Many broadcasters might be a little unnerved to be mistaken for a lifelong Buffalonian, but Brian Duff considers it the highest compliment a fan can pay him for his work as host of the Buffalo Sabres broadcasts on MSG. In Duff’s family, Sabres fandom wasn’t just a passing flirtation or a quick ride on a bandwagon, it was a birthright passed down from mother to son. Maybe that’s why his affection for the team and its fans clearly shows through in his work.
Recently, Duff was kind enough to take some time to reflect on growing up a Sabres fan in Leafs country, the circuitous route that brought him to Buffalo, and his favorite moments over the past five seasons.
You grew up in Whitby, Ontario just 35 miles away from Maple Leaf Gardens, yet you chose to be a fan of the Buffalo Sabres over the hometown Leafs. What led you to turn away from the Death Star up in Toronto and follow the Sabres instead?
My mom. That’s really the easiest way to answer this. She’d had enough of the Leafs after the dismantling of the ’67 Stanley Cup winning roster and followed Punch Imlach in his quest to build the Sabres.
I was in the womb during the team’s first season so I’m sure I felt the passion from her.
I’ve always been really close with my mom so it’s no surprise that the Sabres are still the topic we discuss the most to this day.
I’m guessing that your allegiance to the Sabres didn’t exactly endear you to your classmates in Whitby. How did it feel to be the only kid in your neighborhood who rooted for the Blue and Gold?
It felt pretty good because for a lot of those years the Sabres iced good teams. In fact I think it was 12 straight years where they had a better— if not much better — record than the Leafs. The only disappointment was the lack of playoff success but if I recall correctly, it was pretty easy to have bragging rights over those that cheered for an inferior opponent.
The larger amount of grief I got from my classmates came from my love of the USA, which really came to the fore in 1980. My friends could never quite understand me on that one. (Sidenote: I recently picked up a signed Mike Ramsey Miracle on Ice Jersey from Dave and Adam's, so my allegiances are still true!)
What are your earliest memories of following the team?
I think the earliest memories came from hockey cards and Saturday afternoon (usually from Boston) and evening telecasts on Channel 2 with Ted Darling, Pat Hannigan and Ed Kilgore. I’m sure I watched some with Rick Azar on Channel 7, but those memories aren’t as vivid. It was early to bed as a kid back in that era.
The first time I saw the Sabres in person was at Maple Leaf Gardens (probably around 79-81) and what I remember is the facial hair being so different on many of the guys compared to the hockey cards I had studied so diligently.
What led you to pursue a career in broadcasting? Are you one of those kids that imagined yourself hosting Hockey Night In Canada back when you were in kindergarten or is it closer to say you stumbled into the profession when you were older?
I honestly don’t know what led me into it.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in a household that seemingly always had sports on— on the radio or TV, and certainly in the car. I was always hearing great broadcasters (Dave Hodge and Ron MacLean to name just two) and hopefully absorbing some of their best traits. Like everyone else, I went to bed sneaking in as many minutes as I could of RJ on the radio. And even though I played plenty of sports, I never once thought I was good enough to have a career in it.
When push came to shove at the end of high school and decisions had to be made, I sought the advice of our high school guidance counselor to try and get me on some kind of path.
I remember laughing at the idea that my interests suggested I should pursue a career as a private investigator (I clearly watched too much Magnum P.I. and obviously liked asking a lot of questions!). Eventually I started applying to various colleges (two-year programs, as opposed to four-year Universities) and their Radio and Television programs. I was accepted at many but wanted to move out west so off to Mount Royal College in Calgary I went.
Why did you want you want to move out west?
Oh probably for juvenile reasons at that time— legal drinking age in Alberta was 18 and Electric Avenue was quite the scene in Calgary back then. I had gone through Calgary in the preceding year to visit a friend and that opened my eyes. I had also been a fan of the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos when I was really young so perhaps that was in the back of my mind.
But really, once you spend a second or two near the mountains I think your mind is made up. Couple that with the fact that I was spinning my wheels at the end of high school and I was probably just looking for a fresh start.
As it turns out, I’m convinced that my moving west is the only reason I am where I am today. I had no choice but to grow up and figure things out, given that I wasn’t in a position to drive home on a weekend any time things got tough.
The program itself at Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University) was everything I could have hoped for, and the professors we had did a terrific job preparing us for the real world, which in broadcasting isn’t always what it may appear to be.
I was surprised to learn that you’ve been a broadcaster for almost 25 years. If I asked you to identify some key figures that helped to shape your career, what are the first 2 or 3 faces that pop into your head?
It wouldn’t be fair to name just two or three. In college I had teachers like Mark Chikinda, Betty Rice, Bruce Elder and others who were just so helpful.
Brian Konrad was the first News Director that took a chance on me in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Brian had previously worked in Edmonton and eventually alerted me to a job opening up there where I got my first NHL exposure hosting the Oilers pre-game show on radio.
