Brief History of Professional Hockey in Western New York
Professional hockey in Buffalo started in 1928 with the CPHL (Canadian Professional Hockey League) Bisons who ironically played their home games at the Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. Financially the team was a disaster. The Bisons transferred to the International Hockey League for their second season, they became a dominating team in the IHL and won two championships. The Bisons were forced to play the tail end of their final season in Fort Erie on the road after the Peace Bridge Arena collapsed after a snow storm on March 17, 1936.
The following season the Bisons switched to the International-American Hockey League and played their home games in Niagara Falls, Onatario, Canada. Financially the franchise was a mess and the club folded after a handful of games in 1936.
In 1940 Louis M. Jacobs, owner of Jacobs’ Concessions (now Delaware North) purchased the I-AHL’s Syracuse Stars. Jacobs moved the Stars to his hometown of Buffalo. The team was renamed the Buffalo Bisons, transferred to the American Hockey League and played its home games in Buffalo’s new Memorial Auditorium. In 1956 the Pastor brothers, owners of a local Pepsi bottling plan, purchased the team and gave the Bisons their iconic bottle cap logo and red, white and blue colors. The Bisons thrived in Buffalo and won the Calder Cup in 1943, 1944, 1946, 1963 and 1970. The Bisons’ ceased operations after the 1969-70 to make way for Buffalo’s newest franchise, the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
For a detailed account of the birth of the Sabres franchise please read “The Birth of the Franchise” page. After years of trying the Knox Brothers’ dream of bringing the NHL to Buffalo came true in 1970 when the NHL awarded them an expansion franchise. The Sabres played twenty six seasons in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium (the first while the Aud was still going through expansion to meet NHL minimum seating requirements). The Sabres were a fast, young, exciting team in the 1970’s. In the early years the franchise was carried by two NHL veterans with towering and well deserved reputations: Punch Imlach and Roger Crozier. Imlach was the team’s original head coach and general manager, he became a hockey legend during his years as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager and head coach. Under Imlach the Leafs won four Stanley Cups (including three in a row from 62-64). Roger Crozier, who started his professional career with the Bisons, was one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the game. Crozier’s prime years were in Detroit. Crozier was initially the backup of another goaltending legend, Terry Sawchuk. Detroit was so impressed with Crozier after his rookie season that they traded Sawchuk. in 1965-66 the Red Wings lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Canadiens. Crozier’s play was so spectacular during the playoffs that he was given the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Crozier was the first goalie and first member of a non-Cup winning team to ever earn the award.
Although on the tail end of his brilliant career Crozier made the Sabres respectable in their first couple of seasons. Most nights Crozier faced a barrage of shots, it was not uncommon for him to face 30, 40 or 50 shots a game. Most nights the Sabres didn’t win but the games were generally fairly close because of Roger Crozier. On the other end of the spectrum the Sabres had Gilbert Perreault, a young superstar in the making whom the Sabres drafted first overall in the 1970 NHL Entry Draft after winning the famous “spin of the wheel”.
The Sabres didn’t stay bad long. By 1973 the team had assembled the legendary French Connection line (Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert) and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The next season the team dealt with the sudden death of Tim Horton before thrilling Buffalo with a wild ride to the Cup finals in 1975. Eventually though time, players, coaches and general managers moved on. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw the franchise fall on trying times. On the ice the team got mired in an 0-a decade losing streak in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Off the ice financial losses mounted as the economics of the NHL changed. Family owners like the Knoxes were phased out in favor of corporations and billionaires who could afford to pay quickly escalating player salaries.
As the financial losses mounted Seymour Knox III spearheaded the effort to build the Sabres a new arena. It was hoped the new arena would make the Sabres viable and secure their future in the city. The Sabres played their final game in the Aud on April 14, 1996. Just a few weeks later on May 22, 1996 Seymour Knox III died. The arena was his last gift to the city he loved so much.
The arena wasn’t the panacea the franchise had hoped it would be. The Knox family sold the team to John Rigas in 1999. Unlike the Knoxes who were well known for their charity and honor, Rigas turned out to be a scumbag of the highest order. Now in federal prison for fraud, Rigas nearly destroyed the Sabres who were forced into bankruptcy and purchased by Blaise Thomas “Tom” Golisano. A billionaire from Rochester, NY who had made his money the old fashioned way, he earned it.
The Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup (thankfully the Leafs, Blues and Kings have droughts of 43 years each) but they have a long, rich, storied tradition and history. The franchise has had some of the NHL’s greatest players on its roster, played some legendary games and given generations of fans lifelong memories.