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Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy Anniversary, Annie!

110 years ago today must have been quite a day at Niagara Falls.  October 24, 1901 was the day Annie Edson Taylor had her date with destiny.
Yep, this was the day Annie became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  And she survived.
I love telling this story.  I included it in the story I wrote last month about great daredevil accomplishments at the falls.  I also used to tell it every single day, on every single tour I conducted, when I was a tour guide in Niagara Falls.
It’s a great story.  Not because she succeeded….because she failed even though she succeeded.
That’s right….Annie Edson Taylor did exactly what she wanted to do.  She had a plan.  She was going to be the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel.  She was going to be rich and famous.
The survival part worked out just fine.  The rich and famous part….not so much.
Annie Edson Taylor proved you should be careful what you wish for.  Because you just never know.
Annie was a widow.  In fact, her husband was killed in the Civil War….so as you can guess, she was no spring chicken that day in 1901.  In fact, it was her 63rd birthday.  And if you’ve seen pictures of people from back then, you know 63 was a lot older then than it is now.  These days, people skydive on their 100th birthday, they run marathons in their 80’s, and 60 is the new 40.  Back then, 60 was the new 80.  Annie was an old lady.
She was a retired school teacher.  And she came up with this plan, so she’d be able to live the good life in her golden years.  It worked out about as well as those retirees who invested with Bernie Madoff.
But on this date, the future was bright.  Annie got into her barrel, along with her lucky pillow, and off she went….through the upper rapids and over the Horseshoe Falls.  When she was rescued at the base of the falls, she was a little banged up and bloody…..but in pretty good shape.
And that’s when her life went down the drain.
For a little while, Annie made a little money talking about her stunt.  But people had trouble believing this matronly woman was the daredevil who defeated one of the wonders of the world.
The crowds dwindled.
Then her manager took off with her barrel.
Then a young woman went on tour, pretending to be Annie….and more people believed her.
Annie Edson Taylor died at the age of 82, penniless, in the Niagara County Infirmary.  She’s buried in the “Stunter’s Section” of the Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, NY.
But years after she died, something funny happened.  Annie Edson Taylor really did become famous.  Tour guides like me told her story to millions of people.  She was written up in books.  She was in documentaries.  She's in an IMAX movie.  There’s even an Off-Broadway show about her that opened just last week.
So even though it didn’t happen while she was alive to see it, Annie did become famous.  She’s as big a part of the legend of Niagara Falls as anyone who ever lived.
So you never know.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sabres goosebump moments

Friday night is the Sabres home opener.  And it’s a night of firsts.  First regular season game at First Niagara Center.  First time for the big free-agent signings to play a home game that counts.  Most important of all, the first home opener of the Terry Pegual era.  And don’t you just know they have something special planned to help make it memorable for fans.
We’ve had so many memorable experiences going to Sabres games.
Memorable games.
Memorable goals.
Memorable fights.
Great individual performances, from Roger Crozier to Ryan Miller, Gil Perreault to Thomas Vanek, and hundreds of players in between.
But over the years, there have been some memorable moments that went beyond the game itself.
True goosebump moments that anyone who witnessed will never forget.

April 14, 1996: Farewell, old friend
Oh, the memories of the Aud.  The fog game.  The win over the Russians.  Jim Schoenfeld checking Wayne Cashman into the Zamboni tunnel.  May Day. 
But of all the memorable moments there, I still remember the very last one.  The last game played at Memorial Auditorium, before the Sabres would move into what was then called Marine Midland Arena for the beginning of the 1996-97 season.  And they didn’t leave the Aud on a high note.  95-96 wasn’t a great season for the team  They missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years.  But they won that final game, 4-1 over the Hartford Whalers.  Michael Peca scored the last goal.  And then it was time for the goosebumps.  The lowering of the banners.  The lowering of the retired numbers.  Sabres greats from the past joined current players to receive them and carry them off the ice.  Rene Robert escorted his.  Rick Martin did the same. 
And then the final moments.  One last skate around the rink.  And the players left the ice.  Until only Pat LaFontaine was left.  Until he skated to the crease, stopped and saluted the fans, and then put the puck into the net.  The last time that would ever happen at the Aud.  And when Seymour Knox said “Farewell, old friend, farewell” we had no idea we’d be saying farewell to him just a month later.

April 6, 2003: Back to the future?
2002 & 2003 weren’t the best of years for the Sabres.  They missed the playoffs in 2001-02.  And again in 02-03.  Plus there was that whole “owners in trouble” thing that overshadowed what was happening on the ice.  The Rigases were indicted in 2002.  The league took over operations of the Sabres.  In January of ’03 the team filed for bankruptcy.  For a while we thought Mark Hamister was going to buy the team, but that didn’t work out.  Then in March, Tom Golisano became the owner.  These days, we may not be looking back at Golisano all that fondly, but let’s remember where the team was when he took over.  And let’s remember we had a pretty good run under his ownership.
And let’s not forget the true goosebump moment he provided on the last game of the 2002-03 season.  Remember the red and black uniforms the team wore back then?  That awful Buffalo head?  The team wore them this night….at least for the pre-game skate.  Then, just before the game began, the lights in the Arena were turned off.  And a spotlight shone on the tunnel where the Sabres made their entrance.  Wearing the original blue and gold uniforms!   

