Paul Wieland jokingly refers to himself as an artifact, one of only a few individuals left from the genesis of Buffalo Sabres hockey.
Among dozens of historical milestones, Wieland watched Floyd Smith and Jean Beliveau take the opening face-off at the very first Sabres home game in the Aud, provided color commentary to Rick Jeanneret’s play-by-play on the first Sabres cable television broadcast, and was at the table when the team selected the immortal Taro Tsujimoto in the 1974 NHL Draft. In charting the Sabres family tree, all branches eventually trace their way back to Wieland.
For over a decade, Wieland has been sharing his expertise with the next generation of broadcasters and journalists at St. Bonaventure University. He recently took some time to reflect on the formative years of the team and share his opinion on the current product on and off the ice.
If my memory is correct, I believe you were hired a few days into the Sabres inaugural season. What led you to apply for the job and why do you think you were hired?
I was hired at the start of training camp in 1970 and joined the team in Peterborough, Ontario. I had been a public relations executive with General Motors in NYC and Detroit after nearly ten years as a reporter with the Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News.
The Knoxes (Seymour & Northrup Knox) approached me in the summer of 1970 for the second time. I had turned down an interview in the spring, but they came back after they were unhappy with the guy they hired.
I believe I was hired because I stood up to Norty in our interview. He asked why I was applying for a job at the Sabres. I told him: “I wasn’t. You came after me…not me after you.” He told me he liked my “spunk” and offered me the job. Since I was a half ass old amateur goalie, it was kind of a cool job to take.
I was lucky. I always reported directly to Seymour and Norty. Nobody else between us, and they allowed me to be creative.
What was it like working for the Knox family in the early years? Were they hands on owners or did you have a high level of autonomy to do your job?
In the early years I was very much autonomous in PR, advertising, marketing, etc. The Knox brothers hired me on this kind of gentleman’s agreement. “If you don’t like what I do, fire me. Otherwise, let me create the Sabres image and public face off the ice.”
And they did.
Thus was born the devilish Paul Wieland. Well, I was devilish before that, but in helping make the Sabres go in WNY and nearby Ontario, I had a chance to put my theories about PR and public image to work without restriction other than budget.
The Knoxes and I got along very well. They appreciated hard work by all their employees and encouraged us to, as Norty would say, “imagineer”. I was like a kid let loose in a candy store.
My earliest memory of you is watching you conduct interviews between periods for home game broadcasts on International Cable. To the viewer at home, it appeared as though you were conducting those interviews under the sweltering glare of eight spotlights stolen from a prison observation tower. What were the biggest challenges of broadcasting Sabres games during the first few years of the franchise?
We got into cable in 1972-73 when the late Peter Gilbert (later owner of the Colorado Rockies) decided that Sabres telecasts would be a terrific enticement to get new subscribers. He offered a decent buck for an experimental package of games.
At first, Peter wanted to do the telecasts with International Cable’s own equipment, but I put the kibosh on that. The telecasts would have been abominable. Instead we cherrypicked a package of nine games the first year, selecting those from visiting broadcasters who would sell us a “clean feed”—pictures only and natural sound— of their telecasts from the Aud. They included Hockey Night in Canada, New York, LA and Chicago, if my memory serves me correctly.
I hired Ricky J. (Rick Jeanneret) to do play by play and I did color, using only one camera of our own. That was used for intermissions upstairs in the old press box. There was no real TV lighting up there that first year. I must say I was not a polished intermission host, but I gave it my all—particularly as the color man.
The cable broadcasts came about because we were selling out all our games and almost all seats were season tickets. We decided putting on some home games would take the pressure off us, as some fans were furious that more seats were not on sale to the general public.
WE WERE THE FIRST TEAM IN PRO SPORTS TO PROVIDE CABLE TV OF HOME GAMES, TELECASTS PRODUCED BY THE TEAM ITSELF.
Sorry about the caps. I got excited.
What are your thoughts on the current Sabres television broadcast?
The Sabres have been fortunate to have Ted Darling and Rick over the 46 years. Both class acts on and off the ice.
I like the current telecasts because Rick is at his best. As he has aged he has calmed down slightly on air, and has a marvelous grasp of the game as always. Plus his wry sense of humor is piqued by Robby Ray, who brings a barrelhouse bouncer to mind— in a good way.
