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Alan Pergament: Brian Blessing's opinionated style is missed on TV these days

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Empire Sports Network (copy)

Empire Sports Network's Brian Blessing, left, and Mike Robitaille.

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A lot of messages and expressions of love from former colleagues, friends and fans have been sent to former WIVB-TV (Channel 4) and Empire Sports Network sportscaster Brian Blessing following his death at age 64 after an apparent heart attack over the weekend at his Las Vegas home.

Blessing was doing a program similar to “Hockey Hotline” in Vegas after Golden Knights games, which assuredly meant he was soon going to spend a lot of time talking about Jack Eichel.

Many of the warm posts on social networks called him a great guy who was so talented that he could do a sportscast without a script. Other posts noted that he was a fun-loving guy who apparently found his way into a shady bar or two in Buffalo, something many sportscasters and sportswriters could relate to in the old days.

The best anecdote I recall about Blessing is how he famously ticked off Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour.

Some background: Blessing spent about 14 years at Channel 4. After his contract wasn’t renewed, Blessing spent seven years as a freelancer at Empire as the co-host with Mike Robitaille of “Hockey Hotline,” the postgame program carried on Empire after Buffalo Sabres games.

In 2001, Gilmour was upset with the co-hosts for criticizing players without attending games or practices. He made his feelings known after the Sabres lost Game 7 of a second-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"The only regret that I have is that I didn't punch out Blessing and Robitaille," Gilmour said. "These two guys we put on the station are disgusting. I don't respect them because I've never seen them down here once. They sit up here and talk. These (players) don't deserve that. If they want to come here, see me, I'll be here anytime they want to see me."

Gilmour's comments are even more amusing now that the Sabres aren't sending their announcers to road games this season.

Gilmour, who played two seasons for the Sabres near the end of his 20-year NHL career, probably didn't realize he was giving the duo the ultimate compliment: Despite having their paychecks signed by then Sabres owner John Rigas, Gilmour "accused" them of actually telling it like it is.

"We're not trying to be anyone's friend or enemy, just to be as brutally honest as we can be," Blessing said back then.

Blessing wasn’t let go by Empire because of his strong opinions. He was dropped in a cost-cutting move made after Adelphia decided a streamlined Empire would be better than no Empire and all the regional sports network's freelancers were dropped, which at the time included my longtime Buffalo News colleagues Jim Kelley, Vic Carucci and Larry Felser and retired Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker.

You don’t hear the kind of outspoken criticism Blessing was known for these days from anyone on MSG, which now carries Sabres games, or just about anyone on local television stations.

Brian Duff is an excellent postgame host who knows the game as well as anyone, but he and analyst Marty Biron generally soften any criticism they have.

In a season like the current one with such low expectations beyond developing younger players, that is somewhat understandable.

But I miss the days that Brian Blessing didn’t pull any punches.

Bills Notes: Bills-Patriots 3 at 8:15 p.m. Saturday on WIVB will get the same CBS announcers as Bills-Pats 2 – the No. 2 team of play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Evan Washburn. Eagle and Davis called Buffalo’s 33-21 victory over host New England on Dec. 26.

CBS’ top team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo gets the game between NFC wild-card opponents San Francisco and Dallas Sunday that likely will have a larger audience because it involves the Cowboys and normally would be a Fox game.

There will be no normal next season, with the NFL no longer considering CBS the AFC network and Fox the NFC network.

The Bills’ 27-10 victory over the New York Jets Sunday that clinched the AFC East title had a 48.8 rating on WIVB-TV, the local CBS affiliate.

A rating point equals 5,285 households in Western New York.

That’s a terrific rating, but lower than the rating for the two previous games, which were in the 50s.


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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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