Old Team Tuesday: The Buffalo Majors

Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition is about the first pro hockey team to call the City of Buffalo home.

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With Canada just across the border, and winters expectedly cold and snowy, Buffalo seems like an ideal hockey town. In 1970, the city’s love for the game was rewarded when the National Hockey League awarded an expansion team to the Knox brothers, who established the Sabres. But when the league was looking for its start, it opted to set up its American clubs in cities that had much larger populations than Buffalo.

Because of this, Buffalo’s first representative in the world of professional hockey – the Buffalo Bisons – actually began playing across the border in Fort Erie, Ontario in 1928. Two short years later, the city got a team all for itself in the form of the Buffalo Buffaloes.

--- Trials and errors ---

Larry Welch, owner of the Buffalo Amusement Company, bought the rights to set up an American Hockey Association franchise in Buffalo. The AHA prided itself on playing a rough, physical game and the cities it set up shop in (e.g. Chicago, Duluth, Tulsa) reflected that. It also provided contrast to the type of hockey the nearby Bisons were known for.

Part of Welch’s vision included turning Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium into a venue suitable enough to hold hockey games. He also had a leg up on building a roster thanks in part to the fact he still held options to several players who had skated for St. Paul the season before.

Broadway Auditorium, pre-1941.

Despite a roster that was made up of nearly all Canadians, Welch renamed the team to the Buffalo Americans just before the start of the season. The club’s name change was accompanied by another one at the league level, as it became the American Hockey League for the 1930-31 season.

On November 7, 1930, Welch announced that the club had found its first head coach, George Seers. Seers had been involved in hockey for more than 25 years, and spent the 1929-30 season working as a scout.

Despite initial promises made to Welch from investors, funding for the installment of the rink and ice within Broadway Auditorium fell through, and while the team scrambled to scrape together the necessary monies, the season arrived, and the Americans were forced to play the entire first month on the road. In order to drum up excitement about Buffalo’s January homecoming, Welch changed the team’s identity yet again, this time to the Majors.

--- Home cooking ---

By the time Buffalo got to play in front of a home crowd, they were sitting in sixth place in the seven-team AHL. With the top three teams slated to move into the postseason, Buffalo needed to get on a hot streak that would put them back in contention for the championship.

On January 28, 1931, the Majors and Bisons hosted coinciding games for the first time, giving each club the chance to outdraw the other at the gate and show the fans in the stands their best product. In Fort Erie, the Bisons defeated the Cleveland Indians by a 2-0 count to increase their lead atop the International Hockey League to a seven-point margin over the Windsor Bulldogs. Meanwhile, the Majors took the Duluth Hornets to overtime before potting the winning goal and moving to 2-0 on home ice. The Majors also wound up outdrawing the Bisons 3,800 to 3,000.

Two nights later, the Majors opened up a two-game set with the St. Louis Flyers by beating them 5-1 at home. The win moved Buffalo into a tie for fifth place with the Minneapolis Millers. The next night, Buffalo took sole possession of fifth by sweeping the Flyers with a 4-1 win, while Minneapolis fell to the league-leading Tulsa Oilers 3-2 in overtime.

--- Booted for bowlers ---

Unfortunately for the Majors, the comforts of home were to be short-lived. The American Bowling Congress had signed an agreement with the Broadway Auditorium to host a major tournament beginning in February. After having lived as a barnstorming team for over a month to begin the season, Buffalo was once again left out in the cold. Eventually, it was announced that the squad would play the remainder of their home schedule at Peace Bridge Arena, the facility the Bisons called home.

The interior of Broadway Auditorium set up for bowling a competition.

With that, the “homeless waifs” as the Winnipeg Tribune would later call them, were out on another road swing. In Minneapolis, the club tagged the Millers for a goal just 12 seconds into the first period, a sparkling start to what would become a 5-1 victory for the Buffalo side on February 11. A 2-1 win in double-overtime over St. Louis the following evening pulled Buffalo to within two points of third place in the league. They managed their third win in three nights by defeating the Flyers again by a 4-2 score.

Buffalo’s win streak came to a halt upon arriving in Fort Erie. Going up against the Shamrocks, they dropped a 2-1 decision in overtime on February 19. The next night, however, they leveled the weekend series by topping Chicago 3-1 to keep their hot streak alive. Consecutive sweeps of the first-place Oilers and of Minneapolis put the Majors in a great position to compete for a spot in the playoffs.

Tied for fourth place with Chicago on March 12, Buffalo was still looking up at the Kansas City Pla-Mors and Duluth in the standings. An untimely loss to the last place Flyers came on March 16, just a couple weeks before the regular season was set to conclude. In a dogfight for their playoff lives, the third-place Majors blanked the Hornets 5-0 on the front-end of a back-to-back, but fell in the series finale 2-1.

Ultimately, the late-season inconsistency became Buffalo’s downfall, as Kansas City held them at bay and finished six points in front of the 25-17-4 Majors.

--- Major bummers ---

Prior to the 1931-32 season, the Millers of Minneapolis were folded, leaving Buffalo, Chicago, Duluth, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Tulsa as the six teams in the AHL.

On November 24, just two days before the official start of the season, AHL president William F. Grant announced that clubs would be allowed to expand their rosters from 12 to 15 players in an effort to prepare the league for expansion the following season. The move didn’t seem to help Buffalo much, as they were pummeled 8-0 in Chicago in the league’s opening game on Thanksgiving Day.

