Share this article

print logo

MAIN STREET'S SPORTS CATHEDRAL STILL PACKS A PUNCH

Several weeks ago, for reasons not entirely clear, I spent an hour with our dying old friend. My initial intentions were to wake up a few ghosts, but I really didn't know what to expect when Tony Krathaus opened the garage door in Memorial Auditorium and waved me through.

We met at the back entrance, which seemed appropriate. That was my not-so-secret gate when ticket prices were a wink, a nod and a beer in South Buffalo after the game. What can I say? That's how it worked during the glory days of the Griffin administration.

City officials had warned me that it was dark inside and reminded me to bring a flashlight because the Aud no longer had electricity. Funny, I thought, because electricity is exactly what's been missing from a downtown arena since the joint closed.

I'll be honest. I didn't appreciate the Aud until long after the doors were locked in 1996. I thought it was a dump, a rundown, behind-the-times eyesore. I had been there a good 200 times and still couldn't find my way around.

Still, I wanted to make peace with the place before it gets turned into an oversized tackle box, or so the local flunkies say. I wasn't sure what I would find. Rats the size of sheep? The bridge of Mike Foligno's nose?

Krathaus, a maintenance mechanic for the city, led me up the ramp and through the Zamboni entrance -- you know, where Schoeny planted Cashman -- and onto what was once the worst ice surface in the National Hockey League.

It was creepy at first as we looked through our headlights and into the dark, empty seats. I half-expected to see Tim Horton and Spinner Spencer emerge from the locker room with Tiny Archibald's crutches.

If you close your eyes tight enough, you can still hear the buzz emanating from the oranges and feel the place rocking. You can hear Rick Jeanneret tongue-flapping La-La-La-La-LaFontaine from the booth. I imagined the late columnist Phil Ranallo, a must-read in the Courier-Express, typing away alongside News legend Larry Felser in the darkness.

And that's when I realized it wasn't creepy. It was home.

My father took me there heaven knows how many times, back when sports still seemed innocent. The Aud introduced me to the idea that I could make a living from a press box.

It was the Little Three, two for McAdoo, Perreault through the zone, Robert through the fog, Gretzky for the record, and two (insert adjective here) freebies for Jo Jo White. It was Razor with his shirt off. It was the Explorer League hockey and high school hoops.

It was organ music and a plain, blue scoreboard that didn't need to tell us when to cheer because we knew. It wasn't just a building. It was our Ebbets Field. It was a state of mind, just like Buffalo.

Yes, it was definitely home.

Our home wasn't named after a bank or an airline or an insurance company. It honored nameless heroes who knew what it meant to win at all costs. It was far more charming and much busier than the place across the parking lot -- you know, the place everybody said would be better.

You realize how quickly things changed when you look around the Aud, now a giant time capsule. Almost every seat remains in place. Blue and gold paint adorns the hallway outside the Sabres' dressing room, where the only thing that separated fans from players were a rickety fold-up gate and an arm's length.

You forget how close you were to the action until you walk down the steep, sticky steps. You remember when obstruction meant sitting in the upper blues and not being able to see the scoreboard. Yes, the 1970s-style monitors that solved the problem are bolted in place to this day.

It's as if the last person out really did turn off the lights and lock the doors. There were remains from a chest protector near Dominik Hasek's old spot in the dressing room, where the Sabres' logo -- their heart -- was surgically removed from the rug in the middle of the floor.

The boards standing in position today still include signs from corporate sponsors that -- if you remember -- were supposed to tell us where sports were going. Instead, they remind us what we left behind: Marine Midland Bank, Nynex, Breckenridge Brewery, Empire Sports Network, Hills department store and, yes, the NHL.

In nine short years, all have disappeared like a Canisius-Niagara doubleheader. Even the rats are long gone.

What remains is a shell of the Aud, a part of us.

It wasn't the best place, but it was our place. It took three ramps and two escalators to get there, but nothing beat first row-oranges-center ice. And that's exactly where I sat after dodging a few dead pigeons with my new friend, Tony.

We toured our building behind our flashlights for nearly an hour, two guys who never met before that day, talking about the Aud. We stood in the dark, right where the corporate suits left us, with a hole in the roof.

What we have are memories.

As we walked down from the oranges and toward the exit, I placed a paper cup on the floor for every kid who popped them after games. And I stomped like a 12-year-old stepping on a quarter. In an empty building, it sounded like a cannon. Tony darned near jumped out of his skin in the darkness. I was still laughing hours later.

It's how I'll remember my final visit, much like my first, with a smile as I left the Aud. It felt right meeting up with our old friend. On the way out, I realized what I had been searching for: my youth.

You might have heard the city and county are hurting for money, so I have a suggestion. Open it for public tours before they gut the place. People would pay a small fee, visit with their children and revisit their youth. They would tell stories and breathe life back into the old joint.

They could even enter through the back door.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com