Monday, March 3, 2008

"They Died Old"--Vol. VI

"Awed At The Aud"

During my mighty “The Puck Stops Everywhere Tour” hockey road trip in late March, 1994, I was so looking forward to seeing the "Igloo" in Pittsburgh, along with the venerable Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and the Boston Garden for the first time, not to mention paying one last visit to Chicago Stadium, which was in its final season then.  But another venue managed to upstage all of them—Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.  What a terrific and unexpected surprise this place turned out to be!

Located just a short walk from Lake Erie and nestled in right next to an elevated expressway, “The Aud” opened in 1940, and as with most of the old-school hockey arenas, it hosted circuses, rodeos, concerts and other big civic gatherings in addition to sporting events.  It originally seated close to 13,000 people, but an early ‘70s expansion that literally raised the roof also raised the building’s capacity to over 18,000.  I felt right at home at The Aud, because its stone and concrete exterior looks very similar to Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, and its seating bowl layout bore a very strong resemblance to that of the old St. Louis Arena.

The sightlines there were outstanding for hockey, and I had the very good fortune to snag a killer center-ice seat in the second row of the upper balcony that gave the feeling of hovering over the action at the game I attended.  The fans there were friendly and very enthusiastic, and the atmosphere was electric throughout the game.  The Aud’s horn was busy that night as the Sabres won 6-3 over those dreaded Hartford Whalers, and it was even louder than Chicago Stadium’s famous goal celebration device.  Do not adjust your computer for this pic, btw--I snapped it using a diseased roll of film!

Memorial Auditorium also had a brief stint as an NBA arena when the Buffalo Braves were tenants there in the early ‘70s.  The Braves enjoyed an all-too-brief run of success with playoff runs featuring star players Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio and they had what I thought were some of the coolest uniforms in the NBA when their colors were orange and black until they switched to that wussy-looking powder blue crap.  Anyway, attendance dropped sharply by the late ‘70s and the franchise moved to San Diego in 1978 and they’re now the L.A. Flippers—er, sorry—Clippers.  The Aud also hosted numerous NCAA Tournament regionals during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and was the home of the Buffalo Stallions of the Major Indoor Soccer League in the early ‘80s and Buffalo Blizzard of the National Professional Soccer League in the early ‘90s.

But it’s hockey that The Aud is best known for, and it was home to minor league Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League for 30 years before the expansion Sabres joined the NHL in 1970.  The Sabres enjoyed success right away with their “French Connection” line of Gilbert Perrault (pronounced ‘per-ROW’), Rick Martin and Rene Robert (pronounced ‘ro-BEAR’).  They played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975 against the Philadelphia Flyers, with Game 3 forever known as the infamous “Fog Game”. The Aud had no air conditioning then, and warm temps. outside caused the ice surface area to fog up like a bathroom mirror during a hot shower, and visibility was very poor for the players, refs and fans.  The Sabres won the game on an overtime goal by Robert.  Meantime, Sabres center Jim Lorenz spotted a bat flying across the rink and killed it with his sticksounds like something right out of a Hitchcock film!  Philly won that series, btw, 4-2.

Other Sabres fan favorites included Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny, Dave Andreychuk and the late Tim Horton, among many others.  The Aud was also the scene of goalie Clint Malarchuk’s horrific injury in 1989 when his throat was slashed by a skate (see my post a couple weeks back about that), and the old building had one final hurrah in April, 1994 when it hosted a quadruple-OT 1-0 playoff thriller as Dave Hannan scored the game-winner over the New Jersey Devils @ 5:43 of the 4th OT, causing the Sabres’ manic TV/radio announcer Rick Jeanneret to orgasmically scream out his name, “Daaaaaaaaave Haaaannnnnnnan!”

The end was near for The Aud when I attended that game in ’94, but the fans in Buffalo were not all that crazy about the prospect of a new arena replacing it.  I clearly remember some of them booing lustily whenever the PA announcer did promos for the super-duper luxury suites at the new arena about to be built just a block away and also near the spiffy new minor league baseball park then known as Pilot Field.  The fans weren’t quite ready to leave their beloved arena, and I totally agreed—for its age, Memorial Auditorium was still in pretty good condition and quite serviceable.  I think they could’ve gotten another good ten years out of the place before a replacement was needed, but time marches on.  The new venue (originally dubbed Crossroads Arena) opened as Marine Midland Arena in 1996 (now known as HSBC Arena), and from what I've heard, it’s one of the better arenas in the NHL.  Still, I got a bit of a chuckle when the main scoreboard there crashed to the floor just two months after the place opened, which I took a sign from above that they should’ve stayed put at The Aud!

Unlike the other old venues I’ve profiled on the blog so far, Memorial Auditorium is still standing.  It’s been virtually unused since the Sabres moved down the street, and has basically been collecting dust for the past 12 years or so, but I hear that The Aud has a $10 million date with the wrecking ball later this year, although there actually was talk of turning The Aud into an oversized Bass Pro Shops outdoorsman emporium (ewww!).  It’s sad that major cities can’t find ways to convert old arenas and stadiums into something else—the Montreal Forum being a rare exception—but then again, it’s just as sad to watch old places like The Aud (and Detroit’s Tiger Stadium) just sit and rot for years, so I guess it’s inevitable that they tear it down.  Had I known what a cool place it was, I was would’ve visited The Aud sooner and more often—it was a very underrated arena, and a classic hockey venue.

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