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Off-field action had the most impact this year in local sports

The year 2014 was one of the most lively and historic in Western New York sports history – as long as the games aren’t considered. ¶ Championships, or even memorable wins, were few during the past year. Yet there was enough drama to fill the sports pages with major stories for many of the 365 days. That includes everything from business transactions to arrivals and departures of important figures, from construction projects to serious illnesses. ¶ Some of the contenders’ tales popped up in other sections of the newspaper. Trying to rate their impact on local sports, then, is extremely subjective and difficult. Here’s one person’s guess, then, at the top stories of 2014:

1. Terry Pegula takes over the Bills

For many years, football fans wondered what would happen to their beloved Buffalo Bills when Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was no longer on the scene. The fans had reason to be insecure, since an NFL franchise figured to be worth more in another city than in Buffalo, putting any local bidder at a disadvantage.

Pegula answered the question emphatically with a $1.4 billion bid for the Bills and a promise that the team would not be going anywhere. The offer quickly won NFL approval. Only time will tell how Pegula does as an NFL owner, but certainly he bought a long honeymoon period with fans with his investment.

2. Ralph Wilson dies

The passing of the only owner in Bills history marked the end of an era. Wilson took a chance in 1959 when he bought a franchise in the new American Football League for Buffalo. Wilson maintained ownership of the team for almost 55 years.

While his teams had a losing record during his tenure (369-431-8), there’s no doubt that Wilson always acted in the best interests of the sport and of the NFL. What’s more, he always resisted the temptation to move the Bills elsewhere, even though he could have made a financial windfall in the process. For starting the franchise and keeping it here, Wilson became the most important figure in the region’s sports history.

3. Pat LaFontaine departs

It was a huge surprise when the former Sabres center joined his old team’s front office as president of hockey operations in November 2013. His departure a few months later was even more stunning.

LaFontaine had put in place his own management team in General Manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan. Then on March 1, the Sabres announced that LaFontaine was leaving the organization to return to a position with the National Hockey League. While rumors have spread about what happened to cause the breakup, no one has come forward yet with a complete explanation. LaFontaine was not replaced.

4. The Sabres rebuild continues

Former General Manager Darcy Regier had traded such players as Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek before they could leave as free agents. He received a large haul of draft choices as well as some players in return.

Regier may have lost his job in 2013, but Murray followed a similar script upon taking over Jan. 9. The toughest pill to swallow came on Feb. 28, when Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were traded to the St. Louis Blues for three players and two draft choices. Miller was the face of the Sabres franchise for almost a decade, and his departure was met with sadness. Other players also were moved as the roster restructuring continued, and the team finished last overall. An important piece of the future may have arrived in June when Sam Reinhart was picked with the second overall draft choice.

5. A Buffalo tint to the draft

Western New York had a strong interest in two of the first five picks in the NFL Draft. The Bills traded up from the ninth overall pick to the No. 4 spot, while giving up a first- and fourth-round pick in 2015. They chose wide receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson. It was a large price to pay by a team with a number of needs, but the Bills did have Watkins ranked as the best player in the entire draft. The trade’s merits will be debated for years. The rookie has had some ups and downs on the field, but he has been the most dynamic offensive player on the roster.

One pick after the selection of Watkins, the Oakland Raiders took linebacker Khalil Mack from the University at Buffalo. No Bulls player had ever gone in the first round before, let alone in the top five. Mack stepped right into the starting lineup in Oakland. While the Raiders have had a terrible season, no one is blaming Mack.

6. Life and death

Sometimes real life intrudes on our fun and games. Such was the case when two local legends – former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret – battled cancer throughout the year.

Western New York’s sports fans braced themselves for the worst during the course of the year, but they waited and hoped for the announcement of good news – which came for both men in the fall. By the end of 2014, Kelly was making public appearances and Jeanneret was broadcasting games again as they continued their recoveries.

7. The Bills become more relevant

After nine straight losing seasons, Buffalo’s football fans suffered from low expectations entering 2014. But the team surprised many by never dipping below .500 throughout the season and remaining on the fringes of the playoff race.

What’s more, the Bills notched one of their most memorable wins in recent memory, as they knocked off the streaking Green Bay Packers at home in December. For the first time in quite a while, hope for the future was not an irrational thought – although a Dec. 21 loss that ended the team’s playoff hopes tempered that enthusiasm for the time being.

8. Domination by Canisius

It’s always difficult to try to pick the best sports team across eras. But Canisius High School certainly made a good case to be ranked as one of the all-time great local high school football teams with an amazing year.

The Crusaders went 3-0 against Ohio teams and were ranked nationally by several polls, including USA Today’s. Canisius’ toughest game might have been with Jamestown, which went on to win a state title in the public school ranks. The Crusaders, meanwhile, won their own state crown in the Catholic playoffs on Dec. 7 with a 23-10 win over Stepinac.

9. UB changes coaches

The Bulls football team played in a bowl game in 2013 and finished the season 8-5. The squad lost some of its stars to graduation before the 2014 season, but the Bulls still had a 3-4 record on Oct. 13.

It was a large surprise, then, when coach Jeff Quinn was relieved of his duties – partly because the move came in midseason. Lance Leipold was hired from Wisconsin-Whitewater after the season to replace him. Leipold had a gaudy 106-6 record with the Warhawks of Division III when he was hired. We’ll see how he does at a much higher level of competition in 2015.

10. Andre’s Hall call

The Bills’ glory years of the early 1990s were already well-represented at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Marv Levy, James Lofton and Wilson were already in place. Andre Reed had been a big part of that group, but had just missed election several times.

That finally changed in 2014. Reed probably will be the last player associated with that group of Bills to be so honored. Mix that with the uncertainty associated with the pending sale of the team at the time and Kelly’s fight with cancer, and the result was an induction ceremony on Aug. 2 that was filled with emotion for all concerned – including Bills fans.

The honorable mention list is a long one:

• HarborCenter opened to good reviews, giving Canisius College hockey a new home and providing the area with a catalyst for economic development.

• Darryl Talley revealed his personal problems in a story that made him the most well-known of Bills players facing significant problems in their lives well after retirement from football.

• Randolph won its third state football championship in a row, while Jamestown joined it as state champion. Speaking of such honors, Cardinal O’Hara took the Federation girls basketball title, Williamsville South and Hamburg took softball crowns, St. Mary’s, Eden, Williamsville South and Portville won in girls volleyball while International Prep at Grover Cleveland won in boys soccer. The Nichols girls hockey team was ranked as one of the nation’s best programs.

• Speaking of high schools, June saw the first annual Prep Talk awards from The Buffalo News. Major award-winners were: Team of the Year – Clarence girls swimming; Female Athlete of the Year – Clarence swimmer Dina Rommel; Male Athlete of the Year – Bishop Timon-St. Jude hockey and lacrosse player Connor Fields; Coach of the Year – Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball coach Dan McDermott; inaugural Hall of Fame inductee – Dick Gallagher..

• Buffalo basketball fans watched the future national champion when Connecticut played its first two games of the NCAA Tournament in First Niagara Center. They also saw Dayton upset Ohio State and Syracuse.

• The Bisons missed the playoffs, but Marcus Stroman had a memorable season. The pitcher dominated opponents in the season’s first month. He went up to Toronto on April 29 and was 11-6 there.

• The UB women’s soccer team came out of nowhere to take the MAC championship and play in the NCAA Tournament. The Canisius women’s lacrosse team reached the NCAAs for the fourth straight year.

• Buffalo Marathon and Turkey Trot director Tom Donnelly died unexpectedly at the age of 61.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com