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2017 Buffalo Sports Year in Review: The more things change, the more they've stayed the same

A stalk of celery dipped into malaise is what 2017 Buffalo sports tasted like.

The year was dominated by upheaval for the Bills and Sabres, with the biggest stories involving people being fired or traded. Record playoff slumps persist.

The Bandits were terrible. The Bisons finished 21 games out of first place. None of the Big Four basketball programs made the NCAA Tournament. The University at Buffalo eliminated four of its programs.

So bad were the offerings that a mascot dressed as celery generated one of the more joyous happenings for its farewell race against two chicken wings and a bleu cheese container at Coca-Cola Field.

Western New York sports fans were forced to deal with boring thoughts of rebuilds and transitions while digesting the fact the previous renovators – just a couple years old – had failed.

Remember when fans were excited about bold GMs Doug Whaley and Tim Murray? Or high-profile coaches Rex Ryan and Dan Bylsma? Or aggressive University at Buffalo athletics director Danny White?

They're all gone, as are a bunch of Bills players whose jerseys still populate New Era Field. The Sabres might not hold onto notable skaters who've proven they won't automatically win with Jack Eichel as the mere centerpiece.

Dig deeper into the Western New York sports scene and you will find some highlights, but they are overshadowed by a dreary 12 months.

1. Pegulas overhaul Bills and Sabres

We've seen Buffalo sports teams annihilate their leadership structures over the years, but 2017 brought unprecedented change. Terry and Kim Pegula nuked their football and hockey operations departments, hiring new general managers, coaching staffs and scouts.

The first domino fell in December 2016, when Terry Pegula fired Ryan. They hired Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to be head coach in January, fired Whaley and his scouts in April and hired Panthers assistant GM Brandon Beane in May.

Ten days before firing Whaley, Pegula dismissed Bylsma and Murray. Pittsburgh Penguins executive Jason Botterill was named Sabres GM in May, and a month later Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley became head coach.

2. Relentless playoff droughts

Impact from the top entry on this list will stretch into the future. No. 2's magnitude is about a past Western New York just can't shake.

The Bills already owned the longest active playoff drought in the major North American sports leagues. Despite starting the season 5-2, the Bills will likely extend their slump to an ungodly 18 years.

Sabres fans rightfully have given up with three months to go in the 2017-18 season, almost certainly their seventh straight without the playoffs. The Sabres' previous record was a three-season blight from 2001-02 to 2003-04.

The Sabres won only six times in their first 25 games, one more than the club record for fewest victories over that span. They were shut out three straight games in November, a franchise first.

3. Bills roster purge

Beane and McDermott spent much of 2017 wiping failed fingerprints off the Bills' roster.

The most controversial acquisitions from Whaley and his GM predecessor, Buddy Nix, were sent packing in favor of future draft picks Beane and McDermott can use to shape the roster how they envision it.

They traded receiver Sammy Watkins (who Whaley spent two first-round picks to draft in 2014), linebacker Reggie Ragland (who Whaley traded two fourth-round picks to move up eight spots in the second round to draft in 2016), quarterback Cardale Jones (who the Bills took because they traded their 2016 fourth-round pick and missed out on Dak Prescott), cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the Bills' highest-paid and most frustrating player.

Among those released were running back Jonathan Williams, receiver Walt Powell and offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio.

4. Eichel contract extension

In October, the Sabres quelled their fan base's anxieties by signing their young center to an $80 million deal that ties him to the club through 2025-26.

The Sabres infamously sacrificed their 2014-15 season – and polarized their fans in the process – to be awful enough to draft Eichel second overall, having lost the draft lottery for Connor McDavid, the top choice.

Eichel could have become a restricted free agent after this season, a possibility that spawned dread among the cynics, especially after McDavid signed an eight-year, $100 million extension in July.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman looks on from the bench against the Los Angeles Chargers. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

5. McDermott benches Tyrod Taylor

After a 5-2 start, the Bills lost a couple games. In a move that seemed premature at best, panicky at worst, McDermott benched starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was healthy and had captained his team to a winning record.

Fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman made his first NFL start Nov. 19 at the Los Angeles Chargers and threw five interceptions before halftime. The Bills, in one of the more winnable games over their rugged second-half schedule, lost by 30 points.

McDermott said, "I don't regret the decision. I regret the result." But he gave Taylor the job back for the next game, and the Bills defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, heaping further dismay on fans who were excited about reaching the postseason and who know every game counts.

6. Kyle Okposo health mystery

When forward Kyle Okposo was submitted to Buffalo General's neuro-surgical unit in April, the Sabres were tight-lipped about the reasons why. The 29-year-old spent nearly a week in intensive care. Every time the team refused to provide insight into his condition, concern and rumors amplified.

