The Sabres started as a chance remark from Charlie Mulcahy, a Vice President of the Boston Bruins, to Seymour Knox II during a golf game in March of 1965. When Mulcahy mentioned the NHL would be expanding soon and it seemed, given the price, to be a good investment. Knox replied that he didn’t have any personal interest in such an investment but maybe his sons Seymour III and Northrup (Norty) might have an interest. All this came with the backdrop of prosperity combined with looming trouble for the NHL. Attendance in the six NHL cities was at an amazing 95%, but there were nagging issues for the league. There were only six NHL teams: Chicago, New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit. There were vast farm systems for each team but with only 120 jobs in the big league young players were quitting the game in droves unwilling to serve the long apprenticeship in the minor leagues. Even after paying dues in the minors, a young player would be lucky to get even a one game shot with the big club. Above all, there was the lure of television and the vast sources of revenue that could be generated from sponsors and network contracts.
In the past the NHL’s strategy to deal with financial shortcomings was to expand the length of schedule. Since the 1949-50 season, the league had been running on a 70 game season. With only six teams, owners worried fans might become bored with the lack of variety in the games. If the league was to tap into the potential that television offered it would need to expand its presence on a national scale in the United States. That meant growing into the “major league” cities, specifically the large television market of Southern California. Minor league owners were beginning to mull over the possibility of expanding their own operations, something to similar to the NFL/AFL feud for the NHL’s comfort. The answers to the league’s problems of stagnation, loss of talent and exposure seemed to point to one panacea – television. Television would increase the league’s exposure, revenues and hopefully its fan base.
A couple months after the Knox/Mulcahy golf game in South Carolina, another golf game would take place, this one with lasting impact on the possible future of the NHL in Buffalo. Fred Hunt, a former hockey player and GM of the Buffalo Bisons, played a round with Dr. George Collins. After the game the two men, both of whom were hockey fans, spoke about the rumored NHL expansion. Hunt advised Collins that expansion was going to happen and that Buffalo should prepare a bid. When asked by Collins what was needed for such a bid, Hunt advised that Buffalo would need a credible group with solid finances in place when the league would finally announce expansion. Collins thought this over quickly in his mind and quickly thought of his friend Seymour Knox III, someone to whom the idea might appeal. Collins arranged a golf game with Hunt the following week, this time his friend Seymour Knox would join the duo. It didn’t take much prompting from Hunt to sell Knox on the idea of heading an expansion bid for Buffalo. Knox made it clear it was the NHL and nothing less, he had no interest in investing in the Bisons.
The NHL announced its expansion plans in June of 1965. Six more teams would be added to the original six for the modest expansion fee of $10,000. Fred Hunt, along with Bisons owner Ruby Pastor, made inquires about a Bisons-led bid for an expansion team. Friends in the league reported back that while the Pastor bid was formidable, it was flawed in one key respect – the bulk of the financing behind the group came from downstate interests and not local interests as outlined by the NHL. Hunt thought the matter over and recalled his meeting with Seymour Knox III: Knox represented the local money that the NHL wanted. The Pastor group merged with the Knox brothers forming the Niagara Frontier Hockey Corporation. The Pastors would retain 15% of the corporation while the rest of the partners would share equally the remaining 85%. To show their sincerity and solidarity, the group submitted their application immediately to the NHL at the leagues annual meetings in Montreal over the All Star game.
The Knoxes flew out to Montreal with the intention of meeting the league Governors, basically a fact-finding reconnaissance to gauge league reaction to the possibility of a Buffalo bid. Using their considerable connections, the Knoxes were able to arrange meetings with Senator Hartland Molson of the Canadiens, Charlie Mulcahy of the Bruins, Bill Jennings, the Governor for the NY Rangers, Bruce Norris of the Red Wings and league President Clarence Campbell. The results of the meetings were encouraging. Seymour Knox impressed the league’s hierarchy with his calm demeanor and impressive business skills. Knox flew back to Buffalo wary but hopeful, and the possibility of an NHL team seemed closer. An arena would be needed, so the Aud would need to be expanded to meet the leagues 12,500-seat minimum. Political leaders would need to be approached; their support and that of local civic groups was crucial. If Buffalo was to land an expansion team, it would need to present a united front on every level.