No one expected it.  Everyone loved it.
Granted, when the team later changed their uniforms back to the original blue and gold colors, they decided to create the slug instead of going back to their original look….but at least on this night, the crossed swords were back.
February 13, 2009: Moment of silence to standing ovation
This was one of the worst days ever in Western New York.  And it had nothing to do with hockey.  Unless you watched the 11:00 news the night before, you woke up on this day and learned about the crash of Flight 3407.  50 lives lost.  Hundreds of thousands of lives affected.  If you didn’t know someone on that flight, you knew someone who did.  That’s just how it is here.  Some of the Sabres players lived near the crash site.  So does Lindy Ruff.  The news cast a giant pall over the entire region.  Those are the days that make you realize that sports is secondary.  But also very important…..because by the time Friday night rolled around, WNY needed something positive.
Before the game, a moment of silence for the victims of the crash.
I wasn’t there that night, and I wasn’t watching the beginning of the game on television, because when the game started I was at my temple, along with many of my fellow congregants, because we did know someone on that flight.  Our cantor, Susan Wehle, was one of the 50.  So we gathered to pray, and remember her.  After that tear-filled service, I came home and did what any Sabres fan would do.  I turned on the game.  Where I learned that the Sabres….after leading the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in the first period and 4-1 in the second, were now trailing 5-4 in the third.  But as the game wound down, the cosmic forces said “You know what, this isn’t how this should end.  Not here.  Not tonight”.  And with just four seconds left in regulation time, Jason Pominville deflected a shot from former Shark Craig Rivet to tie the score.  Then, after a scoreless overtime, and in the fifth round of the shootout, Derek Roy scored to put the Sabres ahead…..Ryan Miller made a sprawling glove save…..and 18,000 people at the Arena erupted into a huge standing ovation.  There were more than a few tears mixed with those cheers.  Not to mention chills running down spines…..and oh yes, goosebumps.

Feb. 23, 2011: Hello and goodbye
Terry Pegula had already given us a goosebump moment before tonight, his first game as owner of the Sabres.  When he held his first news conference and got teary-eyed because Gil Perreault was there, didn’t your eyes tear up as well?  We knew then, he was one of us.
Then, during the opening ceremonies before the game, as Pegula and his sons came out for the ceremonial puck drop, he and everyone in the arena and everyone watching on television got an unexpected and unbelievably joyful surprise.  Skating out onto the ice, all three members of the French Connection.  Reunited again.  Rene Robert, no longer estranged.  His criticism of Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn no longer an issue.  #14 was back where he belonged.
As we know, the thrills we got that night seeing the Connection reconnected turned bittersweet three weeks later when we heard the stunning news of Richard Martin’s death.  Who knew that reunion would be the last time one of hockey’s greatest lines would be back together?  But at that moment, we cheered.  Thank you Terry Pegula for making that possible.

April 8, 2010: 40 years of memories
I think the thing I love most about Terry Pegula (besides the fact that he wants to win the Stanley Cup….no, he expects to win it) is that he’s one of us.  He’s a Sabres fan.  You can tell how much he loves this team and its tradition.  He also cares about us…the fans.
This night was a gift to us.
40 years of Sabres players were invited back for last year’s home finale.  Pegula picked up the tab for them to come back.  They mingled with fans before the game, and then were brought out….one by one and decade by decade, as we cheered and were flooded by memories.
For me, as someone who’s been a fan from the very beginning, my biggest thrill was seeing the players from the early years.  The ones who gave me my earliest Sabres memories.
Jim Watson.  Bill Hajt.  Gerry Meehan.  Larry Carriere.  And Joe Daley.
Especially Joe Daley.  Besides Gil Perreault, he was my first favorite Sabre.  How could you not love the goalie who played without a mask?  And faced all those shots, night after night.  Especially December 10, 1970 in Boston.  The Bruins peppered Daley with shots.  72 of them!  It’s still the record for shots against the Sabres.  Daley gave up eight goals that night, but he was still one of the stars of the game.
He and 79 fellow former Sabres….from stars, to role players, to guys who were just footnotes in the team’s history…..were here that night.  Here for us.  Here because of Terry Pegula.