The man who hired me in Edmonton was Mike Goetze. He was an old school news person and a bit hard to read on the exterior. I was terrible in my interview with him for the job at CFCW radio but he saw right through my nerves and hired me anyway.
I worked for him for just less than a year when he passed away suddenly at age 50. In wake of his death, he and his family gave me the greatest compliment ever. His wife, who I did not know, called me to ask if I would be a pall bearer at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me how often Mike would speak of me when he was at home, and how he assumed I wouldn’t be long for Edmonton, that the brighter lights of Toronto would soon take me away.
There aren’t many weeks go by when I don’t think of him, especially when Spring Training is winding down. We just completed another night of the Mike Goetze Memorial Baseball Draft, still going more than two decades later. My name is on the trophy at least once, and I hope I made him proud.
When the station in Edmonton shifted formats I really had no choice but to move to Toronto where jobs were more plentiful.
The likes of John Melville, Nelson Millman and Scott Metcalfe at the Fan590 were huge. Allan Davis (now with WGR550) in Ottawa gave me an expanded role on the Senators broadcasts, and then John Shannon is probably the one most responsible for my last 16 years.
Formerly with Hockey Night in Canada, John hired me to be the main host on the start-up Leafs TV. And while I really didn’t want to work for the Leafs, the reps and the exposure that I gained from six years there took my career to a different level. Shannon and Gord Cutler helped get me to the NHL Network and that was huge because it came right as the network was launching in the US.
Before arriving in Buffalo, you worked in a number of NHL markets including Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto. On matters related to hockey, how does Buffalo compare to those other cities?
I find them all pretty similar, I mean hockey fans are hockey fans. The anomaly in that bunch is Toronto, but only because there are way more people.
At the end of the day, passionate hockey fans are going to be heard, whether it’s on talk radio or now on social media. I’ve always drawn a pretty straight connection between Edmonton and Buffalo, partially because of market size and climate but more so because of the good people in both cities. My only regret is that I didn’t get to spend more time in Edmonton.
A friend of mine once gave you an interesting compliment that I think helps to explain your popularity among Sabres fans. He said you seem like a guy who was born and raised here in Buffalo. Was moving here an easy transition to make or would it be more accurate to say you still feel like a Canadian living in an American city?
It couldn’t have been any easier for me. I was dropping u’s out of color, favor, and honor before I cashed my first paycheck!
And really, having grown up watching local news and listening largely to radio programming from Buffalo, it was just second nature.
Tell your friend that is absolutely my favorite compliment that I can get.
You’ve been very active in raising funds and awareness for a number of local charitable organizations, but I want to ask about one in particular. What led you to connect with the Alix Rice Peace Park Foundation? How close are you to breaking ground on the project?
When I was in the interviewing process with the Sabres in the summer of 2011, Alix’s passing was a tragic and significant story that got a lot of coverage in the local news. Seeing her picture in the paper and being a father of two young girls, it was just painful to comprehend. But that pain turned into something else entirely in May of 2012. I was sitting in the studio at NHL Network (with time winding down there before I transitioned full-time to Buffalo) and the results of the trial came across Twitter. I was stunned. My shift ended, I went out to the parking lot, and just sat in my car listening to Tom Bauerle on WBEN.
I eventually drove home, walked in the house, and tried to explain to my wife why I looked so shaken. “How can this family have to endure not only the loss of their only child, but the unfathomable result of the trial?”
So when I saw that Jon Fulcher was putting together a benefit concert for the family, I reached out to him and offered my help. Later that summer, four of us formed the Alix Rice Peace Park Foundation.
And now, nearly five years later as a board of five armed with a ton of volunteers, we are still fundraising and hope that we can break ground on the skatepark to be built at the Northtown Center this spring/summer.
Our push right now is towards area businesses and families to consider buying a memorial brick which will help us clear the last remaining financial hurdles so that the park can be viable for years to come. They can do so through a form on our website at AlixRice.com
My assumption is that there is quite a bit of stress and preparation involved in constructing a live sports broadcast. On an average Sabres game night, what does your work day look like?
I think the stress level and preparation has changed a lot over time. The preparation is always ongoing now. It’s in the palm of your hand, being updated in real time, so in some respects it comes to you, which has made it easier. Of course, misinformation also comes quickly so the key is making sure what’s right and going with it.
Working a game is so much different than my days of doing news updates or sports updates. Those days were much more frantic, with updates every 15, 20 or 30 minutes. Now you get to the rink around 9:30-10 and have all day to build the show. That doesn’t mean last minute changes don’t impact the show, but I think the craziness ends up in the production truck, and less with us on the set.
And like I tell everyone, it’s my dream job, so there isn’t too much stress, and there certainly aren’t many bad days at the office.