The Knoxes retained the services of Robert Swados to serve as the group’s attorney. Swados was well known by Western New York politicians with experience in tax law and represented Buffalo’s bid for baseball franchise in the Continental League in 1960. Seymour Knox met with Buffalo Mayor Frank Sedita who was enthusiastic in his support of a Buffalo NHL bid. Studies were done on expanding the Aud, the population of the Niagara Frontier, sizes of television markets and all the data needed to present a thorough and comprehensive bid to the NHL. Knox then met with Weston Adams Sr., chairman of the board for the Boston Bruins. Adams was harder on Knox than the principals Knox had met with in Montreal and questioned the image of Buffalo as a “major league” team. Seymour Knox pleaded the case of his home convincingly and when he left Boston, he left with Adams in his corner.
Bruce Norris arranged a meeting between Seymour and Norty Knox and his older brother James Norris, chairman of the NHL board of governors and leader of the Chicago Black Hawks. The meeting was strained to say the least; Seymour failed to find any common ground with the gruff elder Norris. Norris was still bitter over a failed grain operation in Buffalo that cost him $2,000,000 back in 1954. Hours into the meeting Norris finally blurted out a statement that briefly sunk Buffalo’s hopes. “Buffalo is a bush town. You might as well forget it right now, boys. Buffalo will never get into the NHL as long as I’m involved.”
The Knoxes left Chicago deflated, the trip had been a mild disaster. The Knoxes were buoyed shortly thereafter, however, with a surprising reaction from Toronto. The Leafs, only 98 miles from Buffalo, were viewed as the biggest obstacle to an expansion team. The Knoxes made it clear they were very willing to bend to protect the Leafs television market and were pleasantly surprised that the Leafs seemed willing to not only listen to the Buffalo pitch but also support it.
Buffalo’s opposition for an expansion team was Los Angeles, Oakland-San Francisco, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Buffalo group had the support of local politicians, solid financial backing and the Aud could be expanded to 16,080 which would be second only to Chicago if Buffalo was accepted into the NHL. The word from the Knox’s sources was that the Buffalo bid was viewed to be the strongest, best prepared and nearly a sure deal. St. Louis, with ties to Norris, didn’t have a group behind the bid. The West Coast cities were certain to get in; the Vancouver bid was disjointed and poorly organized. Cleveland was a token bid and the Philadelphia bid had been placed just two weeks prior to the expansion meeting and thus not viewed as a legitimate threat. Pittsburgh was well financed and had a building in place; the Baltimore group was a threat but had problems in the background. The Knoxes led the presentation of the Buffalo bid on February 7th and all seemed well. Later that evening Bill Jennings phoned Seymour Knox and informed Knox that Buffalo was in, it wasn’t official yet but things looked good.
The Knox group celebrated the good news and went to the league meeting the next day in high spirits, certain they would be named as one of the expansion cities. On the way into the meeting Bill Jennings grabbed Seymour Knox and pulled him aside, a grim look on his face. “He did it to you,” Jennings said. At first Knox misunderstood thinking Jennings was congratulating him but Jennings repeated himself giving a thumbs down gesture. Knox was dejected. Minutes later the league announced the list of expansion cities: LA, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Minnesota. Baltimore was the first alternate, Buffalo the second alternate. In the aftermath of the disappointment the Knoxes were able to piece together what happened. Bruce Norris regretfully informed the Knox brothers that he always voted with his brother and he had done so this time. Toronto ended up voting against Buffalo and Montreal sided with their fellow Canadians as the two cities had always supported one another. Bill Jennings offered this suggestion to the Knox brothers:
“Your presentation was great, but why do you have to represent Buffalo? Why don’t you select another city?” Jennings named three cities that he thought would be sure bets for the next round of expansion. Knox’s answer should be one every Sabres fan should have etched in their memories.
“Buffalo is our home and that’s where our hockey team will play,” Knox replied.
