Jim Watson’s brother-in-law’s friend knew the president of the nation’s oldest sports memorabilia auction house, and with the market for collectibles skyrocketing during the pandemic, Watson figured it was time to sell his puck.
Watson, 77, scored the first regular-season goal in Buffalo Sabres history.
The veteran defenseman’s knuckling shot from the blue line with 5:01 left in the second period of a 2-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 10, 1970, at Pittsburgh Civic Arena is preserved in grainy black-and-white photographs and video snippets. Rookie phenom Gilbert Perreault retrieved the puck from the net. And Watson said he has stored it since in a cardboard box full of memorabilia he collected since childhood.
“It was my treasure,” Watson said. “But it would be nice for somebody in Buffalo to have that puck, and then it’d be back home again.”
Lot number 662 in Lelands’ Spring Classic 2021 catalog, titled “The Very First Goal Puck in Buffalo Sabres History,” includes photos of both sides of Watson’s puck and his signed, handwritten letter swearing its authenticity. The minimum starting bid is $10,000, plus a 20% buyer’s premium.
There are no takers as of Sunday night. The auction ends 11 p.m. Friday.
“This is genuinely a piece of history,” Lelands president Mike Heffner said. “This is a piece of the franchise’s history and NHL history. If I woke up the day after the auction and I didn’t know what it sold for and you told me it sold for $100,000, I wouldn’t be shocked. I really wouldn’t be. It’s just that unique.”
But collectors are skeptical. And their concern seems well founded. Watson’s puck has birthed a mystery a half-century in the making, untangled by scattered artifacts, whispering ghosts and the fragmented memories of wrinkled men.
The Penguins’ original trainer and equipment manager, Ken Carson, and his former assistant, John Doolan, who joined the team in 1970, told The Buffalo News there is no chance that Watson’s puck was used in the Sabres’ first game.
“I would bet my life on it,” Carson said.
Watson’s puck has an orange Converse insignia on one side, consistent with official game pucks of the era, and Pittsburgh’s original logo on the other, with a fat cartoon penguin wearing a scarf over a reddish-brown triangle, pointed down. The lettering is blue and the background is white.
This logo was introduced during the Penguins’ inaugural season in 1967-68, three years before the Sabres’ first game, and replaced the following season, when the franchise unveiled new jerseys. The updated logo was a muscular penguin without a scarf over a yellow triangle. The lettering was white and the background was a white circle with a thick blue rim.
The original logo might have remained in use on pucks beyond the Penguins’ first season, Carson said.
Penguins historian Casey Samuelson, who runs the website PenguinsChronicles.com, is uncertain about precisely when the pucks changed.
“Do you know how hard it is to get a picture of the puck in images from the late 1960s?” he wrote in a Twitter direct message.
Neither the Penguins, nor CCM, which distributed the pucks, responded to requests for documentation.
But both Carson and Doolan said once the Penguins began using pucks with the blue-rimmed logo, those are the only pucks that would have appeared in a game.
All older pucks with the original logo, they said, would have strictly been used for practice or pocketed by employees as souvenirs.
“I’ve got a couple of them,” Doolan said, “but they were laying around in a desk drawer or whatever. I asked if I could have them and Kenny said, ‘Sure,’ so I have a couple in my collection.”
These are the men who were responsible for ordering the pucks, unloading the pucks, freezing the pucks and delivering two dozen pucks in a metal bucket, filled with Zamboni ice, to the penalty box for use in each home game. There was no mass cache.
“You wouldn’t even order enough pucks for a whole season at that time, because of cash flow,” Carson said. “You’d probably have two or three orders during the course of the year.”
Doolan said he kept a game-used puck from the 1970-71 opener because the Sabres’ inaugural regular-season game was also his first in the NHL.
“I was 18 years old at the time,” Doolan said, “and it was a pretty big event in my life.”
Doolan’s game-used puck has the updated, blue-rimmed logo, as does a second example from that game owned by John Boutet, the site and exhibition chairman for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Could one of the old pucks have somehow found its way into the bucket, onto the ice and Watson’s stick and into the back of the Penguins’ net?
“To be basically three years in, when I started in ’70, I don’t see that being legit, to be honest with you,” Doolan said. “I’m not going to call the man a liar, but he might be misconstrued. I agree with people saying the time frame’s off.”
But why would Watson have the wrong puck?
And if his puck is not the puck used to score the first goal in Sabres' history, where is it?
