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Farewell Old Friend event at Convention Center attracts thousands
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
TARO SEZ: IT’S TIME TO SING “AUD LANG SYNE”
A separate Taro display, replete with the best signs and witticisms which draped the balcony of the Aud on many a hockey night, would have been more than appropriate.
Taro Tsujimoto, the famed and legendary draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres, was just one of the many parts of Memorial Auditorium lore. Taro’s quips and more stories came back to life this past weekend at the Buffalo Convention Center, as “Farewell Old Friend,” a final tribute to the Aud, brought thousands of people downtown to view exhibits, buy sports memorabilia, take part in the purchase of dasher boards and wooden blue seats harvested from the old building, and just to reminisce and remember and soak in all the great memories.
The event was sponsored by Showcase Sports Marketing, a local firm that was contracted to coordinate an auction of recoverable pieces of the building for sale to the public. Sadly, much of the Aud’s contents had gone to waste, the byproduct of indecision on the ultimate fate of the building, incompetence of the previous city administration, and scavenging of the arena, which was really never properly secured. What was left was wooden seats from the arena’s “blue” section as well as pieces of the ice dasher boards.
Former Sabres executive Kerry Atkinson is chief operating officer for Showcase, and was delighted at the great turnout and response from the community. “Nostalgia is a great thing in sports,” said Atkinson. “The Aud is a building that meant a lot of things to many different people. On our Web site we asked people to list their favorite Aud memory…some said it was the Elvis concert, others said it was a Buffalo Stallions game. So one of the things we wanted to do here at Showcase was have something for everybody. Mayor Byron Brown was instrumental in helping put together what is really a civic celebration for people of all ages.”
The mayor was beaming from ear to ear as he greeted visitors attending the festivities. Brown’s favorite memory as a young man was following the NBA Buffalo Braves. “Sure, my buddies and I would buy those orange tickets and then go downstairs to get a closer glimpse of our heroes. I was a big Randy Smith fan, and that is my first memory of attending a game in Buffalo,” Brown said.
ANDREW’S FIRST AUD MEMORY:
It was February of 1971, I was an eighth grader and my younger brother Taras and I got half-price kids tickets in the grays to see the Sabres play the California Golden Seals. We were so excited we could barely sleep the days leading up to the game. I remember it being a packed house—10,429 in the pre-renovated Aud. The place was so loud, Eddie Shack up and down the ice throwing his body around, and the Original Sabre, Joe Daley, shutting down the Seals and earning a 3-0 shutout. We cheered so much we could barely talk the next day. On that night two young boys from the East Side of Buffalo began a love affair with the Buffalo Sabres, one that endures to this day.
PETER’S FIRST AUD MEMORY:
I’m not from these parts originally, so it wasn’t until 1992 when me and a bunch of Islander fans/college suitemates from SUNY Brockport got together for a trip down the Thruway in March for a Sabres/Isles tilt. We reached our seats in the oranges (“13$! What a ripoff!“ I thought at the time.) The game didn’t go well for the homestanding Sabres as they were pummeled 6-2 on that night. But the Isles fans with us were elated as they chanted “1940…1940…1940.” I was ambivalent about the outcome, simply happy to see my first NHL game in a major league venue. Little did I realize then how much I would come to take that for granted in future years.
We asked Brown if he would support one of our longtime projects: “retiring” the number 11 of Bob McAdoo and hanging his name, and the logo of the Buffalo Braves, up in the rafters of HSBC Arena, so that Buffalonians could always be reminded that we were once a proud NBA city. “It is definitely something I would support,” Brown replied. “He is someone who has made his mark on the City of Buffalo, one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, and certainly anything this city could do to honor him and I could participate in as mayor I would absolutely do.”
The event attracted a star-studded list of notables: The Sabres “French Connection”—Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert—were on hand Saturday night to sign autographs, attracting a long line of fans. Bisons goalie Gilles Villemure, the mainstay of the 1970 AHL Calder Cup champs, was also there.
On Sunday, Buffalo Braves greats Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio, and their first head coach, Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, visited and manned the autograph table. The 80-year-old Schayes smiled as he stepped up to collector John Boutet’s voluminous Buffalo Braves exhibit. “That was my logo,” Schayes bragged, as he pointed to the familiar standing Buffalo configured into the center of a sun, the symbol of that 1970-71 squad.
Ernie D now heads up marketing for the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, but still holds fond memories of his days as a Buffalo Brave. “The high moment for me had to be signing my first contract and playing in my first game against Philadelphia,” he said. “there had to be about ten or twelve thousand so or in the building.”
Randy Smith also chimed in about “ being able to represent Buffalo in so many ways,” in referring to his Braves and Buffalo State days. “Playing against the Celtics was great, being one of our main rivals,” he said. He also reminisced with great sadness of the low moment at the Aud, when the team left town and moved to San Diego.
Ironically, Smith and DiGregorio, once teammates with the Braves, are now competitors in the gaming industry, as Smith works just down the road from Ernie at the Mohegan Sun Casino.
While attendees looked back at memorabilia and scenes of franchises long departed, representatives from Buffalo’s newest team, the Buffalo Stampede of the Professional Basketball League, were also present to promote the city’s newest attempt at minor league basketball.
One familiar face, head coach Rich Jacob, was there to greet visitors, and he was accompanied by his new assistant, former Syracuse University standout Roosevelt Bouie. Jacob’s Aud memories also revolve around Braves games.
Speaking about the newest venture, Jacob said, “We’ve been at this since 2005, working to keep and sustain minor league basketball. We were with the ABA, as you know, and the group forming a team in the other league never materialized, so the Premier League approached us to join them, and as you know they are a host league for many former ABA franchises, who have some serious ownership groups.”
The Stampede make their debut January 3 at the Koessler Center, the first contest in a 20-game regular season schedule.
Of the more than 10,000 people who made the trek to partake in this community celebration, none was more significant than a frail man, now in his 90s, who came all the way from Florida just to be here. His name? Robert Swados, now the last surviving member of the ambitious ownership group who worked so tirelessly to bring the NHL to Buffalo back in the 1960s. “I just had to come,” said Swados. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
The Aud will be gone soon, but the spirits will always live on, in our hearts, in our memories, and in the stories that we will pass on to the next generation.
And we will always remember Taro Tsujimoto, the Sabres 11th-round pick in the 1974 amateur draft from the Tokyo Katanas. Taro will live on too. We will make sure of that!
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