- By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
Time to close the book again on another exciting year on the Buffalo sports scene.
From all of us at Artvoice and from both of us representing the Ultimate Sports Road Trip, thank you for following along as we covered the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bisons, along with yet another great year of travel to sports venues near and far.
Each year we here at the Artvoice sports desk pick out some of the more entertaining and more memorable moments on the local, national and international sports ticker. Perhaps you might have other tales that jump out on your list.
2019 will see a road trip to Milwaukee to visit the new Fiserv Forum, new home of the NBA Milwaukee Bucks, a NCAA basketball subregional in Jacksonville, Florida, and in the preliminary stages are plans for at least two return trips to Europe for yet more sports adventures.
THE BUFFALO BILLS 17 YEAR STREAK OF PLAYOFF FUTILITY ENDS
Our look back at 2018 begins at the stroke of midnight at New Years. A very frigid crowd filled Roosevelt Plaza downtown to watch the ball drop, but this year’s contingent of revelers were in an even more buoyant mood.
The unofficial anthem of this region, the beloved “Shout” song, blared from the stage and people were singing and dancing. Just hours earlier, the Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton, had heaved a last second desperation pass on their final try of their game against the Baltimore Ravens. The resulting touchdown won the game for the Bengals, kicking the Ravens out of the playoffs and awarding the final playoff slot to the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo responded in jubilation. Dalton was besieged with thank you cards and messages from Bills Nation. His foundation received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from sources in Western New York. Dalton was feted with a standing ovation when the Bengals came to Buffalo in August for a preseason game at New Era Field.
The playoff fever ended quickly. The Bills traveled to Jacksonville for the wild card game the following week and lost to the Jaguars in an uninspiring performance.
- TEAM CANADA FINDS REDEMPTION ON BUFFALO ICE
The much anticipated IIHF World Juniors returned to Buffalo after having been hosted here just seven years earlier.
Back in 2011, it was Team Russia that stunned the hockey world, scoring five straight goals in the third period to beat Team Canada 5-3, sending the packed house of full throated Canadian supporters home disappointed.
No such outcome this time. Team Canada was a squad full of depth, not all stars, as it was Tyler Steenbergen scoring the game winning goal against Team Sweden in the dying minutes to deliver the gold for his country. The singing of “Oh Canada” during the medal presentation and postgame ceremony might have been heard all the way to Toronto.
Other than Canada’s triumph, these World Juniors would be best remembered for this tournament’s very first outdoor game, held at New Era Field before over 41,000 patrons, and won by Team USA in a shootout. Future Sabre Casey Mittlestadt burst onto the Buffalo radar with his performance at these games. And some guy named Rasmus Dahlin, a 17 year old defenseman for Team Sweden, turned more than a few heads with his stellar play. More on him later.
The United States next gets a chance to host the World Juniors in 2025. After serving as
BUFFALO CONNECTION MAKES HISTORY AT THE WINTER OLYMPICS
For most of us watching the Winter Olympics in Pyeoncheang, South Korea, the intrigue between the host nation and their sparring neighbors to the north and the interaction of the North Korean athletes and the “beauties” serving as their cheerleaders seemed the highlight.
But for us from Buffalo, it was the performance of local hero Emily Pfalzer that sent our hearts soaring.
Pfalzer represented the United States as a member of the Team USA women’s hockey team, and it was the predicted final, the Americans vs Team Canada, and a heated women’s hockey rivalry that spans decades.
What most remember is that Team USA tied the gold medal game, played an exhilarating overtime and then took the medal in a shootout win.
Fewer remember that Team Canada, holding a 2-1 lead late in the game, had a two on one break and it looked very possible that they would add to their lead and cement their gold medal win.
The Buffalo native stayed between the two Canadians, faked both ways, finally drifted toward the puck, got in the way of the shot and went down as goaltender Maddie Rooney just got enough of the puck to keep it out of the net.
Always humble, Pfalzer, now a member of the Buffalo Beauts, had this to say, “It’s been amazing, honestly,” Pfalzer said. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little girl. To be here right now wearing a gold medal around my neck? Can’t describe it.”