‘Pretty much proof’
Watson grew up on the ice in Kirkland Lake, a small town in Northeastern Ontario and hotbed for early NHL talent. The 6-foot-2 defenseman played professionally for teams in seven leagues, including parts of six seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, until joining the Sabres in the fifth round of the 1970 NHL expansion draft.
He was known more for his fisticuffs than finesse.
“You’d smile at people and they’d get nervous,” Watson said, “especially if they had teeth. That was one of my tricks. I would sort of smile at them and wink and I’d show them I had no front teeth, you know what I mean?”
Watson’s lone fluttering shot in the Sabres’ inaugural game dropped at the last instant to beat his former neighbor and WHL teammate, Penguins goalie Les Binkley.
It was not only the first goal in Sabres’ history, but the first goal of Watson’s NHL career.
“It was a lucky shot,” Watson said. “But it was exciting. And then Gilbert Perreault went and retrieved the puck and gave it to me.”
Floyd Smith, the Sabres’ first captain, remembers Watson’s shot, Perreault fishing the puck out of the net and his teammates erupting.
“Back in those days, the players used to come roaring off the bench at special occasions and they all came off the bench at that goal,” Smith said. “Jimbo shot it from the blue line. It was a seeing eye, seeing puck thing. It found its way through everything.”
“It was as much a surprise to him as it was to us that it ended up in the net,” he said.
Watson scored four goals in the NHL and seven in the minors over his 13 pro seasons.
He said he collected each puck. This one was no exception.
“I brought it over to give it to the trainer,” Watson said. “And they gave it to me after the game. I kept the puck and it’s been in my memorabilia box.
“It brings back good memories because you never get those memories again. You only get one shot in your lifetime that things are important like that. For me, anyway.”
Watson said he would use the auction proceeds to take his wife out for dinner and to visit his daughters and grandchildren in Salt Lake City and Ontario.
“It costs so much to travel nowadays,” he said.
Over the course of three interviews, Watson never changed the details in his story, no matter how many times and ways he was asked questions.
He played for the Pittsburgh Hornets of the AHL in 1964-65, and said he has a puck from that season.
He returned to Pittsburgh as an opponent during the Penguins’ inaugural season, which would have offered an opportunity to collect a puck with the original logo. But he had just one shot on goal and no points in a 5-2 Red Wings victory.
Watson said he did not keep a puck from that game as a souvenir, and he does not have – nor has he ever had – another puck with a Penguins logo.
Heffner, the president of Lelands, took issue with the trainers’ authority on the matter.
“I’m not saying they’re lying, either,” Heffner said, “but how did they know an old puck didn’t slip in?”
He countered collectors’ skepticism by explaining that cash-strapped teams in the 1960s and ‘70s might reuse old equipment.
“Jim seems as sincere and honest as the day is long and I really believe that this is something that he kept and treasured,” Heffner said. “The puck alone is a pretty rare puck, and Jim didn’t have a big career, so him having that puck and holding onto it for as long as he did and it being the Penguins puck is pretty much proof of what we need. We had him write a letter also on it to authenticate it.”
Watson’s letter contains a factual error.
He wrote that he scored in the first period, not the second – an easy enough mistake more than 50 years after the game, but one that added to some collectors’ unease.
‘We kept the puck’
Watson did not remember which Sabres’ trainer he handed the puck, but the only two at the first game were Frank Christie and Don “Sockeye” Uren.
Both are dead.
It’s unlikely either would have accidentally mixed up the pucks, said Paul Wieland, the Sabres’ original public relations director and practice goalie, who was at the game and described the trainers’ simple process after notable goals.
“You see this happen these days,” Wieland said. “They take it and they put a piece of tape around it, white-colored tape. They put it around the rim of the puck and they mark it like, ‘Watson’s first goal,’ the period and the time. And right away that puck doesn’t get mixed up with any other pucks.
“At the end of the game they put it in his locker or hand it to him, and there’s your puck from your first goal. I can’t swear that’s what happened with Jim Watson. But that’s what I would expect would have happened.”
The puck up for auction does not have tape around the rim.
Could the trainers have pocketed the real puck to sell as a collectible or keep for themselves?
“Neither of those guys would do that,” said Encil “Porky” Palmer, the Sabres training staff’s original “third man,” who did not travel to road games. “Neither one of them. Not them.”
The market for hockey collectibles was different in the early ‘70s than it is today.
