By Richard D’Angelo
On Oct. 4, my sports season began once again. That date marked the beginning of the 101st season for the National Hockey League.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1954, I was 9 years old and 1 p.m. on Sundays was a very important time of the week. That was when Dad and I would sit in front of the TV to watch the Cleveland Browns. Back then, Buffalo received the Browns’ telecast every week of the football season, so I grew up following that team. My heroes were Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli and Ray Renfro. And when Jim Brown joined the team a year later, my enthusiasm doubled. Sundays were always tension-filled as my Browns faced teams like the Giants, with Sam Huff.
Years went by and soon it was 1966, a very important year because CBS started televising NHL games hosted by Buffalo’s own Bill Mazer. This one event signaled a complete change in my sports experience forever.
Even on TV, it was obvious to me that hockey displayed a level of power, grace and drama that dwarfed football. But this wasn’t my first experience with hockey. In 1959, a friend had taken me to a Bisons hockey game in Memorial Auditorium. My only memory was that I wished that they played four periods, as in football. I didn’t want it to end. But for some reason that experience didn’t capture me the way CBS did with its weekly telecasts. I was a hockey fan!
I came home from the Army in September of 1970 to the news that Buffalo was about to enter the National Hockey League. I was overjoyed and attended every game I could. The memories of those early years are still etched in my mind.
Sundae Baffo, the Sabre Girl, skating with the sword before each team came onto the ice. Norm Wullen at the organ. Punch Imlach behind the bench with his unmistakable hat. Rick Martin’s first slap shot, which knocked Denis Herron’s glove 10 feet in the air.
Eddie “Clear The Track” Shack flying down the wing with his blonde hair flowing in the breeze. Brian “Spinner” Spencer (my favorite Sabre of all) living up to his nickname by spinning like a top, hitting and bouncing off of everything and everyone in his way. Rick Dudley’s headband.
Gerry Meehan’s last-minute shot from the blue line of the last game on April 2, 1972, which amazingly scored, knocking the Flyers out of the playoffs. Jim Schoenfeld (whose number should be retired) taking on the Bruins’ Wayne Cashman and Carol Vadnais, and finally crashing through the Zamboni entrance in his third period bout with Bobby Orr.
The fog game, when Jim “Batman” Lorentz swatted the animal out of the air. The heartbreak of that sixth game against the Flyers in the 1975 finals. Taking part in the spontaneous chant, “Thank you, Sabres!” and being part of the absolute love the fans had for our boys who were giving their best every night.
My enthusiasm soon spread to my family. Mom never liked football. “They just knock each other down, get up and knock each other down again,” she said. But she loved the speed of hockey.
Dad was always a football fan, but I realized I had converted him when I came over one night and saw that he had put the radio on top of a curtain rod so he could pick up the Sabres broadcast from Los Angeles.
I could fill many more pages with hockey stories, including my own eventful playing career, which began at the age of 30. But suffice it to say that there is no sport comparable and my passion for hockey will be in my blood forever.
I want to close this story with just one request of the Sabres for all of the fans everywhere who share my devotion: Win just one Stanley Cup while I’m still around. Please. Just one.