Let’s face it, there’s one goosebump moment that will top them all.  The moment when the Stanley Cup is presented to the Sabres on home ice.  Unfortunately, we’ve had to watch the other guys get the Cup on our ice twice.  But thanks to Terry Pegula, Sabres Nation is full of hope.  We know the Cup is coming.  Not if, but when.  And if that Cup-clinching game is in Buffalo….we’ll have a goosebump moment for all time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jobs bill bull

So let me make sure I have this straight.  The Senate voted against even debating President Obama’s jobs bill, but some people are saying it’s a victory for the President.  Because he knew this was going to happen….and now he can continue to campaign on jobs and blame the Republicans for not doing anything.
Will he campaign against Democrats too?  Two of them voted no last night….and some of the Democrats who voted for bringing the bill to the floor for debate, say if it was an actual vote on the bill itself, they’d vote no.
And the President says now he’s going to chop the bill into little pieces so they can be voted on individually…..which means the Senate will have more opportunities to vote against helping the unemployed.
Meanwhile, John McCain says he and a couple other Republicans are working on their own jobs bill.  Which he says will be good.  Really good.  Although his talking points certainly make it sound like his bill will be pretty good for the so-called “job creators” but not do anything to get them to actually create jobs.
While all this is going on at the Senate, over at the House, the President’s jobs bill is still dead on arrival.  Eric Cantor says the Republicans won’t even let it come to a vote.
Which leaves those of us who are unemployed and trying so hard to get jobs wondering when our government will actually do something about us.  Do something about the biggest crisis this country is facing today.  The biggest crisis we’ve faced in a long time.
I’ve made it clear where I stand on this.  The President’s jobs bill wasn’t big enough.  And the Republicans in Congress care more about making the President lose his job than helping millions of Americans get new ones.
Shame on them.  Shame on all of them.
I used to believe in the two-party system.  I thought it was a system of checks and balances.  If one party controlled everything, it was too easy to impose their ideas and ideology on the country.  If the parties shared power, there would be give and take.  There would be compromise.  And the end result would be good for the country.
Not any more.  They’re choosing politics over people and anger over action.
Whatever happens next November, does anyone think anything will get better?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sabres seasons: hockey & hope

Yay!  Hockey season is here!  I don’t remember the last time I was this excited about a Sabres season.  Actually, I do remember….it was 2006-07…more on that in a minute.
But as a longtime Sabres fan (as longtime as it gets….I’m old enough to have been around for the first Sabres season) there really haven’t been that many seasons when optimism was real, and we honestly thought it wasn’t a question of if the Sabres would win the Stanley Cup, but when.
Thank you, Terry Pegula, for giving us that feeling.  Do I expect a Cup parade down Delaware Avenue next summer?  Not really…..I still think we’re a few forwards away….but once you get to the playoffs anything is possible.  Goalies get hot, players get hurt….and the next thing you know, Carolina wins the cup.  (I know, I’m still bitter about that series….someday I’ll get over it)
And let’s face it, the opening game of hockey season doesn’t mean nearly as much as the opening game of football season. Look how many teams have looked awful at the end of October and looked pretty darn good at the end of the season.
But the beginning of the season is the time for hope, the time for new beginnings….and occasionally, a Sabres season starts off really well.

 1971-72: Raising the roof
Okay, this wasn’t a good season for the Sabres.  Actually, it was pretty bad.  The team’s second year in the league was a big step backwards from their first year…only 16 wins, only 51 points.  They haven’t been that bad since….not even close to being that bad.
But it was still exciting when the season started.  That’s because the Aud got bigger over the summer.  When the Sabres and Braves began their existence in 1970, the Aud only seated about 11,000 people.  Not nearly big enough for the NHL & the NBA.  While most cities would simply build a new arena, Buffalo did things a little differently.  And a lot cheaper.  They raised the roof. The 2,200 ton roof was raised 24 feet, allowing the creation of our beloved orange seats.  The new capacity was nearly 16,000 for hockey, about a thousand more for basketball.  Thousands of people became Sabres season ticket holders.  Including me, even though I was just in high school…..eight of my friends and I split three season tickets, so we each got to see a third of the games.  None of us could drive, so our parents had to take us to University Plaza to catch the Main Street bus….but how cool is it for high school kids to have their own season tickets?  We were in the very last row of the original building…the last row of the grays, which became the upper blues.  We couldn’t see the scoreboard because of the overhang of the balcony, and we had to bend down a little to see the other end of the ice….but they were our tickets, and we loved them.  Who cared if the team was bad? 