The NHL authenticated and sold pucks used to score goals during the 1972-73 and 73-74 seasons – these are among the most collectible pucks and sell for thousands – but at the time there was little demand and the program was discontinued.
“Back in the early ‘70s, if you tried to sell a puck for $20, that was crazy,” Heffner said. “It just wasn’t worth that.”
Rip Simonick, the Sabres’ longtime former equipment manager and a stick boy during the inaugural season, said Uren would resell players’ extra skates. But the first goal puck, at the time, would not have carried significant monetary value.
“He wouldn’t keep the puck for a souvenir or something like that,” Simonick said.
Christie, the head trainer, had a hockey museum in the basement of his Town of Tonawanda home, Wieland said, but everything came with players’ blessings or from other teams’ trainers.
“He had pucks, sticks, jerseys – not just from the Sabres – equipment, signed gloves. You name it,” Wieland said. “He’d usually just go to the other team and ask them for stuff.
“Trainers in hockey are sort of like a bunch of thieves in an English crime comedy, where nobody’s really malicious.”
Carson, the Penguins’ original trainer, said he would have given a puck to a counterpart on an opposing team, had he asked.
“If he wanted one for historic reasons from the first year and we had one, sure, we’d give it to him,” Carson said.
He did not recall giving an old puck to Christie or Uren.
Christie would not have kept the first goal puck, Palmer added, because he was tight with the Sabres’ first coach, the late Punch Imlach, and the late founders and original co-owners, brothers Seymour Knox III and Northrup Knox.
The private collector who purchased Christie’s hockey memorabilia said he does not have the first goal puck, according to Boutet, from the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Neither does the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, which has all four pucks used to score goals in the Vancouver Canucks’ first NHL game, played the night before the Sabres’ opener in Pittsburgh.
“We have swords from the first game (at Memorial Auditorium), we have Punch’s hat, we’ve got stuff from the Knoxes,” said Phil Pritchard, the Hall of Fame’s longtime curator and “Keeper of the Stanley Cup.”
“We don’t have the first goal puck. Tickets and programs, but that’s not first-of-a-kind stuff.”
If the puck Watson is auctioning wasn’t used in the Sabres’ first game, and he doesn’t have another puck with a Penguins logo, and the Sabres’ original trainers didn’t lose the real puck, sell it or keep it for themselves, and it’s not in the hands of known collectors or at the Hockey Hall of Fame, again, where is it?
“We kept the puck,” said Smith, the Sabres’ first captain. “I remember that Punch had it. I didn’t know he gave it back to Jim.”
‘Right above his head’
There are at least two pucks in private collections known to have been used in the game.
Doolan’s puck and Boutet’s puck have the updated, blue-rimmed logo.
Boutet said he purchased his puck, a dated Ticketron ticket and game program many years ago from a fan who attended the game.
“The guy, who has long since passed on, said the refs were coming off the ice after the game. He stood right there – and back then you could stand right next to where the players came out, there was no barrier or anything – and he said, ‘Please, can I have a puck?’ And the ref reached in his pocket and pulled out a puck and gave him the puck that I have now.”
The program also features the Penguins’ updated logo.
It’s unknown whether Perreault, who scored the game-winner, the first goal of his career, kept the puck, and if so, what logo is on it. He did not return several messages seeking comment.
An original Penguins logo on Perreault’s puck would establish that the old pucks were, in fact, used in the game and lend credibility to Watson’s puck being genuine. A blue-rimmed logo would add to the evidence against it.
“I know when he scored his 35th goal that year – that was the rookie record at the time for goals – he kept that puck,” Wieland said. “Because a photographer took a picture of him grinning with his front teeth out and holding the puck up.”
Pittsburgh center Wally Boyer was the only other player to score in the game, but he had no reason to keep the puck. It was his sixth NHL season, his third with the Penguins and the 44th goal of his NHL career.
There is at least one other puck.
Seymour Knox IV said his dad had a puck from the Sabres’ first game, along with a dated Ticketron ticket, mounted in a plaque with the final score, 2-1, hanging in his study at the family’s former home on Nottingham Terrace. It was near the bar, on the door to the library.
“We had a chair and a telephone was right next to that chair,” Knox IV said, “and dad would talk to Bob Swados all the time on it and he’d have that puck right above his head.”
Swados, who died in 2012, was the Sabres’ vice chairman, the secretary to the NHL’s Board of Governors and general counsel to the league.
