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Start of hockey, new Bills Coach create sports buzz

By Tony Farina

New Buffalo Bills Head Coach Doug Marrone.
First Niagara Center will soon be hosting Buffalo Sabres hockey games again.

There’s lots of sports excitement in Western New York these days, mostly because the NHL is expected to begin play on an abbreviated 50-game season, possibly as early as Jan. 15, now that an agreement has been reached to end the 113-day lockout.

For Sabres’ fans on both sides of the border, Buffalo’s First Niagara Center will once again be the point of destination and for businesses that cater to those fans, like Pearl Street Grill, it is time to celebrate the return of hockey and the business that goes with it.

“We are clearly excited and very happy to have hockey back,” said Roy Bakos, a service manager at Pearl Street which rests in close proximity to the hockey arena and is a popular establishment for fans before and after home games.

Bakos called the agreement “great for the local economy and great for sports fans,” adding that Pearl Street ownership managed to survive the lockout without cutting staff through good planning and expansion activity, much like they did before labor feuding canceled the 2004-05 NHL season. This time they opened the Pan American Grill at the new Lafayette and a boutique and banquet hotel called the Webb Loft on Pearl Street.

With the games about to start again, Bakos said the 5 to 6 thousand Canadians who cross the bridges to see the Sabres will be coming back and that along with concert activity and Bandits’ home games, downtown will be bustling several nights a week, great news for the local economy.

But hockey isn’t the only exciting sports and business news these days as 94-year-old Ralph Wilson has passed the baton to Russ Brandon to lead the Bills, at least until they are sold, and bean counter Brandon’s first move was to hire a new coach to replace Chan Gailey after another disastrous season when the offensively anemic Bills finished 6 and 10 and missed the playoffs for the 13th straight year.

The new man on the sidelines for the Bills, Doug Marrone, probably came cheap (in true Bills’ fashion) because he is certainly not a well-known commodity beyond Syracuse University, his alma mater, where he coached the Orange for the last four years going 25 and 25, including two victories in the little-known Pinstripe Bowl. But Marrone’s record is better than it looks, considering Syracuse was 10 and 37 in the four years before he arrived.

Marrone does have seven years of experience in the NFL and was the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator under Sean Payton from 2006 to 2008, a period when the Saints led the league in yards in 2006 and 2008 and in completions in 2007. Of course, the Bills do not have anyone close to Drew Brees throwing the ball, and that will be Marrone’s biggest challenge.

But let’s try to be a little optimistic because at least Gailey’s gone and there is new leadership (if you call Brandon new) to criticize, a fun pastime around here for writers as the Bills have wallowed in futility for as long as many fans can remember. But we certainly hope that Marrone is the right guy, considering the Bills possibly could have had a proven NFL winner like Lovie Smith on the sidelines and opted instead for a coach from the Big East, not known as a big-time football conference.

Now Marrone is credited with turning around the Syracuse football program after coming in, finishing his latest season 8 – 5 including the bowl win over West Virginia. There is also talk he may want to draft his three-year starting quarterback at Syracuse, Ryan Nassib, a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy that goes to the nation’s top scholar-athlete (he didn’t win). Oh no, not another Ryan, as in Fitzpatrick, the current Bills’ signal caller who just isn’t first-tier talent?

But let’s see what happens.

The draft will just be Marrone and Brandon’s first challenge in trying to pick up the pieces of a broken team and a losing culture. There will be many more and the climb to respectability may well hinge on their ability to land a quarterback either through the draft or free agency. That will no doubt be the biggest challenge.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the scotch-tape upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium under the new lease agreement will keep facility going for a little while longer and that Brandon can shed the image of just a great marketer and do more than just make money with this franchise. How about putting a winner on the field, Russ, and then we’ll sing your praises. Until then, talk is cheap and fans around here are tired of the losing seasons and the wait-until-next year statements from the front office when playoffs begin and the Bills go home.

As for the Sabres, we won’t analyze the pluses and minuses of the new 10-year CBA here, although it appears the players may have given in on salaries to help their pension plans. That’s for the labor experts to examine. For the rest of us, the end of the lockout means the players will be getting back on the ice and that means a positive ripple effect for people who work in and around the game and for the economies of the cities that have an NHL franchise, like Buffalo.

Let’s hope the Sabres have a great year on the ice and the Bills find the key to bringing a winner to their longsuffering fans.



Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Jan 08 , 2013