4) BUFFALO SHINES AT MARCH MADNESS
After years and years of disappointment and near misses, the Buffalo Bulls men’s basketball team had now won its third MAC conference championship in four years, and were again headed to The Dance.
Buffalo was awarded a #13 seed and sent to Boise for the tournament’s round of 64, and standing in their way was a #4 seed, the powerhouse Arizona Wildcats.
What happened next was a stunner… the UB Bulls looked masterful in the first half, holding future NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton in check while piling on the points early to take a slight lead in the half. No matter. Arizona would do what Arizona always does, right? Make their shots and take control of the game and shake off the first round scare.
Only it was UB making their shots and becoming masters of the court on this day. They played the second half with purpose and desperation. Senior guards Wes Clark and Jeremy Harris were unstoppable on offense. C.J. Massinburg added 19 points and the result was an 89-68 stunner on opening day, busting brackets all across the nation.
For the UB women’s team it was even more success. They knocked off higher seeded teams from South Florida and Florida State to advance to the Sweet 16.
Both basketball programs have high expectations going into the 2019 season. The men’s team is currently ranked on the Top 25 list, and anything short of making the NCAA tournament and making some noise at March Madness will be considered a disappointment.
- THE BUFFALO SABRES GET THEIR MAN
Several years ago, former Sabres general manager Darcy Regier offered up this word to lower fan expectations as the team was heading into the full throes of a rebuild.
Few had any idea how prophetic that word would become.
The Sabres fall has been dramatic. A revolving door of underperforming prospects, expensive free agents who turned out to be busts, and the only way out would be for the team to be bad, in fact so bad, that they would end up dead last and gain that coveted first choice in the NHL Entry Draft, finally landing that generational player.
Ending dead last was the easy part.
Winning the lottery, where a collection of suits from the league and the hapless and unfortunate teams gather in a secured room to watch an unbiased accounting firm draw numbers to determine who gets to choose players in what order… for the Sabres that was a tall task.
They ended up in position for first a few years back, only to lose out and get the second pick. The Florida Panthers chose Aaron Ekblad. The Sabres – Sam Reinhart. Then two years later the team literally threw away an entire season, tanking for the right to obtain coveted generational prospect Conor McDavid. Come lottery time it was the Edmonton Oilers who landed McDavid. Buffalo would have to “settle” for Jack Eichel.
Would the Sabres be snake bitten again? This year’s catch was a generational prized defenseman from Sweden named Rasmus Dahlin, and nobody else on the draft board even came close to the potential of this player.
The Sabres’ unsung hero in this tale was a team executive named Chris Bandura.
Along with Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill, Bandura, as head of Public Relations for the team, attended the league’s Draft Lottery event in Toronto. As is the case, each team has the right, if desired, to assign a representative to watch and monitor the process as lots are chosen and teams learn their fate.
At the last moment, Bandura suggested to Botterill that he skip the proceeding, hoping that the lack of a Sabres presence in that room might change the team’s luck. Botterill agreed, and the team went without a “watcher” in the secured room.
A few hours later, and with huge and breathless anticipation, NHL Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the results on live television. The last card flipped was the logo of the Buffalo Sabres. There was jubilation all across Sabres Nation. For only the third time in franchise
- VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR. BECOMES A BISON
When you’re a AAA affiliate for a Major League Baseball team, every now and then you get to see a hot prospect or a major league star down on rehab play for your team.
Few were bigger, or created more of a buzz, then Toronto Blue Jays third baseman prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Son of and namesake of the former Montreal Expos hall of famer, the 19 year old had already created quite a buzz when the Jays played a pair of exhibition games in Montreal’s Stade Olympique in March. He hit a walk off home run and ramped up a crowd already excited about his appearance, and visions of a return of baseball to their city in the near future.
Guerrero, the #1 prospect in all of baseball, finally made his Buffalo Bisons debut on July 30 at downtown Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field.
He did not disappoint. A full contingent of Canadian media, fans from both sides of the bridge, and local pundits filled the ballpark to see this phenom showcase his skills.
They would have to wait a while longer. Guerrero’s first three at bats against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs drew walks, prompting hoots and derision from the crowd in attendance. But in his fourth at bat, with the bases loaded, no less, drama was in high overdrive.