Dan Dunleavy will be a decent successor, but no one compares to Rick.
Brian Duff is a little smarmy for my taste, it often seems like he is trying to channel Ron MacClean. Brad May tries too hard. When he loosens up on occasion, he is fine.
The overall production values are terrific thanks to Joe Pinter and the MSG-produced elements.
Are you the guy responsible for giving Rick Jeanneret his first job with the Sabres? If so, where did you find him and what led you to hire him?
When we needed someone the late Fred Hunt discussed Rick with me, touting his work for the Niagara Falls Flyers radio broadcasts. I listened to a game he did and agreed with Fred that he would be the guy we should have to sub for Ted while Ted did nine games or so on Channel 7. Fred had been in touch with Rick and so they made the deal.
Things moved onward from there and I picked Rick for the cable TV debut in the fall of 1972.
Relieving Ted Darling of his play by play duties in the early 90s must have been an agonizing decision. He was a fantastic broadcaster and seemed to be a beloved man, yet it was clear he couldn’t do his job anymore. Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently in handling the situation?
Ted was my friend. We joined the team the same week in 1970 and worked together for many years. He taught me much about working on the air and even more about what makes a fine human being.
When I had to be the guy who took him off the air, it was the first time I cried about anything outside family matters in my adult life.
When I went to Toronto for his Hockey Hall of Fame Induction (ironically it was the late Jim Kelley who nominated Ted with my encouragement) Ted was already pretty far gone. I couldn’t stay in the main room for the ceremony. Instead, I watched it on TV in another room and cried a lot more.
As I sit and write these words, I am on the edge of tears, but I hold Ted as treasured in my memory as any friend I’ve ever had, and I pray for him every day.
For a number of years, you served as the team’s practice goalie in addition to your duties as PR director. Did the players take it easy on you or did they treat you like any other player on the ice? Who were the most difficult players to face in practice?
I suppose some players took it easy… I never asked. I was with them so much that I even had my own stall in the room for a while. I think most tried the same as they would against any of their goalie teammates in practice, which is signified by trying not to shoot high.
I was injured many times in practice, but only twice were the injuries bad enough that I needed medical care— once for stitches in the eye area and once for an ankle injury.
Some players—John VanBoxmeer and Eddie Shack come to mind— were assholes at times and I went after both them. It’s a good thing my attacks were broken up as each would have wiped my tush. Rico, Bert, Bobby Sauve, Dave Dryden, Ric Seiling and Jerry Korab were always most welcoming as well as trainer Frank Christie and my old friend from South Buffalo, Rip Simonick.
I was in my early 30’s when I first started in practice, and by the time I retired from it, was old enough to be the daddy of a few players. It was the sports thrill of my life-by far— being on the ice with NHL players. I will go to my grave as the ultimate Walter Mitty.
Your April Fool’s pranks are a legendary part of team history, but I believe your most inspired prank was drafting Taro Tsujimoto. Can you share how the Sabres came to select the 180 pound winger from Osaka, Japan in the 1974 NHL Draft?
I suggest you go to this link. It’s a neat story about many of my shenanigans, particularly Taro.
You had the opportunity to work firsthand with many of the most mythical figures in team history. I think fans would love to hear any stories or experiences you’d care to share on any or all the following players and coaches:
I think I could write a book about the Imlach I knew, a profane, crusty old hockey lifer with a big heart and a caring shoulder.
My favorite story is when he was told we’d play a Russian team for the third time, a decision made by SHK III and already passed onto the NHL Board of Governors. The Sabres had wiped two big time Soviet teams on tour in North America in the preceding years, and Imlach didn’t want do it again. “What do we have to prove,” or something like that, he said in a meeting in his office with SHK and yours truly. “The games just distract players from their regular season matchups and that is not what we need around here,” I recall that he said.
SHK said: “You’re playing the Soviets, and that’s an order."
Imlach said, “We’ll see about that.” Seymour huffed out of the office, red-faced and non-plussed.
Dave Forman, our administrative VP and consigliere with the City of Buffalo, told me what happened next. Seymour told me to make sure the building was set aside for us on the date the NHL had agreed to place the Russians in Buffalo on their tour. Dave went to Joe Figliola, who was manager of the Aud at the time, and requested the date for the Sabres. “Sorry, Dave,” Joe told him. “The Aud is already rented for that night.” Dave asked who rented it.
