A readers' guide to the Winter Classic
There is a cartoon that depicts a man hanging upside down in a medieval torture chamber, screaming “Pain! More pain! I love it! I love it!”
One of the torturers turns to an accomplice, points his thumb back at the suffering man and says, “Buffalo sports fan.”
I can relate.
I spent most of my first 24 years in Snyder, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb. Most of my past 18 have flown past in Pittsburgh — and you know what• Aside from the pain factor, where Buffalo holds a distinct edge, I agree with Buffalo-bred Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, who says, “The cities are pretty similar, and in terms of sports fanatics and the followings for the teams, they're very much alike.”
The followings will converge at 1 p.m. New Year's Day — weather permitting, of course — when the Penguins and Sabres meet in the first regular-season, outdoor NHL game in the United States, at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“That's all I was hearing about up there,” said Orpik, who spent Christmas at his parents' Western New York home. “There's a lot of excitement. There's also a chance of snow, they said, but there's a chance of snow every day there.”
Separated by just 220 miles, the cities have a surprisingly limited sports rivalry, mostly because their NFL and NHL teams have played in separate divisions.
When their paths cross, however, it can be eventful — even if they're not actually playing each other.
On the final day of the 1971-72 NHL season, for example, the Penguins needed a Sabres victory at Philadelphia to make the playoffs. Buffalo complied when Gerry Meehan's desperation, 45-foot shot beat Flyers goalie Doug Favell with only four seconds left in regulation.
Former Hopewell High School football star Paul Posluszny, now a Bills linebacker, felt right at home when he landed in Buffalo.
“When we drove into the city and saw all the old steel mills, that was a familiar sight to me,” Posluszny said. “You get the same feel here as you do in Western Pennsylvania. Same type of people — hard-working, blue-collar people.”
Of course, similarity can breed contempt. Buffalo and Pittsburgh fans “enjoy” a relationship akin to that of former Sabres teammates/roommates Matthew Barnaby and Rob Ray, who used to beat each other up with alarming frequency, to the point where Ray knocked Barnaby's teeth out.
But, as Barnaby later said when he joined the Penguins, “It was one of those brotherly types of things. We'd try to kill each other, but we still liked each other.”
In that spirit, here's a primer for the Winter Classic, complete with a few tips for anyone shuffling off to Buffalo:
Five topics sure to ignite a fist fight if you're mingling with Buffalo fans at a tailgate party
Wide Right. Grown men, including the Bills, held hands as Scott Norwood's 47-yard attempt to win Super Bowl XXV sailed into infamy. Buffalo fans greeted Norwood with cheers two days later at city hall, during what was supposed to be a Super Bowl victory parade. Classy move, for sure — and it wasn't Norwood's fault the Giants held the ball for 41 minutes. Besides, the miss went to good use. It spawned the Ray Finkle character in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and launched Dan Marino's movie career.
(“Laces out, Dan!”).
No Goal. Is it too late for a do-over• The NHL hurriedly reviewed darn near every goal during the 1998-99 season, just to make sure nobody had a toenail in the crease, then broke policy on Brett Hull's Cup-winner.
Music City Miracle. The Football Gods obviously pitied the Houston/Tennessee franchise for blowing a 35-3 lead in Buffalo seven years earlier. So, with the Bills headed to sure victory in a 2000 Wild-Card game, the Titans pulled off the “Home Run Throwback,” a desperation trick kickoff return with 16 seconds left. Tennessee won the game. Buffalo lost its mind. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since.
Darius Kasparaitis/Brad Park/Joe Juneau/ Bob Nystrom … or anyone else who scored a gut-busting overtime goal to beat the Sabres.
O.J. Simpson/Super Bowls. Both fall into the how-can-something-so-good-turn-into-something-so-bad category. Buffalo's all-time sports legend becomes one of the great scoundrels of the 20th century, and four consecutive AFC title-game victories (for perspective, Bill Cowher only had two of these in 15 years) become four unbelievable Super Bowl nightmares.
Five topics sure to win friends if you're mingling with Buffalo fans at a tailgate party
The Comeback. You remember Frank Reich. He quarterbacked the Bills to the greatest comeback in NFL history. They trailed the Oilers, 35-3, early in the second half of a 1993 Wild-Card playoff game at Ralph Wilson Stadium (then Rich Stadium) but stormed back to win, 41-38, in overtime. Said Oilers cornerback Chris Dishman, quite accurately: “It was the biggest choke in history.” Six days later, the Bills spanked the Steelers and first-year coach Bill Cowher in his playoff debut, 24-3. That was the day Cowher decided it would be a good idea to play rusty Neil O'Donnell instead of red-hot Bubby Brister.
May Day! Brad May ended the Sabres' 10-year playoff drought in 1993 when he beat Bruins' goalie Andy Moog in overtime to sweep the series. Rick Jeanneret delivered the memorable radio call … “May Day! May Day!”
The French Connection. Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Penguins castoff Rene Robert formed one of the NHL's highest-flying lines of the 1970's and sported some incredible mustaches, to boot.
Dave Hannan. Ex-Penguins winger won the longest game in Sabres history when he beat Martin Brodeur on a backhander in the fourth overtime of Game 6 of a first-round series in 1994. Dominik Hasek made 70 saves in the 1-0 win (just don't bring up Game 7).
