2014: The Year in Sports
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
It would be great to report that 2014 was a watershed year for Buffalo sports. And it was, but not in the way we would like this to be. The concept of a postseason, at ANY level and for ANY of our teams, remained elusive, as the Buffalo Sabres fell dead last in the league, none of our local college basketball programs made it to the NCAA tournament, and the Buffalo Bisons made things interesting right down to the last week of the season, but in the end, fell just short. How nice it has been to see that the Buffalo Bills have been playing meaningful football games right up to Christmas.
Nonetheless, there are great stories to tell, and as we look back on the year that was, the death of the Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and the ownership succession will certainly dominate any such headline.
We now turn the calendar to 2015, and put the wraps on our 11th year at the Artvoice sports desk. We’d like to thank our publication’s fine ownership and management for their continued confidence in us, the front office management groups at the teams we cover, and our associates in the sports media. Most of all, we thank YOU, our readers, for your support and feedback.
Many, many stories to look back on. Here are our favorites...
Ralph Wilson passes, and the community mourns
This was a day that everyone knew would come, but that just about everybody dreaded. And when the news came out on March 25 that the 95 year old owner of the Buffalo Bills, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. had died, it still hit the community like a ton of bricks.
Wilson had his detractors; his iron fisted dealmaking with the community in the late 60s and early 70s and his penny pinching in the football department didn’t sit well with some, but as he grew older, his bond with the community was cemented further.
So what was the community’s first response? Hold a tailgate, and a few days later, thousands of fans assembled at a lot on California Road, within sight of the stadium, to do just that. Raise a glass, fire up the grill, throw around a football, and commemorate the legacy of one of the lions of football. Ralph wouldn’t have had it any other way.
LaFontaine departs the Buffalo Sabres
He’s one of the most beloved figures in Buffalo sports, and the arrival of former Sabres great Pat LaFontaine as Sabres president of hockey operations (along with the return of Ted Nolan as head coach) in November of 2013 brought on a wave of joy amongst beleaguered Sabres fans, who were watching their team and organization implode before their very eyes.
It didn’t last long; by March, LaFontaine was gone, and nobody was saying a thing on the record as to the reasons for his sudden departure. Many questioned the top heavy management structure and exactly who was calling what shots in the organization. Rumors were said that LaFontaine didn’t get along with Kim Pegula, or that LaFontaine clashed with General Manager Tim Murray on the issue of keeping Ryan Miller as part of the rebuild. The departure came with a tight non disclosure agreement, so the full story might never be revealed.
One thing is for sure, and that is that Terry Pegula has probably had his fill of sports icons taking seats in his organizations. When Jim Kelly reportedly offered his services in helping to secure the ownership rights to the Buffalo Bills for Terry Pegula, in exchange for a 2% ownership stake and lifetime salaried positions for he and his brother, Pegula took a pass. Lesson learned. Smart move.
Michael Sam tears down a wall
The front office at the NFL couldn’t have been more excited when star Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam “came out” as an openly gay football player in February. Projected to go in the 4th round of the NFL draft, this was a chance for the league to show itself as “progressive,” welcoming the first gay man to its ranks, and to tap into the spending power of the LGBT demographic.
Things didn’t go as expected. Sam wasn’t drafted until the 7th round, by St. Louis. ESPN cameras eagerly showed Sam embracing his boyfriend live on national television as the selection was made. But despite a stellar preseason, Sam was cut by the Rams, then picked up by the Dallas Cowboys and placed on their practice squad, and released two months later.
As of this writing, no openly gay man has played a down in an NFL regular season game. Perhaps that wall needs a few more swings of the sledgehammer after all.
Buffalo Bisons jersey collection - 73 names
Imagine team photo day, and actually assembling all the players who wore a Buffalo Bisons uniform in 2014 for the shoot. That would amount to 73 individuals, shattering a team record and coming close to an International League record.
This massive and constant player roster shakeup is what new Bisons manager Gary Allenson and his staff had to contend with this past season, a year of constant upheaval and injury plague at the parent Toronto Blue Jays level. Despite the challenge, the Bisons were hot out of the gate, then fell into disarray as the calendar turned to summer. But in August they put it all together, going 19-11 on the month and offering fans a thrilling pennant chase, which fell oh so short in the final weekend of the season.
Nobody expected much from Allenson, an organization guy who came to Buffalo after the abrupt and surprising resignation of the popular Marty Brown. But he quickly endeared himself to the fans with his wit, self-deprecating humor and his willingness to take chances on the field. He will be back in 2015, and baseball fans are hoping for the Bisons to end their 10 year playoff drought.
USA patriotism is awash at the World Cup
Hard to believe that there was a time where the FIFA World Cup was just a niche sport in this country, relegated to obscure channels at the far end of the emerging cable dial.
With the world’s grandest sporting spectacle hosted in Brazil, Team USA had their hands full in the group stage, having to get through powerhouse teams from “The Group Of Death”... Portugal, Ghana and Germany to make it to the knockout phase. They did just that, but their dreams for glory as upstarts ended in the round of 16, when Belgium scored two goals in extra time to send Team USA home packing. When all was said and done, it was the amazing Germans standing high on the podium, the winners of this year’s World Cup.
Watching the enthusiasm of Americans, not only embracing the sport, but the patriotic fervor, was the best part of the tournament. Across the country, video screens were erected in public squares, and thousands came to cheer and participate in the communal viewing experience. Here in Buffalo, fans assembled on the lawn at Canalside to cheer on the USA. Over on Hertel Ave, a small wine bistro named Mes Que which also bills itself as a soccer bar, had traffic nearly at a standstill as soccer enthusiasts spilled into the sidewalk and adjoining streets.
Anyone want to make the trip to a future World Cup? 2018 in...Russia. Ugh, the sponsors of terror and genocide in eastern Ukraine let’s pass on that. 2022...in Qatar??? Yikes, who picks these host countries!
Jubilation at the Ralph as season opens
A home opener on a sundrenched late summer day at The Ralph, against the hated Miami Dolphins no less, is always a can’t miss event. But this year was special. Very special. And a day that no Buffalo fan will ever forget.
Just days earlier, it was announced that Sabres owners Kim and Terry Pegula were awarded the right to purchase the team from the estate of Ralph Wilson. There would still need to be formal league votes and the purchase transfer, but for the community, it was a massive sigh of relief.
For years, Buffalonians were awash with fear and dread as to the long term future of the franchise. Over the summer, a Canadian based group fronted by rocker Jon Bon Jovi stepped forward and indicated they would keep the team in Western New York. Their assurances rang hollow. Donald Trump said he would bid, but many regarded him the way they would a crazy uncle in the family. Pegula’s successful bid meant that the Buffalo Bills would remain in Buffalo for the long term, and the reaction included hearing grown men weeping for joy on local sports talk radio programs.
The Bills’ players rode on that community emotion, destroying the Dolphins 29-10. C.J. Spiller had a huge day, including a big kickoff return for a touchdown. The team was 2-0, fans were checking their January calendars to set aside dates for home playoff games, talk was abuzz about a new downtown stadium for down the road. For one glorious day, all was right in the world of Buffalo sports.blog comments powered by Disqus
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