Buffalo an experience to remember

  • The rink at KeyBank Center in Buffalo is smaller than the Mullins Center's Olympic-sized rink. The Minutemen often practiced at Orr Rink at Amherst College to prepare for games on smaller ice sheets. COURTESY/CHIP AINSWORTH

  • The statue of center Gilbert Perreault, left wing Rick Martin and right wing Rene Robert, called the French Connection when they played in the 1970s, is on Alumni Plaza outside the KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. COURTESY/CHIp ainsworth

  • UMass-Lowell season ticket holders Mike and Wendy Bertino of Ashland have gone to seven consecutive Frozen Fours, starting in 2013 when the River Hawks played Yale at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. COURTESY/CHIp ainsworth

For the Recorder
Published: 4/16/2019 9:47:21 PM

The directions to Buffalo were simple enough – take I-91 to the Mass. Pike and stay on the New York Thruway for 370 miles. It was akin to driving from Savannah to Miami, but without the palm trees.

It was tedious, but after waiting a quarter century for the UMass hockey team to reach the Frozen Four, last Thursday’s semifinal against Denver felt like a Holy Day of Obligation. The game was at the KeyBank Center on the shores of the Buffalo River, and the puck dropped at 8:30 p.m.

The secondary market had $60 seats, my hotel room cost $72 plus 10,000 loyalty points, gasoline hovered around $2.90 a gallon and tolls usurped whatever was left in my EZ Pass account.

I drove through the Mohawk Valley past snow-blotched countryside, where deer grazed in cornfields. Words painted on a snowplow next to the highway said, “Welcome to New York Snowfall; Syracuse Average 115 Inches.”

The road followed the 200-year-old Erie Canal, past the abandoned Beech Nut factory in Canajoharie toward the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and the metal sculpture of an imperious eagle with a 21-foot wingspan.

The New York State police have disciplined drivers into using their blinkers and keeping right except to pass. Fines for texting have doubled to $293, and doing over 75 mph was risky. WFAN’s Boomer Esiason said on Monday he was pulled over while returning from an over-40 hockey tournament at Lake Placid.

“You got a ticket?” asked sidekick Gregg Giannotti​​​​​​.

“Yeah,” replied Esiason. “License and registration. The guy had no personality.”

About 50 miles from Buffalo, the signs for Tim Horton Donuts began to appear. Tim Horton is the north country’s version of  Dunkin Donuts, just as Labatt and Molson are to Sam Adams and Steel Rail Ale.

A jet lifted off over railroad tracks and high tension wires, and a faded green sign welcomed me to “Buffalo All-America City.”

At Pasquale’s in West Seneca, I cracked open the Buffalo News and relaxed listening to Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke and Ella Fitzgerald. The conversation in the next booth was dominated by a raspy-voiced construction boss explaining the tricks of the trade. “The foreman’s gotta push the labor, or you blow your profit,” he told them.

After reading that neighboring Lockport was besieged by gang violence and the pending transfer of 300 border agents would cause backups on the Peace Bridge, I turned to the sports section and ate spaghetti.

CHEAP PARKING 

Parking cost $10 in a potholed lot on Michigan Avenue near the Buffalo Bisons baseball stadium. Inside a sports bar called the Seven One Six, fans tipped beers and watched the University of Minnesota-Duluth play Providence College.

Four middle-aged men dressed in Denver garb sat at a table next to a window. Denver attorney Royce Miller said that he and Steve Spomer across from him had been going to the Frozen Four since 2004. Two years later, Steve Dazzio joined the troupe, and Randy Van Roekel’s first trip was three years ago when the Frozen Four was in Tampa. “It was great,” he said. “Palm trees, beer, beaches and hockey.”

Mueller wore a maroon-and-bronze Pioneers road jersey with the captain’s “C” on the front and “21” sewn on the back, Ryan Caldwell’s number when Denver beat Maine at TD Garden in 2004.

Not surprisingly, that first trip was the best trip. “C’mon man, two penalties?” said Spomer, referring to the 6-on-3 that Denver survived to win 1-0.

On the connecting flight from Washington, Stomel said he sat next to Markus Lindberg, whose son Filip is the UMass goaltender. “It’s all cool,” said Stomel. “I hope (Lindberg) plays well, but not that well.”

They inquired about defenseman Cale Makar, a Colorado Avalanche prospect who’d led UMass into the postseason. “There’s times he reminds me of Bobby Orr the way he rushes the puck,” I told them.

They stared at me like I was a scout from the other side of the mountain. “We’re gonna get out-shot and still win if (Filip) Larsson is good,” said Mueller, referring to Denver’s freshman goaltender. “We need to draw first blood and sit on it. Denver’s going to win because it’s Denver.”

Somehow that made sense, probably because the Pioneers have won eight national titles.

TICKETS, TICKETS

Across the street a scalper yelled, “You need a ticket?”

“All set,” I answered. “How much you asking?”

“Fifty bucks,” he said. “It’s a little slow … Teams are from real far away.”

I kicked myself for not waiting. Ticket scalping is the world’s second-oldest profession and he had real tickets, genuine souvenirs. Mine was a slip of paper with a seat location, it looked like a grocery receipt. Besides, I’d prefer giving my money to a scalper than to a corporate ticket agency.

