Old Team Tuesday: The Buffalo Stampede
Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition is the first in a two-part series examining the history of professional roller hockey in Buffalo.
Looking to capitalize on the inline skating fad that was seemingly ubiquitous in the early 1990s, sports pioneer Dennis Murphy ventured into virtually unchartered territory when he established Roller Hockey International in 1991. Unlike his previous forays with the American Basketball Association or World Hockey Association, there was no established league to contend with in the sport, and unlike his other former project, World Team Tennis, there was no professional organization of any kind related to roller hockey.
Roller Hockey International made its debut in the spring of 1993, placing 12 franchises in cities all over North America. After the Anaheim Bullfrogs defeated the Oakland Skates to win the inaugural Murphy Cup on August 7, the league announced plans for a major expansion effort, doubling the amount of teams and inflating the season schedule to 22 games. Of the 24 teams now slated to compete in the 1994 season, 16 would now be in markets served by NHL teams. One of the new entrants was the Buffalo Stampede.
As summer co-tenants of the Buffalo Sabres at Memorial Auditorium, the Stampede would play on a plastic Sport Court surface that filled the same space inside the boards as the ice that was set down in the winter months. They were assigned to the newly-created Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. Their division rivals included the Florida Hammerheads, Montreal Roadrunners, New Jersey Rockin Rollers, Philadephia Bulldogs, and Tampa Bay Tritons.
In a league meant to fill the summer void with an ice hockey alternative, it was no surprise that RHI attracted pro hockey talent of all kinds. From young ECHL players to seasoned NHL veterans, rosters were peppered with an assortment of players looking to stay sharp in the offseason. Players of that type that joined the Stampede included Jason Cirone, who had spent the 1993-94 season with the Cincinnati Cyclones, Nick Vitucci of the Toledo Storm and a one-time Sabres training camp hopeful, and Mark Major from the Providence Bruins. Behind the bench, the Stampede were led by Chris McSorley, brother of famed NHLer Marty McSorley. McSorley was at the helm when the Bullfrogs won the championship in the previous season, and was looking for similar success further east.
--- High, fast, and hard ---
Compared to the NHL, RHI promised to be a game with more scoring and played at a quicker pace, and the league's slogan "Hell on Wheels" reflected that ideal. For four 12-minute quarters, only four skaters were permitted on the court at full strength, plus the goalie. This more open style of play meant teams had to balance finesse and scoring ability with physicality to neutralize opposing offenses, so when McSorley set out to assemble his team, he followed a similar model to the one he perfected in Anaheim.
By opening night, the squad had come together and learned how to adapt to the game on wheels, as nearly all of Buffalo’s players were new to the concept of inline skating when the team held its first practice in late May. On June 17, 1994, the Stampede took to the floor for their first regular-season game against the Montreal Roadrunners. A crowd of 7,139 took their seats in Memorial Auditorium to witness the team claim a 9-8 victory thanks to two-goal performances by John Vecchiarelli and Fred Carroll. During the course of the game, both teams were called for a combined 120 penalty minutes, including fighting majors to Buffalo’s Len Soccio and Montreal’s Guy Rouleau. RHI explicitly banned fighting in games, meaning both players were subject to possible suspensions.
Buffalo went on to beat the New England Stingers, New Jersey, and Tampa Bay to get off to a 4-0 start before the Florida Hammerheads handed them their first defeat at Miami Arena on June 26. A second consecutive defeat – this time in a shootout – to the Pittsburgh Phantoms ensured that the Steel City squad would remain RHI’s last undefeated team.
A second meeting with the Rockin Rollers at home put the Stampede back on track, as Vitucci backstopped Buffalo to a 7-6 shootout win by stopping 43 saves in regulation and four more in the shootout to push Buffalo into first place in the Atlantic Division with a 5-1-1 record and 11 points.
A 6-4 loss to the Roadrunners at the Forum vaulted Montreal into first place. If the teams thought things couldn’t escalate any further than their previous outing, they were proven wrong by game’s end. After 28 total penalties and three ejections, a rivalry destined to only grow bitterer was cemented after just two all-time meetings.