Bills 51, Raiders 3. Final score of 1990 AFC Championship Game, a soul cleansing for long-suffering Bills fans (just don't bring up the next game).
Five things Buffalo and Pittsburgh have in common
• Hate Cleveland.
• Hockey franchises well-acquainted with bankruptcy (Penguins lead, 2-1, in official filings).
• Both field a minor-league baseball franchise.
• Each has an entry in American Planning Association's Top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America — Chatham Village on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh; Elmwood Village in Buffalo.
• Frank Lloyd Wright, famous architect; Tom Donahoe, football architect. Donahoe helped put together some very good football teams in Pittsburgh. In Buffalo, not so much. Wright put together some beautiful buildings in Buffalo. Near Pittsburgh, there is amazing Fallingwater.
Five reason Pittsburgh is better than Buffalo
• Incredible skyline (as compared to none).
• Championships. Nine for Pittsburgh (not including Pitt's 1976 national title in football), none for Buffalo since 1965.
• Three rivers beat one any day.
• O.J. never played here.
Five reasons Buffalo is better than Pittsburgh
• Mayor is a grown-up.
• Niagara Falls.
• Twenty minutes from beach (Canada).
• Nobody thinks it's a good idea to build a $435 million tunnel under a river.
• Duff's chicken wings.
Five memorable Buffalo-Pittsburgh moments
Fergy fries the Sabres
My grandfather was one of the first men in history — or so I believed — to own a television clicker. He also was one of the first to have his clicker whipped against a wall. It happened as I watched somebody named George Ferguson fly down the left wing 47 seconds into overtime and beat Sabres goalie Bob Sauve to complete a stunning playoff upset in 1979.
Nice line change, guys.
Jim Haslett steps on Terry Bradshaw's head
Haslett — Avalon High School grad, future Steelers defensive coordinator, maniacal Bills linebacker — was kicked out in the second quarter of the 1979 season finale at Three Rivers Stadium after he, um, placed his foot on the fallen Bradshaw's head out of bounds. “I'll defend him and say I wasn't kicked,” Bradshaw said after the Steelers' 28-0 win. “I can't imagine him kicking me. My wig company is going to have to send me a three-quarter inch piece of hair to cover (the mark).”
Uwe Krupp was a 6-foot-6 defenseman who scored only three goals in 74 games in 1989-90. The third one had serious ramifications. Krupp beat ex-Sabres goaltender Tom Barrasso from the left point in overtime on the final day of the season, costing the Penguins a playoff spot — and helping them in the long run. If not for Krupp, the Penguins wouldn't have been in position to draft Jaromir Jagr, or, perhaps, to win consecutive Stanley Cups and make the playoffs each of the next 11 seasons.
Kaspar haunts an entire city
Nobody who saw it will forget offensively challenged Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis doing a belly flop at center ice after beating Dominik Hasek at 13:01 of overtime in Game 7 of a 2001 playoff series at HSBC Arena — HSBC standing for “Had Series But Choked.” The Sabres held a three-games-to-two lead and had Game 6 in the bag only to see Mario Lemieux score a miracle goal with 78 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
O.J. goes nuts
Long before he started running from the law, O.J. was running from defenders — even the Steel Curtain. Legend has it that his 88-yard touchdown run Sept. 28, 1975, at Three Rivers Stadium marked the only time Jack Ham ever missed a tackle. “Most backs wouldn't have gained a yard on the play,” said Steelers coach Chuck Noll. “He gained 88.” Simpson also had the longest run ever against the Steelers, a 94-yard touchdown sprint in 1972. In his most important game against them, though, he was held to 49 yards on 15 carries in a 32-14 playoff loss at Three Rivers Stadium in 1974. (Simpson, incidentally, scored his only postseason touchdown that day, catching a 3-yard pass from George Ferguson — sorry, Joe Ferguson.
Five little-known and quite possibly useless facts about the Buffalo-Pittsburgh sports connection
• Dan Darragh, a superb quarterback at South Hills Catholic High School (now Seton-La Salle) went on to play for the Bills and started two games in 1969, O.J. Simpson's rookie year.
• Buffalo-born Bob Lanier, a standout center at Bennett High School (which later produced Pitt's Curtis Aiken) made a cameo appearance in the classic 1979 film “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.”
I thought it was classic, anyway.
• Jack Kemp, long-time All-Pro quarterback for the Bills and prominent politician, began his football career with the Steelers in 1957. He was dumped after a season in which he completed 8 of 18 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
• Buffalo native Bill Hurley, now the defensive backs coach at Duquesne University, played quarterback at Syracuse, where he nearly ruined Pitt's perfect 1976 season, and later played safety for the Steelers and Bills.
• Billy Knight, one of the great basketball players in Pitt history, was part of the final Buffalo Braves team in 1977-78, before it was dismantled and hijacked to L.A., where it became the Clippers and got everything it deserved. He averaged 22.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game that season.
Five places to eat/drink self silly in Buffalo
• Duff's. Finest chicken wings on earth, located on Sheridan Dr. in Amherst.
• Anchor Bar. Original home of Buffalo wings, located on Main St. downtown.
• Pretty much anywhere on W. Chippewa Street, Buffalo's answer to Bourbon Street.
• For real pizza, look up Bocce's (where I once scraped the pans) or Bob & John's.
• For a fancier meal, try Chef's downtown or Siena in Snyder. Additional Information:
Readers' guide to Winter Classic
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