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One man's quest to preserve the Sabres' past

His eyes light up, like a kid in a candy store, when Dr. Joseph E. Gambacorta starts reeling off the personal favorites of his thousands of pieces of Buffalo Sabres, minor-league hockey and Memorial Auditorium memorabilia dating back 85 years.

His candy store, though, sits secured in the basement of a Buffalo-area home, at least for now.

The collection includes ticket stubs from more than 2,000 Sabres home games – preseason, regular season and playoffs – all but 23 games over the 46 seasons.

 Ticket stubs from the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Ticket stubs from the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

It also includes seats from every colored seating level inside the Aud: gold, red, blue, orange and even a touch of gray.

And, of course, there are historic pieces, including a black and orange uniform from the 1931-32 Buffalo (hockey) Bisons, when they played in the old Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie, Ont., and a white jersey from the Buffalo Norsemen, a single-season 1975-76 minor-league team that helped inspire the 1977 movie, “Slap Shot.

Gambacorta, 50, simply wants to preserve – and pass on to future generations – the history of professional hockey in Buffalo. And he knows that he and other collectors have the ability, even the responsibility, to bring back these memories.

“We need to recover the past, and we have,” he said of the memorabilia. “Saving some of it, preserving the history of it, is a big deal.”

[Photo Gallery: Dr. Joseph's Gambacorta's Sabres memorabilia]

Much of his collection will be on loan to the Buffalo History Museum as one of the two main foundations of “Icons: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports.” That exhibit is expected to open in an 1,800-square-foot space on the second floor of the museum in the fall of 2017.

As a fundraising and consciousness-raising tool, the architects of “Icons” are displaying a small portion of Sabres and Bills memorabilia inside Riverworks near downtown, for this week’s National Hockey League draft.

That exhibit kicked off with an event featuring Sabres alumni Danny Gare and Rene Robert, collectors and museum officials late Wednesday afternoon in Riverworks.

The Icons exhibit will feature artifacts and stories spanning more than a century of Buffalo pro sports, with the community helping determine the top 10 sports moments and the greatest teams and sports figures. Officials also are launching a $500,000 fundraising campaign to fund the whole effort.

With Icons, the Buffalo History Museum is trying to capitalize on the huge success of its Buffalo Bills exhibit in 2009 and a Sabres exhibit in 2014.

“We understand that we need to appeal to a larger audience,” said Anthony Greco, the museum’s director of exhibits and interpretive planning.

Seats from Memorial Auditorium that were gray and painted blue to attract higher ticket prices. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Seats from Memorial Auditorium that were gray and painted blue to attract higher ticket prices. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

While the museum deals extensively with more traditional history, like the Pan-American Exposition and Buffalo’s connections to major wars, Greco also cited the importance of pro sports in our past and present.
“It’s a mistake not to include sports in that history,” he said. “While it may not be studied as much in academia, it’s just as important socially.”

The numbers bear that out. Each year, Buffalo’s four pro teams sell some 2 million tickets, while hundreds of thousands of people follow the teams closely through every kind of broadcast, print and social media. And although Sabres and Bills fans remain frustrated by their teams’ recent playoff droughts, the overwhelming outpouring of emotion 200 miles away in Cleveland this week, following the end of that city’s 52-year championship drought, proves how closely our community identities are tied up in our teams’ success.

Greg Tranter, who has put together a massive Bills collection that will be featured in Icons, explained why sports are so much more than entertainment.

“They teach our children, bond friends and families, bring the community together and create shared experiences,” he said.

Gambacorta, assistant dean for clinical affairs at the University at Buffalo Dental School, can speak to the bonding of generations over sports teams. He attended his first Sabres game, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, with his father Al at age 6 or 7 in 1972-73.

“The Auditorium stuff is my favorite,” he said. “I just loved going there as a kid with my dad. It was one of those bigger-than-life places to a little kid. I just fell in love with the place.”

Gambacorta even has his family’s Auditorium seats in the oranges: Section 18, Row D, Seats 1-2.

“I used to get a ticket stub and program and save them, and because I loved the colors of the tickets – orange, red, gold and blue – I used to pick them up off the floor and save them. That’s how I kind of started.”

Gambacorta unveiled a few of the interesting stories behind some of his treasured pieces:

• Only old-timers remember the old gray seats above the blues at the top of the Aud’s original single bowl. In the early 1970s, after the Sabres and basketball Braves came to town, those gray seats were painted blue, so the teams could charge higher “blue” prices for the old gray seats. But Gambacorta has some last-row blue seats whose backs sat against a wall. No one bothered to paint the backs, which still are gray.

A jersey from the Buffalo Norsemen, a single-season 1975-76 minor-league team that helped inspire the 1977 movie, “Slap Shot." (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A jersey from the Buffalo Norsemen, a single-season 1975-76 minor-league team. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

• One of Gambacorta’s favorite items is the white Buffalo Norsemen jersey worn by former Sabres player Steve Atkinson during the Norsemen’s only season, 1975-76, in the old North American Hockey League. The team played its home games in the Tonawanda Sports Center.

A Norsemen playoff game against the Johnstown Jets featured a pre-game brawl that led to the Norsemen leaving the ice and forfeiting the game, and thus the playoff series.

That brawl inspired a key scene in the 1977 movie “Slap Shot,” featuring the fictional Hanson (actually Carlson) brothers playing on the fictional Charlestown Chiefs (actually Johnstown Jets). The Norsemen never played another game.

• On a sadder note, Gambacorta also has the jersey worn by Sabres defenseman Tim Horton in his last home game, on Feb. 17, 1974. It’s a white jersey, bearing the No. 2 and the alternate captain “A” in an era when players’ names weren’t on the back. Horton was killed four days later when he crashed his car on the Queen Elizabeth Way in St. Catharines, Ont. while returning here from a Sabres game against his former Toronto Maple Leafs the previous night.

Uniform from the 1931-32 Buffalo (hockey) Bisons, when they played in the old Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Uniform from the 1931-32 Buffalo (hockey) Bisons, when they played in the old Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

• The collection also includes a book with a mostly handwritten list of every public event held in Memorial Auditorium from 1940 to 1977.

• Gambacorta has a captain’s jersey for every one of the team’s more than two dozen captains, all but the No. 17 worn by Floyd Smith in the team’s first season. Perhaps even more impressively, he ticked off the names of the team’s first 20 captains, almost in order, including some unlikely candidates such as Alexander Mogilny, Miroslav Satan and Toni Lydman.

Besides preserving history and passing the memories to a younger generation, Gambacorta has another goal, bringing the National Hockey League All-Star Game back to Buffalo. Some of his artifacts from the 1978 game here are on display in Riverworks this week, but the game hasn’t been played here since then, and it will have been at least 40 years between Buffalo appearances.

“It’s time to get it back,” he said. “The city is on the move. It would be a nice way to showcase the city and all the things that are moving forward.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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