 1974-75: The first finals
If you’re a longtime Sabres fan, this was that truly memorable season.  Not our first playoff team, but our first really good team.
Yes, we knew they had talent….they were more than just the French Connection….but they had missed the playoffs the year before….so even the biggest die-hard fan didn’t expect this.
But the season sure started off in a memorable way.  Okay, it took 18 seconds.  That’s how long it took Danny Gare to score the first goal of his career, in his first game. 
The Sabres didn’t have a great October…only five wins….but by the end of November they were 17-4-4, by the end of December they were 24-8-5…..and they ended up with 113 points.  Which is still their highest total ever.  Unfortunately, not quite enough to be the best in the league….they were tied with Montreal and Philadelphia.  (the first-ever three-way tie in NHL history)  And unfortunately, since the Flyers had more wins, they ended up with home ice advantage when we faced them in the finals, and the Sabres just couldn’t win in the Spectrum.  (damn you, Kate Smith!)  But it was a great run….it was a season for the ages….and no one expected it.

2006-07: Big winners, big letdown
This was the year.  We knew it.  We just knew it.  This was our year for the Cup.  We still weren’t over the heartbreak of the loss to the Hurricanes in the 2005-06 Eastern Conference finals….to this day, we still know it’s true that if one less defenseman….just one….had stayed healthy (damn you, Jay McKee and your leg infection!) we would have beaten the Canes and of course would have easily beaten Edmonton in the finals.
But this was going to be our year.  And when the season started, it sure looked that way.  The Sabres won the season opener.  And the next game.  And the next.  And the next seven.  The Sabres won their first 10 games, tying the 93-94 Maple Leafs for the best start in league history.  They also won their first 10 road games, also a league record.
And as we all know, they went on to match the 1974-75 team by totaling 113 points….and this time it was enough to win their first (and only) Presidents Trophy.
But no happy ending….they ran out of gas, faded in the playoffs, Drury and Briere left in free agency and our window of opportunity slammed shut.

Now it’s another new season.  The first full season of the Pegula era.  One that’s beginning with real hope.  Real optimism.  Real belief that we’re gonna win that Cup.
I can’t wait.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A message to Congress from the jobless: DO YOUR JOB

From:       The unemployed
To:            Congress
Subject:    We need jobs.  We need you to do yours.

Okay, listen up.  The president says he expects you to take action on jobs this month.  He wants you to pass his entire plan, but if you won’t do that, at least do something.
Yeah, we’re holding our breath on that.
With all the politics and the posturing, the ideology and the idiocy, how can you solve a problem when you’ve BEEN the problem?
But it would be nice if you actually could do something for a change.
Look, we’re realistic.  We know you guys don’t like each other very much, and a lot of you really don’t like the president.  But why did you run for Congress in the first place?  Wasn’t helping people part of that?  Didn’t you kind of think maybe you could do something to help make America just a little better?
You’ve made it pretty clear you’re not going to pass President Obama’s jobs bill.  To be honest, we weren’t that thrilled with his plan either.  We didn’t think it was big enough.  We were hoping for something really big.  New Deal big.  But at least it was something.  Economists say it would create jobs.  They say it would help a lot of people.  They say it’s a good start.  And that’s not bad.
We know, many of you have made it clear you don’t want to pass the president’s plan because politically, it’s better for you to keep the economy down.  You’d rather make the president lose his job than help us get one.
So if you don’t like his plan, how about coming up with one of your own?  How about someone stepping forward and being the hero we need so desperately?  How about putting people ahead of politics, just this once?  There’s a difference between what’s right for your political goals and what’s right for the country.  Please understand that.
We understand the politics part of this.  But have you looked at your own approval ratings lately?   Aaron Burr was more popular AFTER he killed Alexander Hamilton.
And aren’t all of you also up for re-election next year?  If you don’t do anything about jobs, you’re hurting a lot more people than the president.  You’re hurting us.  And by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of us.  Between the unemployed and the under-employed, there are about 25 million of us.  That’s a lot of people.  That’s a lot of voters.  And if we’re out of work, we’ll have plenty of time to vote….even if we have to stand in line.  We’ll also be pretty motivated to vote.   So politically speaking, isn’t it better for you to help us than hurt the economy? 
Speaking of the economy, we’re no experts, but even we understand that the jobs crisis is a lot bigger than the debt crisis you guys keep talking about.  And fixing one can actually help the other.  Please tell us you get the fact that every time someone stops collecting unemployment benefits and starts collecting a paycheck, that’s a good thing.  When we’re working, we spend money.  We buy houses.  We buy cars.  We support stores and restaurants.  We support small businesses and big ones.  And oh yes, we pay taxes.
Oh, did we say taxes?  We know, that’s a bad word for many of you, unless it’s a tax cut.  You keep talking about what a bad idea it is to tax the job creators.  Time for a reality check.  The job creators aren’t creating jobs.  They’re killing them.  Or they’re moving them overseas.
Hey, how about a tax break for companies that move jobs back to America?  Personally, we liked the president’s idea about giving companies a tax credit for hiring someone who’s been out of work for a while.  But there are other incentives.  You want to help the job creators….make it impossible for them to NOT create jobs.
So the ball’s in your court.  You can take action, or you can act like children.   We don’t have much faith in you.  Please prove us wrong.