching the Dallas Stars. At the first media timeout, the video began to roll, and as one, the fans stood and cheered. Not a dry eye in the place. Buffalo’s love for Lindy Ruff will be there for all time.

HarborCenter Goes From Zero to 60

Those of us who have lived here for all or most of our lives know the drill: pretty renderings and site plans, splashy announcements, and then construction timetables delayed. It’s the blueprint for economic development in Western New York.

And that is why most people were rubbing their eyes in amazement last February, when the Buffalo Common Council became the last hurdle in the approvals process to build HarborCenter, the $172 million hotel, hockey center, retail, and parking facility immediately adjacent to the First Niagara Center on the Webster Block.

It all happened in the course of less than a year. The City of Buffalo issued a request for proposals in spring of 2012, and by that summer the Buffalo Sabres won the right to develop the property. Work began in earnest this past March, and construction is proceeding on schedule for a grand opening of most of the facility this coming September.

Even while the building rises, the announcements of the components that will give the facility its character and soul continue to come out. The arena will house the Canisius College men’s hockey program; a staff is being assembled for its Academy of Hockey; a top-tier sports-themed restaurant is being designed and a head chef has been hired. “On its surface, HarborCenter will be a world-class hockey and entertainment destination with amenities that aren’t found in a hockey complex anywhere in the country,” promises president John Koelmel. Who can argue?

Right Down the Thruway, a No-Hitter

It is one of the rarest things to happen in the game of baseball: a no-hitter. When a team and its pitcher, or combination of pitchers, manage to keep their opponent from getting even one base hit through the course of nine innings and 27 outs.

To put this in perspective, the Buffalo Bisons have managed to achieve but one no-hitter in the franchise’s modern era. It happened in 1997 with Bartolo Colon doing the magic at the downtown ballpark in Buffalo.

So who’d expect the extraordinary to occur on the second last day of the season, at a New York Penn League game over in Batavia, in a game that had no meaning in the standings.

Yet the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, did just that, beating the hometown Batavia Muckdogs, and making history in the process.

It started a bit ugly. Starter Luis Gomez walked a batter, then hit another with a pitch, before getting out of the first inning with a double play. He then went on to retire the next 16 batters. A reliever named Carlos Melo threw the seventh and eighth, and in the ninth, closer Kerry Doane committed an error with the first batter he faced, but then a ground-out, a strikeout looking, and a strikeout swinging sealed the deal.

Only 600 or so fans were in the stands at Dwyer Stadium on that sunny and muggy Sunday afternoon the day before Labor Day. Yet the visiting Scrappers poured out of the dugout and celebrated as if they had just won the World Series. A day they would never forget.

Jose Reyes Drops in on the Buffalo Bisons

Having a AAA team means that minor league fans get the occasional glimpse of the big league player who gets demoted for a bit or is on an injury rehabilitation assignment.

Fans of the Buffalo Bisons saw little of that during the four-year New York Mets era, but now with the Toronto Blue Jays, things are different. And when all-star shortstop Jose Reyes arrived in Buffalo on June 21 for a three-game appearance with the Bisons, that was about as big as things could get.

“It’s one of the big benefits of being so geographically close,” said Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski. “Now you have one of their top players, who can fly from Dunedin to Toronto, then just drive down to Buffalo to play in his games. You look around minor league baseball and it’s the AAA teams that get the marquee players. It’s great for us and will be great for our fans that we’re on that list.”

Reyes ended appearing in four games, hitting seven for 17 with one double for a .412 average. But what he did off the field was far more remarkable. At each game he worked the crowds along the walls, patiently signing autographs, socializing with the fans, and even appearing in photo opps, including one with a baby who was passed down. The picture went viral on social media, “Such a great stadium and terrific baseball fans here in Buffalo,” said Reyes. “I’m really feeling the love here.”

From Behind the Curtain, Out Come LaFontaine and Nolan

The team was in free-fall. The trickle of fans jumping off the Sabres bandwagon was promising to become a tidal wave. Things were getting downright ugly, and on November 12, owner Terry Pegula finally pulled the trigger and did what he should have done the day he took ownership of the team. He fired long-time general manager Darcy Regier and handpicked coach Ron Rolston. It was the news that suffering Sabres fans were desperate to hear.

What happened the following morning had Buffalonians practically dancing in the streets. At a packed news conference in the pavilion at First Niagara Center, out stepped two of the most revered figures in Sabres franchise history: Pat LaFontaine, who was designated as the new head of hockey operations, and Ted Nolan, assuming the role of interim head coach.

Pegula stressed that the problems went beyond the performance of Regier, who had become the subject of “Fire Darcy” chants in Buffalo.

“He didn’t do what he did by himself,” Pegula said. “There was input from many people, prior owners, myself. Why now? I just decided and that’s the only answer I can give you. We work together and sometimes you get to the point where a change was needed.”

In the six weeks since the move was made, the Sabres continue to languish at the bottom of the standings and will not be in the playoffs for the third year running. But all agree they are playing better. First Niagara Center is a fun place to be again and fans are clearly back behind the team and in full-throated support.

And in the strangest of ironies, Darcy Regier departed with his Sabres franchise loaded with prospects, two goaltenders in the system who hold promise to be championship caliber, and a bushel full of draft picks. If the team returns to Stanley Cup contention soon, score that one to LaFontaine and to Nolan. With an assist to Regier.

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