It’s Bills over Leafs — By A Mile

TORONTO (Dec. 29) — A sports fan in this region should have no difficulty empathizing with his or her counterpart in the city of Buffalo, New York. And, it has little to do with the 175-kilometer (80–mile) proximity — much of it traveled, by car, along the Queen Elizabeth Way (or QEW). Kinship, borne of mutual torment, links those that offer devotion to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Bills. The Sabres could be included in this dialogue, though it must be remembered that Buffalo’s National Hockey League team has twice been to the Stanley Cup final (1975, 1999) since Toronto’s most–recent appearance, 50 years ago.

The Bills made national headlines this week when they fired head coach Rex Ryan after less than two seasons on the sideline… and prior to this season’s finale in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sunday against the equally–dreadful New York Jets. An overtime loss at home to Miami last Sunday eliminated the Bills from playoff contention for the 17th consecutive year — longest–such drought since the National and American Football League’s merged in 1970. We, here in the Great White North, are perversely familiar with the Maple Leafs holding the longest Stanley Cup drought (barring a miracle, to be a full half–century on May 2, 2017). As such, kinship unavoidably prevails. The Ryan dismissal by the bumbling Bills prompted a scathing response in the Buffalo News on Tuesday by my ol’ hockey traveling pal, Bucky Gleason. In fact, Bucky’s column (here: http://bit.ly/2hpiw1H) will likely become rather fabled in the annals of sports–writing candor.

For example, these sentiments… All along, [Rex] Ryan took Western New Yorkers as a region of bumpkins that he could win over with his personality. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the same warm and friendly people who celebrated his arrival would become cold–hearted critics once they realized he had taken them for a ride. Rex never understood that humility and honesty works best in Buffalo, two qualities he had in short supply. Perception quickly changed. The same man who was initially praised for being bold was viewed as a braggart. The confidence he showed without merit made him a con man. Buffalo came to see him as a buffoon… NFL executives must be laughing at the Bills, a bumbling franchise with no plan. [Owners] Terry and Kim Pegula once again look like amateurs who aren’t sure where to turn for the right people, as if they’re hoping to stumble into success by accident. They took the same approach with the Sabres, a troubled franchise that became progressively worse after they bought the team. While many were thankful they purchased the Bills after Ralph Wilson died, there also was a very real possibility of Buffalo winding up with two dysfunctional franchises. Well, look at the results.

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REX RYAN COULDN’T EXPLAIN MUCH ABOUT HIS FAILED TENURE IN BUFFALO. USA TODAY PHOTO

Editorial license, as Bucky would agree, is wonderful. But, there was much more to the column. Within his unfettered veracity was a primordial yelp! that only a Buffalonian can truly comprehend. The Sabres are big–time in western New York. The Bills are piety. An apt metaphor might involve the Raptors and Maple Leafs here in Toronto. When our National Basketball Association team advanced to the playoff semifinals last June, even the casual folk took notice. We the North became an internationally–recognized slogan during the Raptors’ Eastern Conference clash with LeBron James and the eventual NBA champion from Cleveland.

Were the Leafs to accomplish the same, euphoria would shut down the city. Mosques would be full of Jews; synagogues bursting with Muslims. Nothing could unite Toronto more than a power–move by the Buds.

Same exists with Buffalo and the NFL.

Prior to becoming the Maple Leafs beat–reporter at The FAN–590 (in 1994), I covered virtually all of the Bills home games during their four–year reign as American Football Conference champion. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett were saintly figures on the western flank of Lake Erie. I’ve spent enough time (and know enough people) in Buffalo to recognize that the Bills seduce more than just fans of the gridiron. The Buffalo football mystique reminds me of Muhammad Ali’s post–exile boxing career (mainly 1970–75) as arguably the most recognized face on the planet. His bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman attracted not only me and my dad (certified sports nuts), but my mother and sister — neither of whom knew a mouthpiece from a groin–protector. An Ali fight, even on closed–circuit TV at Maple Leaf Gardens, was an event bigger than the sum of its parts. Such is a Buffalo Bills game at New Era Field.

Which further boggles the mind that the aforementioned Ralph Wilson — founder of the Buffalo franchise — would farm out one home game per season to Rogers Centre during the Bills in Toronto heist of 2008–12. It would be akin to the Maple Leafs giving Buffalo five home games a year were the Sabres not in the NHL.

Didn’t make sense. Didn’t work.

The Bills belong solely to Buffalo — warts and all.

Just as the pockmarked Leafs belong to Toronto.

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THE BILLS AT ROGERS CENTRE. DIDN’T WORK. COULDN’T WORK. TORONTO STAR PHOTO

There is, however, an acute difference. Whereas the Leafs have been almost universally inept since 1967, the Bills have been torturous. You want to lose your life in downtown Buffalo? Cup your hands around your mouth and yell “wide right!” Or, “Music City Miracle”. If there is such thing as a jinx, Buffalo has owned it since January 1991, when Scott Norwood legendarily missed a last–second field goal at Tampa Stadium that allowed the New York Giants to escape with Super Bowl XXV. Three more losses in the NFL championship game followed, consecutively. But, nothing — absolutely nothing — embodies Buffalo sports misery more than the above–mentioned “miracle” at Adelphia Coliseum (now Nissan Stadium) in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2000.

The Bills took a 16–15 lead in a Wild Card playoff match on Steve Christie’s 41–yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining. Frank Wycheck of the Tennessee Titans was given the ball on the ensuing kickoff and tossed an overhand lateral–pass that was borderline on–side to teammate Kevin Dyson, who set off — remarkably — unmolested down the sideline for a 75–yard, game–winning touchdown with no time on the clock (while profusely apologetic to Bills fans, here is the YouTube video: http://bit.ly/2ia4oNx).

By comparison, the Maple Leafs’ third–period playoff meltdown at Boston in 2013 was an oversight.

Perhaps coincidentally — but probably not — that was Buffalo’s last moment in the Super Bowl tournament. After all, could there be a more grotesque memory for the poor saps that flock to Orchard Park during the NFL season? Imagine having to chew on that blunder for nearly two decades… with no end in sight.

Another memory: My friend, Stu Boyar, covering the Buffalo–Carolina Stanley Cup semifinal in 2006. For WGRZ–TV, Channel 2. Game 7, at Raleigh. Standing next to me in the RBC Center press box. Or, more accurately, quivering next to me. Tie score. Late in the third period.

“What’sa matter, Stu?” I asked with a devilish grin.

“You know what’s the matter,” he barked. “Something shi–y is gonna happen.”

Seconds later, defenseman Brian Campbell inadvertently lifted the puck over the glass for a delay–of–game penalty. Stu glared at me. Carolina scored and won the series. Went on to beat Edmonton in the Cup final.

So, here’s a mulligan for my pal, Bucky. And, for such others in the Buffalo media as Chris (Bulldog) Parker of WGR–550 all–sports radio, who has co–hosted (with Mike Schopp) football post–game shows during the entire 17–year playoff drought, and who sounded — this week — as if bordering on a nervous breakdown.

Really, folks, we’ve had it easy here in the Big Smoke.

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MIKE SCHOPP (RIGHT) AND THE BULLDOG (CHRIS PARKER, LEFT) ARE BUFFALO RADIO STAPLES.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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