The Knox group was persuaded to join with the Bisons organization to lend business support to the sagging club. The Knoxes formed an executive group with Bob Swados, Paul Schoellkopf, John Galvin and Joe Stewart. It was later expanded to include John Walsh, Hazard Campbell, Nelson Graves and Dr. George Collins, the man whose golf game had gotten things going in the first place. The Bisons struggled, their agreement with the Black Hawks expired and things looked bleak. The Pastors had two options open to them: sell to the Leafs and become the Leafs farm team (thus eliminating any chance of a competitor growing on the Leafs back door) or accepting an agreement with the New York Rangers. Pastor gave right of first refusal for sale of the club to the Knox brothers in acknowledgement of all the Knox brothers had done and their desire to bring the NHL to Buffalo. The Bisons accepted the agreement with New York; the move brought new life to the Bisons. With new head coach Fred Sherro, the Bisons charged to first place in the 1968-9 season bringing the eyes of the NHL back to Buffalo. The stage was set for a second attempt, this time by a far wiser and more determined Knox group
After the initial league expansion, the Knoxes concentrated, along with their group, on the daily running of the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons were winning on the ice as well as the turnstiles as Buffalo hockey fans came back to support their team after the disappointment of not being awarded an NHL expansion franchise. The Knoxes, however, did not back away from efforts to secure an NHL team for Buffalo. The expansion teams did better than the “experts” predicted in their first season, at least in the standings. The expansion teams played in their own division and from top down things were highly competitive with one exception – the Oakland Seals.
The Seals struggles on the ice were eclipsed only by their problems off the ice. An ownership group headed the Seals with some 52 limited partners besides Barry Van Gerbig, the figurehead of the group. Fans weren’t attending the games, instead they stayed at home and the few who cared about the hockey team watched the games broadcast on television. LaBatt’s Breweries made a loan to the Oakland ownership of $680,000 on March 17, 1968. The loan had to be repaid on June 15, 1969 if the franchise did not relocate to Vancouver by that date. CBS, the NHL’s new television partner, made it clear that the league had to maintain a presence in the Oakland area and its large television market. This stalled the move to Vancouver in the league meetings but the Seals group continued to look for partners to help the franchise out of the financial mess it was in.
Although not successful in their initial bid for an NHL franchise the Knox brothers made all important contacts and a lasting impression with the powers of the league. The fact that the AHL Bisons drew more fans and made more money than the Oakland Seals was not lost on the leaders of the NHL. The league leaders began to ask questions. Who had put on the best presentation at the 1966 expansion meetings? Who had a good organization, television market and financing? The answer was Buffalo. Oakland was quickly becoming an embarrassment to the NHL, if the team was going to move why not move it to Buffalo instead of Vancouver? The Knox brothers had shown what they could do and there was little doubt among the NHL leaders that under the Knox brothers the franchise could not only be saved but also lifted.
Bill Jennings made the first move. Jennings called Knox and informed him of Oakland’s troubles telling Seymour Knox that it was an opening that could be used to get a team into Buffalo. The Knoxes along with their attorney Bob Swados quickly assessed the situation and realized that Jennings was correct. This was an opening that could be exploited; it could accelerate the process of getting a team into Buffalo. After various calls and meetings an agreement was finally reached. Buffalo would provide working capital for the Seals to cover the season then would apply for the sale and transfer of the team to Buffalo the next winter. If the transfer was turned down Buffalo would become team investors. Unfortunately the story broke in the papers and the LaBatt’s group, who had already invested in the Seals, was furious. It had been assumed by the Buffalo group that the league could work out the prior commitment from LaBatt’s but that was not the case. After months of wrangling the Buffalo group had to revise its position.
The Knoxes agreed to go and operate on the West Coast in order to eliminate the dual problems of the 52 member Seal group and the LaBatt’s issue. The Knoxes would run the Seals, finance them in return for a promise of light at the end of the tunnel – a team for Buffalo in the next expansion. The original plan was to move the Oakland team to Buffalo and award Oakland with a new franchise. This was quickly dismissed by the league that was afraid of alienating the small pocket of fans they had earned in Oakland. Instead the league decided to leave the Seals in Oakland and promised to give Buffalo another team in the next round of expansion. On January 20, 1969 the league governors met to decide on the next expansion. They voted down the LaBatt request to transfer the Seals to Vancouver, thus eliminating that hurdle. The league then told the Buffalo group that they could acquire and operate the Oakland franchise but refused to make any promises on a team for Buffalo. The league was giving the Knoxes a chance to become part of the league and press their case from the inside.
