The year that was 2006 had barely commenced when Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. decided to reclaim his football team. He'd had his fill, and then some, of autocratic President and General Manager Tom Donahoe. A 5-11 record exhausted his tolerance. Wilson wanted full knowledge of what was going on inside his organization, which meant ousting Donahoe and, at 87, becoming more involved in operations.
Wilson named himself president. He brought in former Bills coach Marv Levy, another octogenarian, to serve as general manager. The chiding abounded, a good bit of it originated by the two men whose births predate The Great Depression.
"I started out the season and the doctor told me, 'Wilson, you don't look so good,' " said the Bills' owner, sounding not unlike Tom Hanks in "Castaway."
"I said, 'What do you mean, Doc?' He said, 'You look depressed.' I said, 'What do you suggest?' He suggested that I take 20 milligrams of Prozac every day. And I'm up to 100 milligrams of Prozac now."
Little did Wilson realize, when he removed Donahoe the first week of January, that chaos was building momentum. Within a week of Levy's hiring, head coach Mike Mularkey resigned with three years remaining on his contract. Within minutes of Mularkey's departure, Levy, a modern-day Ponce de Leon, was angling for the head coaching job. Wilson ruled out the possibility at a news conference with an unequivocal "Absolutely not." Levy took the podium and spun an unmistakable "Maybe."
The two moved behind closed doors, leaving everyone to wonder if they'd settle the matter with two out of three falls or three out of five. The year that was 2006 was all of two weeks out of the gate and already the action was fast and furious.
The pace never really slowed on the Western New York sports scene. The 365 days were filled with compelling plots and delightful surprises, from Levy's hiring to Mularkey's resignation to the season second-half assault staged by the Buffalo Sabres, who came within a period of the Stanley Cup finals and captured a community's abiding passion in the process. Hockey tickets became impossible to come by, conjuring memories of the franchise's early '70s show.
Kimmie Meissner, with family in Western New York cheering her on, won the women's World Figure Skating Championship after placing fifth in the Olympics. John Tavares of the Buffalo Bandits became the National Lacrosse League's all-time leading scorer. Fredonia High grad Jen Stuczynski rose to global prominence in the pole vault, achieving higher heights both indoors and outdoors than any other American woman.
In boxing, an unrelenting Joe Mesi fought his way through the courts and climbed back into the ring while concerned fans drew a sharp breath and prayed he'd do himself no further harm. Tom Baker was named the Professional Bowlers Association Senior Player of the Year for the second straight season after winning four titles, including two majors, on what acquaintances have come to refer to as the "Baker Tour."
The year was not without its abject disappointments and its sorrowful departures. City Honors grad Steve Mesler took himself to the woodshed after USA-1 bombed in the Olympic bobsled in Turin, placing seventh, a spot behind USA-2. A drastic imbalance between wins and losses forced Canisius Athletics Director Bill Maher to bid a tearful goodbye to basketball coach Mike MacDonald, a beloved campus figure who landed at Medaille. And four of Buffalo's coveted baseball treasures -- scouts Cy Williams and Pat Kane, former big leaguer Sibby Sisti and international business icon and former Buffalo Bisons chairman Robert E. Rich Sr. -- passed on, leaving behind conversational vacancies that can't be filled.
For at least three local athletes, 2006 will be a year they'll recall with fondness in retirement, when personal achievements are ripe to be picked and savored. Sabres co-captain Chris Drury scored his first hat trick Oct. 14, 555 games into his career. Fellow co-captain Daniel Briere matched the feat Dec. 5, 429 games from his opening day. And how about Bills wideout Lee Evans, No. 83, who hauled in not one but two 83-yard touchdown passes in a Nov. 19 victory over Houston and added a 77-yarder Dec. 10 against the Jets, becoming the first NFL receiver since 1989 with at least three TDs of more than 75 yards in a season.
