Farewell grand old gal

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

BUFFALO -- It is a grey blustery December day on the frigid shores of Lake Erie and the Aud, the grand ol' lady of Western New York hockey, looks very much like a rotting building in need of being put out of its misery.

Inside, the longtime home of the Buffalo Sabres -- a place where 17,000 screaming hockey fans regularly used to gather -- now is a crumbling afterthought where rats congregate to frolic.

Outside, as part of the early stages of demolition, the outer shell of the upper walls already have been peeled, revealing a pattern of decaying beams and girders that have endured the building's 68-year history.

When Maple Leafs fans make their usual migration to Buffalo tonight to watch their heroes take on the Sabres, it might be the final time they'll get to see Memorial Auditorium, vacated by the Sabres in favour of the neighbouring HSBC Arena in the fall of 1996. Demolition work is scheduled to resume next month, with the building expected to be completely scuttled, according to Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn, by April or May.

When seats from the Aud recently were put up for sale on the Internet, they were gobbled up. Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who grew up in nearby Fort Erie watching his father Larry play in that arena for the AHL's Buffalo Bisons, revealed yesterday that he has a few of those prized keepsakes.

Was The Aud an institution or eyesore? Maybe it was both. But there is no doubt that, for those of us in the hockey fraternity, we will remember all the quirks, the nuances, the characters, that made The Aud so unique.

Like Porky Palmer.

Porky, a longtime Sabres employee, would situate himself behind the Zamboni door, near the net that the opposition would guard in the first and third periods. Whenever a puck would slide around the boards in that area, Palmer would kick the door, sending the rubber disc ricochetting right out into the slot in front of the unsuspecting visiting goalie.

Ex-goalie Greg Millen, for one, was burned that way.

"I remember one night, he did it and the Sabres ended up scoring," said Millen, who will be in Buffalo tonight serving as the analyst on the Leafs broadcast. "I was so livid, I slammed my stick against the glass right by his ear.

"They had enough of a home-ice advantage, with the rink being smaller than normal. But that was too much."

Then there was Earl Howze, another cool personality at the old barn.

Known as the Earl of Bud, Howze was a tuxedo-clad beer vendor who would put his supply of suds down during a break in the action and start break dancing when Pee Wee Herman's Tequila was played, much to the glee of the cheering throng in attendance. According to one report, Howze, a Buffalo firefighter who was on disability with bad knees, was forced to give up his schtick when the fire department threatened to stop his benefits if he didn't pull the plug on his vendor activities.

We will remember how the fans, as Millen recalled yesterday, were "almost on top of you." And how, when the Sabres would be racking up the goals, the crowd would mock the opposition with a collective count down. Or up, as the case may be.

If the Sabres scored six, the fans would chant: "One, two, three, four, five, six ... We want seven!"

Darryl Sittler recalled one night when his Leafs heard those calls far too many times.

"We got beat 14-4. The French Connection was all over us. I think Bunny Laroque was in net for us. At one point, the fans changed it to: "Two, four, six, eight ... We want 10," said Sittler, who now lives in the Buffalo area.

"It was embarrassing. I just wanted to get on the bus and go home."

We will remember the features of building itself.

Like the ear-throbbing horn that signified a home-team goal, joining the Chicago Stadium as the only NHL rinks to have one at the time.

Like the wafer-thin boards, something Sabres coach Lindy Ruff still misses.

"The best thing was, you didn't have to hit a guy hard and it still sounded like you crushed him," Ruff said yesterday. "You could hit a guy in the left corner and the glass would still be shaking all the way over on the right side of the rink."

And like the steep upper deck that really made you watch your step.

"When you sat up there as a kid, you would be scared," Buffalo News reporter Mike Harrington said.

We will remember the labyrinth of hallways and concourses that made The Aud a very easy place to get lost in.

"I remember after they refurbished the place, there were some hallways that didn't go anywhere. They just ended," Quinn said laughing.

It was a chaotic place, as yours truly found out first hand during one of his first working visits there. On this particular night, with esteemed colleague Lance Hornby alongside, we could not find our way out until we came across a security guard at the end of a dimly-lit ramp deep in the building's bowels.

Asked where we would have ended up had we continued our path, the guard replied: "You would have run into the dogs."

Dogs? Dogs! No thanks.

Of course, animal life was not confined to just rodents and canines.

During Game 3 of the 1975 Stanley Cup final against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sabres forward Jim Lorentz killed a flying bat by swatting it with his stick, one of the most memorable moments in the history of The Aud.

"No one wanted to pick it up," Lorentz, who was immediately nicknamed Batman, recalled years later. "Finally (Philly's) Rick MacLeish picked it up and buried it in the penalty box."

Porky. The Earl of Bud. And the bat.

Say what you will about The Aud, it was never boring.

Thanks for the memories, Ol' Girl.

We will remember.


Videos

Photos