It was not an ideal solution but one the Knox group felt they had to accept along with the $4.5 million risk in buying the Seals. In the meantime another group entered the picture – the Trans National Communication group led by Woody Erdman. The Knoxes agreed to sell most of their interest in the Seals in return for the right to name the league representative for the Seals. However, word filtered back to the league offices and this was not a proposition the NHL was willing to accept. The league stated that the Knoxes would hold 20% of the Seals stock and not the 30% agreed upon with TNC. Further the league would accept Seymour Knox but only as an alternate governor, closing him out from the inner circle of the league. After more negotiations this was the deal that was accepted; Knox was an alternate governor, the Knox group held 20% of the Seals stock and had veto power of league issues.
The front office situation was temporarily cleaned up and the result showed on the ice. The Seals (no longer the Oakland Seals but now the California Golden Seals) had a great season and earned the final playoff spot. Seymour Knox spent countless hours building relationships with the league governors, paving the way to earning a team for Buffalo. In September of 1969 it was announced the league would expand by two teams, unfortunately the entry fee was a staggering $6 million. Frantic months of negotiations and headaches followed but on December 1, 1969 the league informed the Knox group that they were awarding Buffalo a franchise. The Knox group would now have to deal with two issues: the first was selling their interests in the Seals and attempting to regain their investment in that franchise, the second would be far more gratifying. They had won a franchise for Buffalo, now it was time to start building a team.
Here’s a column written in the Toronto Telegram on November 3, 1969
“…I don’t know whether Buffalo had made formal application to the NHL, but I believe it soon will. The gentleman who will, in all probability, make the application will be Seymour Knox III…”
The column then goes on to detail how the Governors determined the entry fee for the new franchises.
“…It seems as though the Governors were sitting around in Toronto discussing the “tab” they were going to put on the new clubs. One suggested $3 million, another $5million.
‘Do you think they will pay that?” asked a governor.
‘Why don’t you ask them’ was the reply.
‘Would you pay $6 million Seymour?’
He said he would…
Then the columnist gave his opinion of expansion
“I felt that Mr. Knox would be an asset to the game, and everybody I have talked to has endorsed him as being a real gentleman. The NHL could use a few more men like Mr. Knox. It might help their image. If Mr. Knox has any visions of recuperating his money, there had better be another 16,000 hockey nuts in the Buffalo area…”
The columnist’s concerns in that area were ill founded, there were indeed hockey nuts by the tens of thousands in the Buffalo area. The columnist’s name? An out of work former coach and general manager, a man who had his name inscribed four times on the Stanley Cup. George “Punch” Imlach.
Now that they had a franchise, the Knox group turned its full attention to building a team. To build any organization you have to start from the top down so the top man can build from the ground up. Confusing but true, its exactly what the Knox led group decided to do for their new team. After asking a few questions and getting few answers from their new colleagues in the league offices the Knoxes came up with a short list of general manager candidates. First on that list was the out of work former head coach of the Maple Leafs and current newspaper columnist George Punch Imlach. Imlach had a towering reputation in hockey circles; he was the kind of man who polarized reactions to him. You either loved him or hated him, there was no in between and that is a reflection of the man himself. Imlach was the coach and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs for most of the 1960′s, winning four Stanley Cups and legions of fans. Imlach was a shrewd trader and a no nonsense man.
“When you asked a question (of Imlach) you got an objective, knowledgeable answer. In short, to use the vernacular, a no-bull guy. That’s what first impressed me.” – Bob Swados on his initial reaction to Punch Imlach
There was some concern about Imlach’s reputation for favoring older players over younger talent and the Knoxes did not want their draft picks thrown away. They wanted to build a team that would compete for years not just be a “one shot” wonder. Imlach had turned down other jobs from other NHL teams, mainly because Imlach saw himself as a general manager not just a coach. Imlach was impressed with the Knox brothers’ enthusiasm and commitment. Buffalo offered him the challenge of building an entire staff but that building could be done in his image. Buffalo also offered Imlach the most important thing of all: a chance to show the NHL and in particular Toronto that he still had “it”.