Scholastic athletes also had their day. Lackawanna, once a local dynasty, won its first state boys basketball championship since 1979. Eden continued to dominate in boys volleyball, capturing its third straight state title while becoming the first team in the state since Orchard Park in 1991 to chalk up an unbeaten season (32-0). In softball, Williamsville South won its second state title in three years behind the incomparable Chelsea Plimpton, who threw a 14-strikeout one-hitter in the final while running her season "K" total to 411, a state record. It was also a year of celebration in the Buffalo Public Schools as All High Stadium was refurbished and dressed with a synthetic field, giving city high school athletes a complex in which to take pride.
It's official; 2006 has come and gone and Bass Pro remains one whopper of a fish story more than two years after politicians declared the deal done. Just think. In November 2004 you could have interrupted the "Bass Pro arrives" news conference and declared: "I'll bet UB football plays second-ranked Auburn close for three quarters, and UB basketball takes second-ranked Pitt down to the wire before they even come close to breaking ground for this thing." And you'd have been right!
Now up on the board: Bass Pro vs. a Time Warner contract with the NFL Network. Pick 'em.
Yeah, 2006 gave Buffalo sports fans plenty to chew on. Dick Jauron became coach of the Bills and fostered improvement, particularly on the offensive line. Quarterback J.P. Losman made notable strides while failing to erase all doubts. UB football, despite a mere two wins, hinted a leap could be forthcoming under new head coach Turner Gill and two former local high school stars, running back James Starks and converted receiver Naaman Roosevelt. The Paul Harris era began to unfold for Syracuse basketball, which will add Harris' former Niagara Falls High teammate, point guard Jonathan Flynn, in the fall.
But one story outranked all others in a sometimes tumultuous, often frenzied 2006. In the oft-spoken words of the citizenry, "How about those Sabres!"
> "The Story" of 2006
It's hard to identify precisely when the Buffalo Sabres took charge of Western New York. Was it while thriving during the regular season despite injuries to Briere, J.P. Dumont, Ryan Miller and Tim Connolly? When they strung five victories heading into the playoffs?
Could it have been when Brian Campbell decked R.J. Umberger in the Philly series, supplying the defining moment of the first-round conquest of the Flyers? How about when rookie Jason Pominville scored the series clincher in Game Five in Ottawa, with the Sabres short-handed, with regulation having given way to overtime? Is that when the masses concluded, in the oft-mimicked words of Rick Jeanneret, "These guys are good. Scary good"?
What's certain is that by the time the Sabres met Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, they had the hearts of Western New York in their hands. Player after player had gone down throughout the playoffs, Connolly and Dmitri Kalinin against Ottawa, Teppo Numminen in Game One against the 'Canes, Henrik Tallinder in Game Three, and somehow the Sabres still persevered with inexperienced call-ups such as Doug Janik, Jeff Jillson and Nathan Paetsch populating the blue line.
They forced a Game Seven against the 'Canes in Carolina only to lose another defenseman, Jay McKee, to a leg infection in the hours preceding the deciding game. And yet, in an ultimate display of the resiliency that had become their trademark, the Sabres held a third-period lead until Carolina struck for three goals and advanced to play the Edmonton Oilers, whom they beat for the Cup.
While the championship dream died that night, the momentum rolled on. Lindy Ruff was named the NHL's Coach of the Year. General Manager Darcy Regier kept the nucleus of the team intact despite having to surrender McKee, Mike Grier and Dumont to free agency in response to the restraints of the league's salary cap. The Sabres opened the 2006-07 campaign with a shootout victory in Carolina and kept right on winning, notching 10 straight to tie the league record.
Western New York went on a feeding frenzy, gobbling up season tickets in record numbers, devouring the crumbs of individual game seats, scarfing merchandise to the point where Sabres jerseys became the holiday season equal of PlayStation III: available only on the black market, and at a steep price.
Yes, it was the early '70s all over again, with the Sabres ruling the local sports scene. And Western New York, enthralled, can't wait to see what '07 might bring.