Hovering near the nadir of the AHL standings, off-ice proceedings for the Majors were looking equally grim. With Chicago being the closest city geographically at 538 miles away, and Tulsa more than double that, expenses were being incurred at astronomical rates for all the league’s teams, with Buffalo feeling the pinch most.

On December 15, the Majors hosted the Pla-Mors, and the two teams wound up delivering a classic. Scoreless entering the final period, Kansas City went ahead 1-0 one minute into the third, then staved off a Buffalo barrage when the Majors pulled the goalie and put a defenseman deep while five forwards circled the Kansas City defensive zone. Unfortunately, the Majors were unable to knot up the score, and the Pla-Mors escaped with the win.

While losses at the hands of Tulsa and Kansas City further added to Buffalo’s misery, the pitiful play of the St. Louis Flyers kept Buffalo from falling into last place in the AHL. That is until the Majors and Flyers met in a series right before the New Year in St. Louis. 

Branch Rickey (second from the right), then the Business Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, drops the puck in a ceremonial faceoff prior to the Majors-Flyers game on December 30, 1931.

The two teams would reverse positions by January 2, as St. Louis swept both games by a 4-0 aggregate. Through the season’s first 12 games, Buffalo had only managed three wins for six points.

Over the bridge, the Buffalo Bisons were one of several IHL teams outdrawing their regional competitors in other leagues despite the Great Depression wreaking havoc on the economy. In addition to their bountiful gate receipts, the Fort Erie-based club was once again in first place after finishing with the best regular-season record in the league the previous year.

--- Last gasps ---

Back at Broadway Auditorium, the physicality of AHL play was on display when the Majors hosted the Shamrocks on January 5, 1932. The two squads battled to a 1-1 tie with several fights breaking out on the ice as well as in the stands.

A sweep at the hands of the lowly Flyers was enough to force a coaching change, when John “Nip” Dwan was brought in after having coached Minneapolis the season before.  In his first games in charge, Dwan led the Majors to a 1-1 draw against the Shamrocks and to 2-0 and 4-1 home wins over the Oilers to sweep that series.

On January 14, reports broke that a group of Chicago businessmen had reached an agreement with Welch to buy the Majors franchise, though Welch would remain with the club as the team president.

On January 16, the team commenced a series in Chicago, their first visit to the Windy City since the disastrous opening weekend. The bad blood between the two hadn’t dissipated since the brawl in Buffalo, as three more fights broke out during a 3-0 Chicago triumph. The following evening, the Shamrocks repeated the feat by sticking the Majors with a second straight 3-0 defeat. Instead of fisticuffs, however, Chicago bested Buffalo on a single shorthanded shift, as they scored twice in a 37-second span with two men in the penalty box.

Ralph Rennie spent one of his 12 professional seasons with the Majors in 1931-32.

From Chicago, the Majors traveled up to Duluth to face the Hornets. They opened the series with a 4-0 victory, then returned to Chicago and rode a three-game winning streak into the series finale against the Shamrocks. A goaltending change from the Shamrocks put a stop to Buffalo’s successes, as they traveled to St. Louis following a 1-0 loss. Buffalo’s 7-13-2 record was still only good enough for last place in the circuit.

St. Louis had turned their season around, kickstarted by the sweep over Buffalo earlier in the season. By January 28, they had 13 wins and were two points out of first place. For their opener against the Majors, the Flyers trotted out Tony Cristello, “a goalie so small that the top of his baseball cap can barely be seen above the cage he defends.” Cristello held the Majors to a single goal in the contest, but Buffalo managed one of its own to ultimately tie St. Louis 1-1 in a game observed by more than 14,000 fans, the largest crowd in the six-year history of the AHL.

--- Lights out ---

The day after the draw against St. Louis, AHL and team executives met in Chicago to discuss the Buffalo situation. Poor attendance had left the club unable to pay its league dues as well as player salaries, which were estimated to be upwards of $12,000 at that point. After it was put to a vote, the Majors were shut down halfway through the 48-game season.

The rest of the games Buffalo was supposed to play in were filled by the other five teams in the league. All but two of the team’s players were made free agents, although the rest of the league’s owners were in no hurry to acquire any of the skaters, who were simply viewed as inadequate to the rest of the AHL.

An article in the Chicago Tribune was relentless with the jabs aimed at the Majors. [January 30, 1932]

The removal of the Majors shifted the outlook of the league for the season’s second half. The last place team in the AHL was now just six points behind the first place team. Instead of playing a relative doormat in Buffalo, the more competitive five-team body would now have additional points at stake against other potential playoff squads.

--- Life goes on ---

With Buffalo out of the picture, Tulsa and St. Louis became the league’s punching bags and missed the playoffs. Duluth defeated Kansas City in the first round, but Chicago took advantage of their bye by winning the championship series.

Meanwhile in Fort Erie, the Buffalo Bisons continued their strong play, accumulating a 25-14-9 regular-season record, tops in the IHL, and capturing their first league championship.

The following season, the league was whittled down to four teams, as Chicago and Tulsa left, but St. Paul was added to the mix. Unfortunately for both Minnesota clubs, they were unable to finish the second half of the season intact. Duluth relocated to Wichita for the year, finishing in last place. St. Paul returned AHL hockey to Tulsa, but ended the season in third. Kansas City won their second-ever title.

The Bisons experienced a slight dip in regular-season performance, finishing second overall to the London Tecumsehs, but went on to win their second title as well after a strong showing in the playoffs.

Unlike Memorial Auditorium that succeeded it, Broadway Auditorium still stands. Broadway Barns, as it is now known, stands at the corner of Broadway and Nash and is utilized by the City of Buffalo as a storage space and garage for snow plows.


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