Posts Tagged ‘Sabres history’

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Sabres vs. Soviet Wings: January 4, 1976

1976 Super SeriesIt was the height of the Cold War. The NHL and Russia had an unofficial war over bragging rights for the best hockey program in the world, the echoes of which can still be heard today. The Soviets burst onto the international scene in the mid-fifties and dominated in tournaments held on international ice surfaces using international rules. The Soviets teams were largely professionals who played together year round, most were drafted into the Red Army so they were under the control of the Soviet government.

The Soviets main adversaries, Canada and the United States,  met the Soviets in various tournaments with largely amateur teams. It was rarely the Soviet’s best against Canada’s best, America’s best or the NHL’s best. The NHL fumed at the prestige the Soviets took from the NHL without ever having faced an NHL caliber team. The first clash of the NHL’s best and the Soviets was the famed Summit Series in Moscow of 1972. Paul Henderson scored the “goal heard around the world” to lift Team Canada to victory in the last minute of the eighth and final game. Although many people, myself included, think that victory was tarnished by a delibertate act by Bobby Clarke to break Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.  Canda’s assistant coach John Ferguson would admit to it. Regardless, it was the first time a professional team from North America had defeated the vaunted Red Machine.  In 1974 the upstart WHA decided to try their luck against the Soviet.  The NHL did not allow its players to play with WHA talent so the rematch between Canada and the Soviet Union consisted solely of WHA talent. The Soviets came out on top, again under a cloud of controversy, this time over the treatment of team Canada on and off the ice.

In 1975-76 NHL owners agreed to arrange a tournament between the Soviets’ best and various teams in the NHL. The Soviets sent the vaunted Central Red Army team and the Soviet Wings team to North America to face selected NHL opponents, a list that included the Buffalo Sabres.  The Central Red Army team went into New York and clobbered the Rangers 7-3 on December 28, the Wings went into Pittsburgh and thumped the Penguins 7-4 the next day. On New Years Eve the Red Army went into the forum of Montreal and held the Canadiens to a tie(the Habs would win the Stanley Cup that year). The Wings prepared for their next game on January 4, 1976.

Enter the Buffalo Sabres. “I don’t know what the Sabres had for a game meal, but they came out mean and tough. Jerry Korab was a man on a mission…. He took it to their big stars, once almost putting Yakushev right through the Zamboni doors. I don’t recall a penalty on the play either.” Ron Wicks NHL referee

The Aud was filled to capacity that night. In school we talked about the game quite a bit. The Sabres were a year removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance and in the 70′s we were taught to quite literally hate the “evil commies”.  It was a big game, an important game politically and in terms of hockey prestige (most NHL players at the time were Canadian and they were out to prove the Canadian style of play and the Canadian player were the best in the world).  The air along the Niagara Frontier was electric and the Aud rocked as only that grand old building could do. The Wings uniforms were ill fitting, their equipment appeared shabby and tattered but it was a trap. The Soviets’ equipment was top notch, the Soviet government spared no expense for such a propaganda tour. The Soviets wanted to give the appearance of an ill prepared team.  Although the Wings were a step down from the Central Red Army in terms of talent they were still a powerful team (they would beat  the Pens 7-4, The ‘Hawks 4-2 and the Islanders 2-1). The Sabres themselves were at their height in terms of the mix of finesse and brute power with a hulking defensive corps. Buffalo wanted to show the world what NHL hockey, the Buffalo Sabres and the French Connection were all about. Punch Imlach wanted to beat the Soviets badly, he had the Sabres prepared and on edge, especially Jerry Korab.

“The feeling on the way down the QEW to Buffalo wasn’t good. We hadn’t fared well against the Soviets. We should have known better. With Punch Imlach in the background, it was bound to be a battle. For my money it was an outstanding game, probably the best one the Sabres ever played. It had to be a career game for Jerry Korab and for some reason Don Luce sticks out in my mind. I don’t think he was a goal scorer, but he was at his very best. Heading back up the QEW we knew we’d seen a game to remember” – Frank Selke Jr VP Hockey Night in Canada

On January 4, 1976 the Soviet Wings hit the ice in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. It was a small rink and an extremely loud building.  The Sabres came out banging and hitting, a style the Soviets were not used to playing. At 6:10 of the first period the Sabres got on the board with a goal by Josh Guevremont and they never looked back. A minute later Gilbert Perreault blasted a Korab pass into the net. “I remember the Soviet Wings game as if it was yesterday. Imlach told us in no uncertain terms he wanted this game – a lot. Well, he couldn’t have wanted it any more than each and every player on the team did. We had seen the 3-3 tie in Montreal on New Year’s Eve, and it only made us more determined. Punch said we were going to intimidate them. That was the key” – Jerry Korab

The French Connection scored 4 goals and notched five assists. Danny Gare netted a pair of goals and Fred “yes the office furniture guy” Stanfield had a goal and 3 assists. The Sabres outshot the Wings 46-21. By the end of the first period the Sabres led 4-2, by the end of the second the score had ballooned to 9-4. The Sabres won the game 12-6.

The player of the night was the man nicknamed Kong. Korab punished the Soviet players anytime they came into the Sabres zone and his checks set the tone for the game. By the end of the first period the Soviets were reluctant to cross the Sabres blue line, they were that intimidated by the hard hitting Sabres. After four games against the Soviets the NHL’s record was 1-1-2.

The Soviet teams would bounce back to win against the Bruins, Islanders, Blackhawks. The final game was the Red Army against the Philadelphia Flyers. In perhaps the strangest game of my life as a hockey fan I actually cheered the broad street bullies as they manhandled the Red Army for the NHL’s second win of the tournament. The Flyers took a page from the Sabres game plan and unmercifully beat the Red Army. It led to the Soviets leaving the ice in protest of the Flyers’ style of play, although they would return when they were told they would not be paid if they did not finish the game.