“I went to home plate to swing and they were not throwing anything to swing at,” Guerrero said after the game through his Blue Jays interpreter. “I just stand there waiting for my pitch. If they don’t throw my pitch, I’m not going to swing at it.”
But with that fourth at bat, Guerrero ripped a line drive to left. Iron Pigs left fielder Adron Chambers made a desperate dive and barely snared the ball, eliminating a three run double and resulting in just a sacrifice fly.
There would be many more memorable moments throughout August as Guerrero became an instant fan favorite, and his presence gave a great turnstile bump throughout the rest of the season.
As for the Bisons, their own sad non playoff streak has now reached a league high 13 seasons.
Hope may be on the horizon. Toronto’s AA team, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, won their league championship this past September. More than a few of their blue chip players are sure to be in a Buffalo uniform come opening day.
7) FOR THIS REGION, A STUDY FOR A NEW STADIUM
As the year came to a close, Pegula Sports and Entertainment announced that they have hired a Denver based consulting firm named CAA ICON to do a top to bottom study on the venues serving the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres.
The clock is ticking on the Buffalo Bills lease with Erie County and New Era Field, which expires in four more seasons. What few fans know is that the Bills could break their lease and move right now of they so chose, serving up a paltry penalty which amounts to little more than a singing bonus for a premier wide receiver.
And don’t look now, but downtown Buffalo’s hockey barn is nearing 25 years old, and is showing its age and not in a good way. Gleaming new NHL and NBA arenas have opened in Detroit, Edmonton, Sacramento and Milwaukee during these past three seasons, offering up comfort, technology, amenities and design templates which are dazzling and game changing for their respective cities and teams.
The decisions that are made in the next 18 months will affect Buffalo sports and the future of our teams for generations.
In the case of the Bills stadium the usual sources will come shape the debate – the fans will demand that the Bills remain at Buffalo at any cost; the greater public will insist that restraint be used as to the use of public funds for a facility that “will be used 8 times a year”; The league will offer encouragement and urgency and with that throw in money, but not nearly enough to self fund the project for a new stadium; The State of New York will emerge as major player, most likely with the help of the two U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; County Executive Mark Poloncarz, always a voice of caution when it comes to stadium issues, will be throwing his usual damper and desperately trying to tamp down any talk of a new stadium; look for Delaware North to be involved in a big way in the conversation.
At the end of the
The two cents from this corner?
Stade Pierre-Mauroy, opened in 2012 in Lille, France, offers almost a too good to be true template of what a multi functional sports and convention venue for the City of Buffalo might look like. The Ultimate Sports Road Trip visited there in 2016 for a match of the UEFA Euro 2016 football (soccer) tournament.
This one of a kind in the world stadium has two floors or main levels. The full stadium level or Grand Stade reaches a height of 101 feet and has a total capacity of 50,186 seats including 4,965 business seats, 1,842 luxury-box seats, 448 protocol seats and 326 pressbox seats. Of course, an NFL venue for the Buffalo Bills would need a slightly higher capacity.
The stadium has also a unique feature: half of the Grand Stade field is situated on hydraulics lift and massive tracks that raise and slide it above the other half of the field in three hours. This creates a second lower level floor plan and surrounding seats called Boîte à Spectacles, where basketball, hockey, or concerts can take place.
The Boîte à Spectacles can be configured to have a variable capacity, from 6,900 to 30,000 seats. In November 2014, it hosted the 2014 Davis Cup finals between France and Switzerland, where an attendance record was broken for the highest-ever officially sanctioned competition tennis match. It hosted the Davis Cup final again in 2017.
The entire roof retracts to offer either open air or weather protected event configurations, and the grass field also retracts, allowing the entire floor area for use as a convention or exhibition facility when not used for a football match.
So imagine if you will, a grand facility with a bold design, smack dab in the middle of the cobblestone district, or perhaps adjacent and incorporated with Buffalo’s nearly vacant Central Terminal, which can be configured for football, hockey, conventions, concerts, amongst a myriad of uses.
Come this end of year column in 2019, here’s hoping this becomes Buffalo’s top sports story. Happy New Year!