The KeyBank Center opened in 1996 as Marine Midland Arena and a few years ago Alumni Plaza was unveiled. Its centerpiece is a bronzed statue of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Richard Martin. The French Connection played in the 1970s when Sabres’ home games were at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

Inside the lobby, jerseys of all 60 Division I teams hung from the balcony. Hobey Baker pins cost $7, pucks were $12 and Frozen Four T-shirts cost $30. “Busy?” I asked a vendor.

“Crazy,” he said. “I didn’t expect this. I’m sure someone did though.”

I bought a bag of popcorn and sat next to Jim and Wendy Bertino, who have season tickets to UMass-Lowell games and have become regulars at the Frozen Four.

“This is our seventh,” said Wendy. “It’s just a great way to see a different part of America. Our first was Pittsburgh. Great city! We have a niece there and UMass-Lowell was playing. Jim just said, ‘Let’s go!’”

“We love the Bruins,” added her husband, “but our season tickets cost less than one Bruins game.”

The Minnesota-Duluth pep band played “Rocky” and “Hooked on a Feeling.” The defending-champion Bulldogs scored late and added a pair of empty-netters to beat the Friars, 4-1.

The PA system played the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” Bulldogs fans were celebratory if not downright cocky. UMass and Denver fans reveled in anticipation. Fans walked three abreast holding 24-ounce cans of beer wearing Penn State, Army, RPI, Fighting Irish, Nordiques, Whalers and every other hockey jersey known to man and woman.

I spotted my hockey chum Charlie Olchowski in the crowd. “Compared to the Regionals this is overwhelming!” he yelled over the din.

Charlie was accompanying Cale Makar’s mother to the Hobey Baker table to buy a pin, which was apropos since her son would soon be crowned the best player in college hockey.

His friend, Robin Logan of Shelburne Falls is connected to the Makar family. “Her brother is married to Cale’s mother’s sister,” said Charlie. “I already told you this!” 

THE PUCK DROPS

After the Canadian and American national anthems, the puck was dropped and Minutemen fans chanted, “Let’s Go, UMass! Let’s Go, UMass!”

The glory of sports is that games aren’t scripted and anything can happen. That said, it was a shock that three players would be ejected for illegal hits to the head. Denver captain Colin Staub scored the opening salvo after Niko Hildenbrand’s five-minute major, and UMass scored three goals after Denver’s Ryan Barrow was ejected.

As the Zamboni was making its final spin around the ice before the third period, I collared Minnesota Gophers fans Eric Evenson and Scott Schlough. “I’m pleasantly surprised with the UMass fans,” said Evenson. “They’re pretty wild.”

“They’re not a typical Hockey East team,” said Schlough. “They’re like a WCHA hockey hybrid. Denver’s looking like s***, but we don’t want them to win anyway.”

During the third period I prowled the empty concourse and noticed fans sitting at a bar watching the simulcast like they do at racetracks. A Minnesota-Duluth fan wore an oversized cowboy hat and looked blissfully content.

The Minutemen were ahead 3-1 and had killed off a penalty when I stepped off the escalator and went out the door where scalpers were yelling, “Anybody got Saturday tickets they don’t need?”

By the time I got back to my car, the score was 3-2, and by the time I flipped my cigarette onto the asphalt it was 3-3. I wasn’t surprised. A lifetime of Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone home runs have conditioned me to expect the worst.

Ten years ago to the day at the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., the Miami RedHawks led BU, 3-1. The Terriers pulled their goalie and scored twice in 59 seconds, then won in overtime. In Yogi’s words, would this be deja vu all over again?

During the half-hour it took for my smartphone to power up, I drove 10 miles in the wrong direction. Overtime had begun by the time I got my bearings, and I was sitting in a hotel parking lot when Marc Del Gaizo scored the historic winning goal.

The next morning, I finished my Saturday column, checked out and returned home. The good news was that Makar won the Hobey Baker Award, but that was momentarily overshadowed by Bobby Trivigno’s suspension for elbowing a Denver player in the head.

On Saturday, I texted Brock Hines that it felt like Super Bowl Sunday. “Worse,” he replied.

The Duluth Bulldogs play in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and average over 6,000 fans at AMSOIL Arena. The city of 86,000 is on a hill on the southwest tip of Lake Superior, a few miles upshore from where the Edmund Fitzgerald set out on its fateful voyage in 1975.

This season, the Bulldogs (29-11-2) lost twice to both Denver and St. Cloud State and once to Clarkson. It was hard to imagine they could lose to anyone the way they played smash-mouth hockey against UMass.

They were bigger, stronger and older. They swarmed the net from the opening faceoff, prompting WHMP’s Donnie Moorhouse to exclaim, “UMass is under siege, there’s no other way to put it.” 

Indeed, it took less than four minutes for 24-year-old senior Parker Mackay to flip a backhander over Lindberg’s shoulder for what proved to be the winning goal in the 3-0 win.

“It’s a learning lesson,” tweeted coach Greg Carvel. “Our team will take a step forward having played that team.”

The next day, Makar signed with the Avalanche and scored a goal in Colorado’s 6-2 playoff win against Calgary on Monday night. Seniors Brett Boeing, Kurt Keats and Jacob Pritchard have cleaned out their lockers, but sophomore Mario Ferraro had yet to sign with the San Jose Sharks.

New legs are on the way, including left winger Eric Faith who had 24 goals and 40 assists for the Brockville (Ont.) Braves and was the seventh-leading scorer in the Central Canada Hockey League this season. 

Hop on the bandwagon, next year’s Frozen Four is in Detroit.




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