Three months later, in an open letter to Sabres fans, Okposo explained he suffered a concussion on what he called "a routine hit in practice on a normal play." He lost about 20 pounds, couldn't sleep and experienced mood swings. He said medication to help him sleep escalated his troubles.

A healthy summer helped Okposo return to playing shape this season. He has experienced no reported setbacks from his strange condition.

UFC210 at KeyBank Center. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

7. Big events in Buffalo

The region enhanced its profile as a sporting destination beyond the Bills and Sabres.

March Madness returned to Buffalo, with defending champion Villanova, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Wisconsin among the teams.

A month later, KeyBank Center hosted UFC 210, thanks to New York repealing its ban on mixed martial arts in 2016. A deep card was headlined by light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier against Anthony Johnson. We also saw former middleweight champ Chris Weidman against Gegard Mousasi and rising women's star Cynthia Calvillo.

Bucky Gleason: First taste of UFC whets appetite for more

Also in April, it was announced the 2019 Frozen Four would take place at KeyBank Center.

The World Juniors hockey tournament runs Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 downtown, with the United States playing Canada outside Dec. 29 at New Era Field.

8. UB drops four sports

That a college would pare down its athletic department for financial reasons isn't shocking. But when the sports are as traditional as some of those the University at Buffalo dumped, it catches your attention.

Curveball: How UB's decision to cut baseball affected the final season – and everyone involved

UB in April announced it was dropping baseball, men's soccer, men's swimming and diving and women's rowing. The decision was aimed at saving $2 million a year.

Cheektowaga's Dominick Welch receives a hug after breaking the Western New York boys basketball scoring record during the Warriors' final game of the season. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

9. Welch breaks WNY scoring record

Dominick Welch began his varsity basketball career as an eighth-grader for Cheektowaga High. He finished as Western New York's all-time leading scorer.

Welch, a 6-foot-6 forward, broke Ritchie Campbell's 27-year-old scoring record last winter. The Buffalo News Player of the Year amassed 2,376 points along with 1,200 rebounds, 242 assists, 166 steals and 287 blocked shots.

He averaged 30.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.0 blocks his senior season. He had 16 double-doubles and six games of at least 40 points, including a school-record 51 points.

The Buffalo Beauts knocked off the Boston Pride, 3-2, to win the Isobel Cup. (Photo via the Buffalo Beauts)

10. Buffalo Beauts win NWHL title

The National Women's Hockey League was close to folding amid financial distress, but the Beauts performed valiantly and won the Isobel Cup.

The Beauts were merely 6-10-1 in the regular season yet upset the 16-1 Boston Pride in the NWHL's one-game final in Lowell, Mass. Buffalo was 0-5 against Boston entering the championship.

Two-time Olympian Brianne McLaughlin made 56 saves for MVP honors and retired after the game.

Honorable mentions

* UB football finally breaks ground on its $18 million field house, scheduled to open in the spring of 2019.

* Local coaching legend Sister Maria Pares, most notably of Sacred Heart Academy, dies.

* Bills rebuke Donald Trump's criticism of anthem demonstrators.

* 11-day Power Play at HarborCenter makes international headlines, sets world record for longest hockey game and raises more than $1.2 million for Roswell Park.

* Williamsville resident Allie Kieffer finishes fifth in the New York City Marathon in 2:29:39.

* Canisius hockey, Canisius women's lacrosse, UB men's and women's tennis make NCAA tournaments.

* UB football goes seven overtimes in 71-68 loss to Western Michigan, the highest-scoring game in big-college history.

* Niagara University hockey's turnaround.

* Bills finally add Cookie Gilchrist to their Wall of Fame.

* Charlie Comerford surprisingly steps down as Bishop Timon-St. Jude athletics director and football coach, causing star quarterback Matt Myers and receiver Juston Johnson to transfer to West Seneca West and leading to the hire of former UB quarterback Joe Licata as Comerford's replacement.

* West Seneca West football goes 13-0, to win first Section VI and first Class A NYSPHSAA championships.

* Milwaukee Brewers draft Leugim Castillo of Lancaster, who turns pro instead of playing at Oklahoma on scholarship.

* UB football junior Anthony Johnson ranked third nationally in receiving yards and TDs while junior linebacker Khalil Hodge ranked second in tackles.

* Niagara CCC baseball reaches National Junior College Athletic Association World Series final.

* UB product Khalil Mack named NFL All-Pro for second straight year.

* For first time since the high school football state tournament began in 1993, all five Buffalo-area high schools defeat their Rochester-area counterparts in the Far West Regionals (state quarterfinals).

* Managers Dave Roberts and Torey Lovullo, former Bisons players, square off for National League pennant and Lovullo named NL Manager of the Year.

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