“They asked me a lot of questions and I answered them straight up. After all, some people like you and some people don’t. It’s the ones that don’t that do all the talking: and the Knoxes had heard these stories, so they asked a lot of questions. I don’t blame them. They had to find out if I was the son of a bitch they had heard I was. But I had nothing to lose answering their questions honestly and directly. I didn’t have to go to work, so it wasn’t a case of my pitching for the job or worrying about stepping on anybody’s toes, and I just told it the way it is. And money wasn’t a problem. When I get into a tax bracket where I have to pay the government more money out of a dollar than I get out of it, then I think it’s time for me to quit. I don’t mind being in a partnership but I hate like hell being at a disadvantage to them. …So it was the challenge that attracted me. I have to be nuts, and my wife said I was crazy to take this job when I could have something much easier. But I’m closer to Toronto, and it will be easier for me to stick it down their throats. That’s what motivates me.” Punch Imlach on why he took the Buffalo position.
On January 16, 1970 it was publicly announced that Punch Imlach would lead the Buffalo team in the upcoming season. Buffalo had its general and he was more than prepared to lead his team into Pittsburgh on October 10th. The front office was filled in led by Dave Forman, Fred Hunt was named assistant General Manager of the new team. A selection committee was formed for the most important of tasks – naming the new team. A contest was held and the public flooded the Buffalo offices with suggestions for the new team name. Ownership wanted a name that would splash on the newspapers but disassociate the new team from the normal Buffalo sports names (ex the Bisons etc.). On the list of losing names: Bees, Mugwumps, Flying Zepplins, Knoxen, Herd, Border Riders, and Comets. Four people submitted the name Sabres and a drawing was held to see which 2 of the final 4 would be the winners of the contest. Mayor Sedita oversaw the drawing and Robert Sonnelitter Jr was designated the man who named the new Sabres.
Imlach assembled his scouting staff and scoured the Junior ranks for talent but the first choice in the coming 1970 entry draft was a no brainer as far as Imlach was concerned. If Imlach could win that first pick for the Sabres the player he wanted was a young center playing in Montreal named Gilbert Perreault. It was decided by the league to determine drafting order by a series of coin tosses. Imlach first won a small victory by getting the league to allow the Sabres to participate in the intra-league draft, giving the young team access to the league’s veterans. Second Imlach was able to get the date of the coin tosses moved to June 9th, the day before the draft. Imlach felt this extra day would allow him to arrange more trades and deals.
On June 9th in the Grand Salon of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel the league converged for the all-important tosses. The Sabres won the first toss over the waiver draft. Then a carnival wheel was brought forward and league president Clarence Campbell explained the rules. Vancouver would have the number from six down, the Sabres eight up and seven would be a respin. The first spin was for first rights in the expansion draft. The number eight came up and the Sabres would get first choice. Then the room grew quiet, the next spin was the most important, the right for the first pick overall in the amateur draft. At first Campbell announced the winning number was one but after taking another look at the wheel he corrected himself and announced that the winning number was not one but eleven. Buffalo had just won the first pick in the draft and the Sabres group erupted in cheers. They would have their young superstar; they would get Gilbert Perreault.
Now for trivia buffs everywhere the next sequence of events can win you a few contests. Imlach left the room for a few moments to collect his thoughts. When he returned he noticed Pittsburgh was trying to slip goalie Joe Daly through waivers. Imlach used his new won rights and claimed Daly off the wire. It was Joe Daly and not Gilbert Perreault who was the first Buffalo Sabre. Imlach then selected Kevin O’Shea, Cliff Schmautz, Brian McDonald and Billy Inlgis in the intra league draft. The next day during the expansion draft held on the 10th Imlach took: Tom Webster who he promptly traded to Detroit for Roger Crozier. Al Hamilton, Donnie Marshall, Tracy Pratt, Jim Watson, Phil Goyette, Reggie Fleming and Francois Lacombe were also selected. Then the amateur draft took place and Imlach stood up and announced “Buffalo claims Gil Perreault”. In the span of less than a year the Knox brothers had given Buffalo an NHL team, staffed it, named it and now Punch Imlach had begun to place the players who would become the foundation of the Sabres and legends who would cast long shadows for every player who followed.
Bailey, Budd. Celebrate the Tradition, 1970-1990: A History of the Buffalo Sabres. Boncraft, 1989.
Brewitt, Ross. A Spin of the Wheel: Birth of the Buffalo Sabres. Vantage Press, 1975.
Brewitt, Ross. 26 Seasons in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. TFB Press, 1997.