“George Imlach,” was Gigliola’s reply. It cost Imlach $25,000 to defy Seymour, but it worked.
Later that season Imlach was fired after a bad losing stretch. “I knew it was coming,” he told me. “But he made me so damned mad."
Sometimes maddening...But we departed friends. He was at a point during his coaching career that his paranoia overcame his good sense. He wouldn't give information to anyone in the media except Warner Hessler of the Courier. He wouldn't even give info to his boss, Punch, and that didn't go over well. Nor to me, and I was the PR guy.
He stuck up for his players in public.
Joe is a oddball. I have never been able to figure him out.
An enigma... and I've know him since he coached in Montreal. I have been trying to let me ghost a book on his career for eight years now, but he won't go for it. His is a very private man who spent his adult life in the public eye.
He is also the smartest hockey man I ever met.
In the early years in Buffalo he rubbed everyone in the office the wrong way, but in the past eight he became a friend of mine. (I had him down to speak at Bonas a few years ago, and he was terrific)
Scotty still runs the Blackhawks through his son Stanley, and he also tipped me years ago about a midget level player in Buffalo who'd become an NHL star and also a bit of a social menace. Patrick Kane is his name.
Scotty is very proud of what he's done in the game, but doesn't ever blow smoke about it.
The French Connection
Their name came from Lee Coppola, who worked with me in the press box, writing messages for our two-line board on the balcony fascia. Lee was a Buffalo News reporter at the time and invented the title one night when they first played together and scored a pretty goal.
I don't think I have ever seen any hockey line that played with such fluid composition. They seemed to read each other’s minds and the result was hockey poetry.
Tim Horton was the strongest man I ever met. He had few fights as his career progressed because he won quickly by bear-hugging his opponent.
He died behind the wheel of an exotic sports car-- the DeTomaso Pantera--that was his signing bonus for coming out of retirement to join the Sabres.
Horty was a great teammate and a mentor to Jim Schoenfeld. He could still play at 44.
Roger Crozier was a friend. We shared an interest in what was called hi-fi back then. I was a buff, and actually installed Roger's new equipment in his house one day. He was the reason I first had a chance to be a practice goalie because Punch wanted to give him days off after each of his starts. Roger suffered from pancreatitis, and was sicker than most people realized..
Later, after he was let go as GM by the Capitals, he became a successful executive with a giant credit card bank in Delaware. Smart and crafty, Roger did that without a high school diploma.
In your view, who are some of the unsung heroes of the Buffalo Sabres franchise— individuals who many fans might not know who were instrumental to the stabilization and growth of the franchise?
Everyone of the few who worked in off-ice operations the first three or four years. The league thought we'd fail and many of its governors reminded the Knoxes of that assertion regularly.
Our men and women busted hump to make the Sabres go and there was a great internal drive from all of them to be good. We were very proud when the team began to excel and constantly draw sellout crowds.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a certain level of spontaneity, fun, and even a little danger attached to attending games in the Aud. How would you compare the current fan experience on game nights to the early years of the team?
The game experience then was hockey first and foremost. We had no commercial PA announcements the first 10 years and few during the 25 years I was there. We tried to let fans enjoy each other's company at the games. They could talk to each other between whistles. PA man Milt Ellis was professional and never a cheerleader.
The crowd cheered on its own.
Today the the experience is vile. Constant noise...constant ad bombardment... constant promos...
I shudder when I go.
As we edge closer to Christmas and New Year’s, I’m reminded of the annual Open Practice the Sabres would host for fans during the holidays. Looking back, what are some of the community relations projects you worked on for the team that are closest to your heart?
The Open Practice was foolproof and fun. The players loved it because they fed off the kids enthusiasm. It was a great way to establish the Sabres in the affections of kids.
I wish it would return.
If you are interested in learning more about the early years of the Sabres franchise, or are looking for a last minute stocking stuffer for the Sabres fan in your life, DBTB highly recommends this book Paul wrote back in 2008: Then Perreault Said To Rico- The Greatest Buffalo Sabres Stories Ever Told