The games in Buffalo and Philly made a lasting impact on how North American players viewed the Soviets. The Soviets were now stuck with the label of soft, afraid to hit and would melt in a physical game. It’s a stereotype that has largely lasted even to today as European players are now a large part of the NHL. No matter the great accomplishments of these players they still can’t distance themselves from the beatings handed to the Soviets by the Sabres that in 1976.

Sources

Brewitt, Ross.  26 Seasons in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.  TFB Press, 1997.

“Canada-Soviet Hockey Series”. CBC Digital Archives. <http://archives.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/topics/318/>.

Joyce, Gare (December 28, 2007). “John Ferguson, 1938-2007″.   (ESPN).  <http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=obits/ferguson/071227. Retrieved May 21, 2008>.

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Sabres April Fools Jokes

Originally posted on 4/1/2001

The Sabres have a long history of practical jokes – from drafting a made -up Japanese player to this gem of an April Fool’s broadcast.

OK, coffee is having its impact. The Sabres have been a somewhat cheeky franchise from their inception. As the saying goes, hockey is a game and games are supposed to be fun. Thankfully the Sabres have had some employees with some great senses of humor

I don’t claim this is a complete list of practical jokes, just one that’s been around since the old history site. But it’s a good many of them, most involved Paul Wieland or John Gurtler.

Perhaps the most famous practical joke in Sabres’ history happened in the 1974 draft. This joke was the masterpiece of the Sabres all time practical joker Paul Weiland, who worked in the Sabres’ public relations department for a couple of decades until the 90′s. In ’74 teams would call in their picks to Clarence Campbell, the NHL’s president at the time. Drafts were very long, and after the tenth round Wieland thought it would be funny to force Campbell to spell a long, foreign name. Wieland drove past a Japanese restaurant called  Tsujimoto’s nearly every day. Wieland got in touch with the International Institute and was provided the Japanese name for Saber – Taro. Thus with the 183rd pick in the 1974 draft the Buffalo Sabres drafted Taro Tsujimoto. Wieland didn’t tell the Knox Brothers he made Taro up merely because he was bored; he essentially burned a draft pick for a joke. So Wieland held his tongue. Taro made it to the training camp roster was provided a stall and equipment. In the St. Catherines hotel the team stayed in for training camp, coach Floyd Smith and Wieland had Taro paged by the hotel. The Knoxes saw a man enter the lobby who looked Japanese to them. They introduced themselves but finally clued into the joke when Wieland, Smith and others filled the lobby with laughter. I wonder if anyone would have the courage to try that joke in modern times? We may take our sports too seriously now.

In 1976, the USS Little Rock was decommissioned. This is the same ship that sits today in Buffalo’s Naval Museum. In ’76 the Sabres issued a press release that stated the Sabres were purchasing the Little Rock for the official team yacht. CBS spoke with Punch Imlach about the purchase. Punch stated the paperwork wasn’t final and the Sabres were still considering other vessels for the team yacht. Imlach issued no denial; the Sabres duped the media in this instance

In 1987 the Sabres issued a press release about the creation of Sabre Meadows, a 43,000 unit housing development the team would build behind Sabreland in Wheatfield, NY. WBEN called the Sabres about the release only to be asked by then assistant public relations director Budd Bailey (and in my opinion the greatest historian on the team) if 43,000 didn’t seem like a lot of units? And did WBEN take note of the date? The release was issued on April first.

Wieland was the force behind the Sliderex hoax. The Sabres informed the league they were replacing the Aud’s ice with Sliderex, a revolutionary plastic surface. The team listed the Prime Minister of Canada as the inventor of Sliderex and issued the release in March with a “hold for April 1″ on it. However, the media once again proved… let’s say, gullible. Sliderex was announced on the Buffalo 11 p.m. news and it was even reported the only flaw in Sliderex was that a lit cigarette could burn a hole in it.

Wieland also came out with lifetime leases to one square foot of Aud ice, an interview held in German with Dieter Weber about German players, complete with subtitles, and interviewed Whalers’ Greg Malone – whom Wieland called the NHL’s leading hooker, complete with hooking demonstrations (think Slapshot and not in the gutter!).

John Gurtler, perhaps most famously known for GOOOOOOOOOOOOAL and making people’s brains hurt after he took over for Ted Darling as the Sabres’ play by play man on television broadcasts was another practical joker. In 1988 Gurtler made up a character named Wink Dickerson, the “Ted Knight” of sports broadcasting. Dickerson was on the broadcast to showcase the Sabres Shopping Service which offered such things as Puppa Scoopa, Sabres Cologne to make you smell like a hockey player, and Benoit Hogueee sandwiches. Gurtler even had Wieland and Bailey call in to pretend to be customers purchasing products.

In 1989 the Sabres offered an interactive game. Fans could call in and vote for such things as the starting goaltending for the game, if then coach Ted Sator should change his lines more often, or if Christian Ruuttu should answer questions in English or Finnish. Mike Robitaille mentioned “the results” during the game and results scrolled on the TV as well. Robitaille even commented that interactive hockey would be the death of hockey as it was a coach’s job to figure these things out. At intermission Gurtler was shown going to the coach’s office to tell him the results. Sator and Barry Smith were shown playing table hockey. Fans wanted Ruuttu to answer in Finnish so Robitaille reminded Darling that he had spent ten days in Finland after he was traded to Vancouver because he was so depressed. So Robitaille handled the Finnish portion of the Ruuttu interview.

In 1990 the Sabres’ broadcast, linked above, featured “actors” playing the roles of the broadcast team.  The Youtube clip speaks for itself.

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