Did Knox IV happen to remember whether the Penguins logo on his dad’s puck had an all-white or blue-rimmed background?
“It had the reverse on it,” Knox IV said. “I think it said Converse.”
The plaque’s whereabouts are unknown.
His parents long ago sold the house on Nottingham, boxed up belongings and moved to East Aurora. It could have been lost in various auctions throughout the years.
Knox III died in 1996.
Was his puck the real first goal?
“I don’t know,” Knox IV said, and neither does his mom. “Unfortunately, my dad’s not here to ask, but I could throw it up to him and maybe I’ll get an answer in the middle of the night.”
‘He wanted the puck’
Watson was incredulous during a second interview when informed about the questions surrounding the authenticity of his puck.
“How ridiculous. It’s my puck! I scored the goal!” Watson said. “I took the puck! Ask the Buffalo Sabres guys. They wanted it. What’s his name? I can’t even remember their names now. But they wanted it and I kept it. It is the puck.”
Who wanted it?
“The owners wanted it,” Watson said. “They wanted it and I said, ‘No, I’m keeping it myself.’ ”
The owners told you they wanted the puck?
“They asked me for it,” Watson said. “They said, ‘Jim, we want the puck. We’ll put it on display.’
“I said, ‘No, I’m keeping it.’
“ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘We’ll put it in a nice plaque. We’ll do this.’
“I said, ‘No, I want it.’
Which owner? Seymour or Northrup?
“Seymour Knox,” Watson said. “That was like 50 years ago. Of course it’s the only puck. It’s easy to figure out. Where are you going to get another one like it? I’m the one that wrote the nice letter saying that I swear this is the puck. It is the puck. It’s the only puck in the world. It’s not like you can get another one. This is the only one in the whole world.”
When did this incident occur?
“Probably within a week or so,” Watson said. “I’m not sure. He said they wanted the puck so they could display it. I was surprised he even asked for it. I said, ‘No!’ He said, ‘Yeah, but we’re going to …’ He put a pretty good spiel on. ‘We’re going to put it in a display and we’re going to do this and this.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to keep it.’ He was a little ticked off actually … because he wanted the puck.”
Pritchard, the curator at the Hockey Hall of Fame, said because the museum has all four pucks used to score goals in the Canucks’ inaugural NHL game played the night before the Sabres’ opener, it stands to reason that his predecessor would have reached out to Buffalo, as well.
It also stands to reason that Knox III would have informed the Sabres’ coach and trainers in advance that he wanted the puck used to score his expansion team’s first goal.
That’s an assumption, but it makes sense.
Perhaps one of the trainers, after the goal was scored, followed instructions to give the puck to Imlach to give to Knox III and after the game gave Watson a different Penguins puck, whatever he could get his hands on, to signify the veteran defenseman’s first career goal.
Watson wouldn’t have known the difference.
He doesn’t remember who gave him his puck.
“You’re just excited. You won the game. You got the puck,” Watson said. “And then you’re moving on. And I’ve got the puck. So what do I care? I’m not thinking about all those details. I’m not an analytical kind of guy.”
The logo incongruity didn’t become an issue until more than 50 years later, when Watson tried to auction his puck with the original Penguins logo, which raised suspicions among collectors, which were validated by the Penguins’ original trainer and his assistant, who each said that puck could not have been used in that game.
But why would Knox III later try to convince Watson to give him a puck he already had?
He couldn’t display the plaque publicly if the player who scored the goal insisted that he had the real puck.
And so it hung for years in his home study, near the bar and the phone, on the door to the library.
That’s a logical theory.
Will someone spend $10,000 or more to buy Watson’s puck with the original Penguins logo, convinced it somehow found its way onto the ice during the team’s fourth season opener and into the back of the net for the Sabres’ first goal?
“Sometimes there’s no answer and you just have to go with your gut,” said Heffner, the president of Lelands. “Believe me, we’ve made mistakes. We’re human. But we also have to go a little bit on instinct when it comes to things like this, and although I see the point on the other side, I still have been around this business long enough to have more belief that it is the puck than not.”
Watson believes it’s genuine. He’s had it this whole time. And he wouldn’t part with it for any less.
“I know it’s expensive,” Watson said, “but I look back at all the stuff I went through and everything – it’s got to be worth at least that, right?
“We’ll see. If they don’t, that’s OK. It goes back in my box.”