Speaking of stress, is it more difficult to work with Rob Ray or Brad May? I’m guessing that Ray is a huge diva…
Neither. Both are big softies. Now Rayzor will give you a ton of grief for no good reason, but once you realize what he’s up to, it’s easy to just roll with it.
Brad is still very Canadian, so he drops in a requisite number of “eh’s” each night and can’t help himself from being polite. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what he says because people are usually only paying attention to the size of his hands (compared to mine) or the style of his coat/shirt/tie/pocket square (again, compared to mine)
I’m not sure if this is unique to Buffalo, but those in the sports media around here strike me as especially combative with the teams they cover, with fans, and with each other. You’ve managed to stay above of the fray— to the best of my knowledge, you’ve never felt compelled to engage in a Twitter feud with someone. Why is that?
I certainly don’t think it’s unique to Buffalo. Social media ugliness knows no boundaries. But saying that I’m not necessarily endorsing the notion that Buffalo sports media is overly combative.
As for my personal dealings on Twitter, I realized quickly that very little good can come from these situations. So unless someone is confronting me with something that is 100 percent false, I typically don’t feel the need to engage. I wish it was a better place for meaningful discussion.
Sometimes I view myself as a guy who loves hockey in spite of the NHL. If you were appointed NHL Commissioner, what are the first three changes you’d make to the league?
Given that it’s in the news lately I would change the playoff format. It has to go back to 1-8 in the Conference in my opinion.
They have to - but they won’t - go a 3-2-1 point system which is the only way to reward a regulation win.
And to minimize the damage of offside challenges I would go with a vertical blueline. So as long as the skate is over the line, even if it’s not touching the line, that’s good for me.
And while we’re at it: allow gloved passes in the offensive zone, don’t allow icing on the penalty kill, and maybe only allow line changes on the fly - not after whistles.
You haven’t been witness to a playoff series yet in your time with the Sabres, but you have had a front row seat for a number of interesting storylines on the ice. What are your most memorable moments over the past five seasons?
The best individual performance I’ve witnessed was January 31st, 2013 when Thomas Vanek carried the Sabres to a 7-4 win in Boston. A hat trick and two assists, his third tally is still one of the best moves I’ve seen, on one of the best goalies in the game.
Three weeks later the Sabres fired Lindy Ruff.
I’ll never forget his post-game press conference on February 19, 2013 after a 2-1 home loss to Winnipeg. I usually take notes when listening to the coach speak after each game, but on this night I was frantically trying to transcribe everything Lindy was saying. It was as if he knew it was over, or that it was about to be over.
But of course no one in Buffalo ever believed it would be over!
Until the next afternoon when I was driving and listening to WGR 550, and in the middle of Schopp and Bulldog ranting about how this can’t possibly continue, they were told by their producer to check Twitter, and sure enough that’s when we all learned that Lindy Ruff had been fired.
It was such a weird feeling. Lindy’s replacement oversaw what social media dubbed "The Rolston Caterpillar" which still makes me laugh.
Honestly, there are always so many moments in a season it’s nearly impossible to narrow them down. Jack Eichel’s first goal at home. His four-point game in Boston. His three-point game last week vs. the Leafs.
But in all honesty, the opportunity to really get behind the scenes with the team and the players through our Beyond Blue and Gold episodes are likely the most rewarding times of all.
How would you assess the current state of the Sabres? Did you expect the team to be further along in its development than we’ve seen this season?
A work in progress is really all you can say. I expected more in terms of total points in the standings, but I did not have them as a lock for a playoff spot. I figured they would be in the 90-92 range and depending how the rest of the conference performed/improved, they were going to be in the mix.
Jack Eichel has exceeded my expectations this year which is a positive, but beyond that I’m not sure any others would fall into that category. Does that mean certain players didn’t develop? We won’t know that until next year.
We’re five games away from the conclusion of the 2016-17 season. How does the current mood of players and management compare to the final few games of last season?
Every non-playoff season should have players in the same mood— which is disappointed — and I don’t sense any difference this year than last year.
What are the biggest offseason storylines surrounding the Sabres that you’ll be following over the next 3-4 months?
I think the storylines are endless at virtually every position, so we shall see what changes occur leading up to the expansion draft, the draft, and through free agency.
I expect it to be newsworthy.
Who do you believe stands a better chance of hosting a championship victory parade in the next five years: the Buffalo Sabres or your beloved Houston Astros?
Twelve years ago I thought both were going to happen— Astros in ’05 World Series and the Sabres in ’05-06 Conference Final, but alas it did not.
Let’s call the chances even within the next five years and I’ll selfishly expect both!
Many thanks to Brian Duff for taking time out of a busy schedule to answer our questions. You can follow Brian on Twitter @duffersabres.
If you’re interested in making a monetary or in-kind contribution to the Alix Rice Peace Park, please go here
You can follow Tim Hirschbeck on Twitter @TimHirschbeck.