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Brock Yates
January 20, 1969
Rejected by major league baseball and hockey, terrified that its Bills might blow, grubby, sports-loving Buffalo nourishes a flame of hope
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January 20, 1969

Warts, Love And Dreams In Buffalo

Rejected by major league baseball and hockey, terrified that its Bills might blow, grubby, sports-loving Buffalo nourishes a flame of hope

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Nevertheless, the fever for big-league status has reached epidemic proportions in Buffalo, and the repeated rejections by the national sports establishment have had a depressing effect on the city's psyche. Claiming a population within a 25-to 50-mile radius exceeding both Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston, Buffalonians cannot fathom why presumably profit-motivated businessmen are not interested in mining some of the wealth that exists in an area ranking 17th nationally in effective buying power.

While sports supporters promise untold riches for the first baseball or hockey team to arrive in town, they admit that Buffalo is blighted by three compelling, if inaccurate, prejudices: 1) that the city will not support a loser, 2) that Buffalo has two seasons, winter and the Fourth of July, and 3) that Buffalo is the national capital of "bush."

Although part of the populace seems to find some obscure, masochistic satisfaction in demeaning their city (Dickey remarked in his column, "This is a town that seems to take pride in its ugliness"), a group of wealthy civic leaders has launched an ambitious enterprise to bring major league sports to Buffalo and at the same time to dispel the feeling that the place is a subarctic slum. The leaders of the group are a pair of brothers in the blue-blooded Knox family, a landed clan representing the elite Eastern establishment, which has made an indelible impression on Buffalo's philanthropic and social life. They are Seymour H. Knox III, suave and lean, and his younger brother Northrup (Norty), a balding, bright-eyed athlete with impeccable credentials in polo, squash and court tennis. He is the court tennis world champion and a former captain of the U.S. polo team.

The Knox brothers, looking as if they had been conjured up by John O'Hara, recently sat at a quiet lunch in Buffalo's elegant Saturn Club and reflected on the adventures that had taken them from the cloistered competition carried on at gentlemen's clubs and polo fields and into the crass world of big-league sport. Outside, the traffic whispered along stylish, rainswept Delaware Avenue, and for a moment the other Buffalo, the Buffalo of the corner saloons and the steel mills, seemed light-years away.

"I played hockey at Yale and have always loved the sport," said Norty, "although Seymour broke his leg at prep school and didn't play in college. His sport is squash. But like myself he has always felt that there was a tremendous potential for major league hockey in Buffalo."

"We heard that the National Hockey League was going to expand in September of 1965," said Seymour, "and, after Norty and I had discussed it for awhile, we realized that we knew many of the key people in the NHL. We gathered up the necessary support and made formal application for a franchise a month later."

With the Knox brothers carrying the puck, Buffalo was playing from great strength. Representatives of the family that helped found the world-famous Al-bright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo—a citadel of contemporary painting and sculpture—they marshaled supporters willing to spend as much as $3 million on Buffalo hockey plus some persuasive demographics to buttress their request: Buffalo's television market ranks in the top 15 in the United States, and, when the hockey-mad province of Ontario, lying just across the Niagara River, is taken into consideration, the population within 75 miles is 5.5 million people. This Canadian factor was particularly important, the Knoxes felt, because the Toronto Maple Leafs have played to full houses from sometime shortly after Henry Hudson discovered his bay.

Along with this strong market prospectus the city of Buffalo promised a refurbishing of the Memorial Auditorium that would increase its seating capacity to 16,080. It looked great, all bound up in a slick-paper brochure published expressly for the NHL bosses, and Buffalonians permitted themselves a moment of optimism.

What no one realized was that powerful opposition was being arrayed against Buffalo. The Knoxes are much too gentlemanly to point fingers, but less prudent partisans of the cause lay the blame for Buffalo's failure at the feet of the late Jim Norris, the paterfamilias of big-league hockey until his death, plus the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Norris, they say, was against Buffalo from the start, having developed a dislike for the city when he encountered business troubles with some grain elevators there and because of his opinions about its "bush" status. Furthermore, Norris also owned the Arena in St. Louis, a city that awoke one morning in February 1966 to discover that it had been granted an NHL franchise, despite the fact that no one in town had bothered to apply for it. It is that franchise the Knox group feels Buffalo deserved. However, Norris' interest in placing it in St. Louis—added to the Toronto owners' fear of Buffalo's three powerful television stations—apparently was decisive. Exit Buffalo from consideration by the National Hockey League.

In spite of this rebuff the Knox brothers remain convinced that major league hockey will come to Buffalo. "Buffalo is simply too strong a market for the NHL to ignore," says Seymour Knox. "When the next chance comes up, we will make another application, and this time the situation will be different."

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