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Thruway Lanes’ closing will leave a big void

The expected closing of AMF Thruway Lanes was one of the worst-kept secrets in town. It was the talk at the Greater Buffalo USBC Association Hall of Fame dinner on Thanksgiving weekend but details were sparse and the principals, BowlmorAMF, which runs the facility, the owner of the property and the Basil auto interests, were saying little.

Now that it’s out in the open, it has hit the Western New York bowling community like an earthquake. Things are really going to be shaken up and may never be the same.

First of all, the Walden Avenue house was home to around 25 sanctioned bowling leagues. Weekly league bowlers, whether in highly competitive leagues or more recreational leagues, have been the lifeblood of the sport.

With 60 lanes, it was the second largest house in the Buffalo area. AMF Airport has 66 lanes, but in an environment that has a more confined feeling the way the house is split into three separate areas.

No date has been announced for when the doors will close to local bowlers, but most leagues and associations that use the facility are heeding the “sooner rather than later” warning and making other plans.

Among the leagues that presumably will have to relocate or dissolve are the popular Kerm Helmer Memorial, which featured some of the area’s best bowlers, and the Whitey Kiszewski Memorial, named in honor of a long-time Thruway fixture.

Thruway long has been an important facility for national, state and regional competition. Loss of a prestigious venue is a huge blow and it’s unlikely any new lanes or expansion of existing facilities makes any sense for investors given the state of the sport in the 21st Century.

In the last 10 years, Sheridan, Amherst, LeisureLand and Rose Bowl have gone away for various reasons. Before that, Roc-Mar and Suburban were lost.

Rochester has been hit even harder by the financial realities of the business side of bowling. Now there are five houses with 88 total lanes in Rochester and surrounding suburbs.

The New York State USBC Open Championship was scheduled for Thruway over the course of four weeks next April and May.

“We are currently working with another center in Buffalo to move the tournament there, anticipating no change in our dates and few or no changes in our squad times,” Mike Pettinella, the manager of the state association, said in an email Friday. “We are proceeding with the belief that AMF Thruway Lanes will be closed ‘sooner rather than later,’ as has been reported in the media.”

A large question involves three events that have been held at Thruway for many years.

The Section VI Boys and Girls Championships have been held annually on successive days in February and played to packed houses and Thruway has hosted the New York State Public High Schools championships on occasion.

Section VI officials are working on the final details of relocating the tournaments to AMF Airport Lanes on the same dates in February.

Also, Thruway has long been the venue for some events of the National Junior College Athletic Association men’s and women’s championships the first weekend in March each year. The event has been split between Thruway (singles and doubles) and AMF Lancaster Lanes (the completion of the team competition).

Of course, the PBA Tour as a traveling circuit is virtually extinct. Through the years, though, Thruway was the house most interested and most capable of hosting the top pros, especially after the demise of the old Fairlanes in Depew in the 1970s.

The first PBA Tour event at Thruway was the Home Box Office Open in 1975. Between then on through the 2011 Mark Roth Plastic Ball championship, the facility was the site for 21 tour events. No PBA Tour events were held there between 1992 and 2006. The tour returned to the Buffalo area in 2007 with the GEICO championship at Thruway.

Among the winners of PBA titles at the Cheektowaga lanes were some of the sport’s greats – Larry Laub, Wayne Webb, Mark Roth himself, Doug Kent, Pete Weber, Parker Bohn III and Jason Couch. The PBA Senior/Tour Pro Doubles were held there three times. Carmen Salvino, Randy Pedersen, Dick Weber and Dave Soutar were on winning sides in that event.

Among the many women’s championships Thruway hosted was the 1996 Women’s International Bowling Congress Queens Tournament won by Lisa Wagner. Ten times it was the site of the George A. Obenauer Masters, hosting more editions of the area’s most prestigious championship than any other house.

It’s safe to say that nearly all of the sport’s top stars, men and women, have bowled at Thruway in the last 40 plus years. Certainly, all of Western New York’s bowling stars have competed at the facility.

It’s an old friend that will be missed and hopefully can be replaced somehow.

Pin chasers

• The World Men’s Bowling Championship wrapped up last Sunday in Abu Dhabi with Korea winning four gold and four bronze medals, including a victory over the United States in the five-man team event and the Masters finale, where Kang Heewon defeated Mike Fagan of the U.S., 213-198. Fagan brought home four silver medals (Masters, team, all-events and trios). In the five-man team event, Korea defeated Team USA (Fagan, Rash, Kent, Jones, Chris Barnes and Bill O’Neill) in the gold medal match, 1,097-1,088, after eliminating Australia in the semifinal round. The U.S. players defeated Sweden in the other semifinal, 1,236-985.

• Bowlmor AMF announced this week that it has made a commitment to host and provide television sponsorship for the U.S. Open and Women’s U.S Open in 2015. The tournaments will be conducted in AMF and Brunswick centers with more than $250,000 in funding for broadcast television production.

• Erie Community College teams will compete in two tournaments over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday – the Roto Grip Keystone Quaker Collegiate Classic in Allentown, Pa., on Dec. 27-28, and the Lehigh Valley Collegiate Classic in Allentown on Dec. 29-30.