I was just a few years out of college, a die-hard fan of all sports, when I was hired by Public Radio station WEBR NewsRadio 970 as a sports reporter. I had already done a great deal of radio play-by-play of basketball and football, but the experiences I gained there were extremely valuable.
We had a two-man department with a part-timer and covered all home games of the NBA Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers), the NHL Sabres, and the NFL Bills. I went from watching those leagues to covering them professionally almost overnight.
The Braves had Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio (along with his former Providence teammate Marvin Barnes), and for roughly one week, Moses Malone.
The Sabres featured the “French Connection Line’ of Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, with Head Coach Floyd Smith and Hall of Famer Punch Imlach as the General Manager.
The Bills had O.J. Simpson (always a great interview) and his “Electric Company” offensive line leading the way, coached by the combustible Lou Saban.
Whenever we were finished covering the pro teams, we also had a play-by-play package of college games. Those had us doing Canisius College football, along with University at Buffalo hockey and basketball from Canisius, Niagara, St. Bonaventure, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State University.
After a year at WEBR, we also started a regular sports talk show. Our first guest on “SportsLine 970” was Lackawanna’s Ron Jaworski, who had just been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles from the Los Angeles Rams.
What I learned during two years there helped prepare me to move on to Los Angeles, and three seasons working with another outstanding broadcaster and teacher in the Voice of the Kings, Bob Miller. Working with him, I learned how to prepare for a game. I took those lessons briefly to Seattle (with the NBA SuperSonics), then back to Buffalo and the beginning of my “freelance career.”
I signed on with the minor league baseball Buffalo Bisons for the 1983 season and had 13 delightful seasons with them. War Memorial Stadium (or “Knights Field” in the Robert Redford film “The Natural”) was home for the team through 1987. After that, the team moved downtown to a (still) beautiful park in 1988 – then known as Pilot Field, now Coca-Cola Field. The team became the second in the history of the minor leagues to draw over a million fans in one season, and then continued to do that for a number of years.
What to do in the baseball offseasons? I spent some time hosting Buffalo Sabres cablecasts and radio. Paul Wieland was the Communications Director (and sometimes practice goaltender) for the Sabres. A very creative man, he specialized in great April Fool’s pranks. I was fortunate enough to be part of one of his Classic April Fool’s telecasts:
While I always wished I could have done some time travel to go back and find out how crazy it must have been to work on the staff of Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” (with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and others as writers), I doubt they could have had more fun than we did on that telecast.
During that period of time, I also was introduced to the love of my life, Claudia. We had friends in common who put us together before a January 27, 1985, game with the Quebec Nordiques and we went out after that game as part of a group. A young defenseman on that Buffalo team is now a Predators Assistant Coach (Phil Housley) and one of the team’s centers now does color on the Predators’ radio broadcasts (Brent Peterson). Who would have guessed that 30 years later we would all be together in Nashville?
While Triple A baseball and the NHL overlap a bit, there was still a gap in my schedule. The Buffalo Bills helped me out there. I did color for the broadcasts in 1983 and co-hosted a weekly cable show of the team’s highlights from 1983 through 1985. That was a challenge, as the team posted 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14 records. Then I also worked on the Bills pre- and postgame radio shows. On the postgame show, I felt like I had become “Western New York’s bartender,” as people cried on my shoulder when calling in.
All of that was preparation for the move to another radio station in the fall of 1988. Rich Products, which owned the Bisons, had purchased WGR Radio. They wanted me to be the Sports Director. It wasn’t long before the Bison games, followed by the Bills and Sabres, moved there. Later, we added University at Buffalo football and basketball, along with the Major Indoor Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits. All of them became “instant hits.”
In 1988, the Bills rose from the doldrums and began a string of five AFC Title game appearances in six seasons, along with four trips to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl run began with a 51-3 AFC Title game win over the Los Angeles Raiders on January 20, 1991.
The Buffalo Sabres then obtained a franchise in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (now the National Lacrosse League) to occupy some dates in the Aud. It didn’t take long for them to capture a strong audience.
You may recognize a name there on the Bandits – John Tavares. He is the 46-year-old uncle of the New York Islanders Captain of the same name, and is the lacrosse league’s all-time leading scorer. The team started play in 1992 and won the championship each of their first two seasons, then two more afterward.
College basketball had been the premiere attraction in Western New York before the Bills, Sabres and Braves came to town. In the late 1980s, it began a resurgence. The University of Buffalo was part of that and I was lucky enough to call their games for WGR.
The Bulls moved from conference to conference, before gaining entry to the Mid-American (MAC) after I had left for Nashville.
By 1995, I wanted to get back to hockey full-time (after part-time work for the Sabres and their AHL team in nearby Rochester). The Sabres chose me to do their radio that summer, going into their final season at the Aud (where I had met Claudia). So, as I had in baseball, I closed out one facility and opened another, with no lack of excitement.
After the first season in Marine Midland Arena (later HSBC Arena, now the First Niagara Center) the Sabres decided to simulcast their games. Then I moved to the regional TV Network (Empire Sports Network) that carried their games, along with those of the Bisons and featured heavy Bills coverage. Little did I know at the time that when I covered the June 1998 NHL Entry and Expansion drafts in Buffalo that I was beginning my long association with the Nashville Predators!
Claudia and I still have many friends there and I usually go back for the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies every summer. We are still in contact with the people we met with the various teams. It really was where we “came of age.”