--- Rivalry redux, redux ---
The two teams met again less than a week later, with first place on the line once more. This time, however, Buffalo sent Roadrunners’ fans home disappointed after the Stampede used eight different goal scorers to nab an 8-5 decision on the road. Jason Cirone, Dave Lemay, John Hendry, Chris Bergeron, and Jay Neal all hit the scoresheet in the fourth period to clinch the victory.
After a third straight win, 11-6 over the Tritons, the Roadrunners returned to Buffalo to take on the Stampede for the third time in four games. With Montreal trailing in the standings by a single point, the two squads would once again be jockeying for prime position in the division standings.
The 6,229 spectators in attendance that evening were witness to another tightly-contested affair. Though not as physical as any of the previous matchups, both offenses kept each other close, but it was the defensive effort from Buffalo and a 24-save effort from Vitucci kept Montreal at bay and increased their hold on the division to three points.
By this point in the season, Buffalo had established itself as a team that could beat opponents physically as well as on the scoreboard. Despite racking up over 400 penalty minutes just halfway through the season, Buffalo’s penchant for penalties wasn’t affecting their win-loss count adversely. Buffalo came into a July 23 showdown against the Bulldogs sporting a 9-2-2 mark, and was undefeated in four contests at Memorial Auditorium.
Although they lost that contest to Philadelphia, Buffalo strung together back-to-back wins at the expense of the Atlanta Fire Ants and New Jersey, and won four of their final five outings to clinch the Atlantic Division title. Vecchiareli closed out the regular season with a hat trick against the St. Louis Vipers and a five-goal showing against Philadelphia.
--- Friendly foes ---
Holding a 15-3-4 record, the East’s second seed drew the Rockin Rollers in the opening round of the RHI playoffs. The series was a two-game set, with the first game at the arena of the lower seed. If the series was level after the two games, a 12-minute mini-game would be played immediately following the second contest.
In the Meadowlands, 5,431 fans saw the Stampede take a 1-0 series back to Buffalo after rolling to a 9-6 win. Each of Buffalo’s goals was scored by a different skater, and goaltender Nick Vitucci was 34-of-40 on save attempts. Back at Memorial Auditorium, the Stampede dispatched the Rockin Rollers with a 12-10 win that nearly wasn’t, following a major penalty that allowed New Jersey to score five goals and claw their way back to a one-goal deficit late in the second half.
--- Rivalry redux, redux, redux ---
Buffalo’s opponent in the second round was none other than their familiar foes, the Montreal Roadrunners. Game One at the Forum was decided after regulation, with the score even at six apiece. Hendry and Bergeron potted goals in the shootout to give the Stampede a 7-6 win and send the series back to Buffalo up 1-0.
5,045 came through the Memorial Auditorium turnstiles for the series’ second game, and 5,045 left having witnessed one of the wildest events the building ever played host to.
Tied 1-1 coming out of halftime, Buffalo jumped out to a 3-1 lead just six minutes into the third quarter. After the second goal of the half, Montreal’s Corrado Micalef was assessed a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Mike Butters was handed a game misconduct and was ejected from the contest. Furious with the call, Butters proceeded to whip his stick across the court, ripped off his jersey and pads, threw one of the nets onto the playing surface, then hurled a chair onto the floor from the tunnel.
Following the meltdown, officials awarded a penalty shot, and upon receiving the news, Roadrunners’ head coach Yvon Cournoyer chucked a water bottle across the court, earning himself an early return to the locker room as well.
Buffalo was unsuccessful on the penalty shot, and Montreal halved the deficit by the end of the third, but a five-goal outburst from the Stampede extinguished any motivation remaining on the Roadrunner bench. With the final score reading 8-2, Buffalo was headed to the conference finals.
After sweeping their first two postseason opponents, the Minnesota Arctic Blast came into Buffalo for Game One having earned three more points in the regular season than the Stampede, giving them home-court advantage for the conference finals.
--- Pushback ---
In front of a smaller crowd of 4,184, the Arctic Blast staved off a furious Stampede rally at the buzzer to take the game into a shootout, which saw the visitors exit victorious after three successful shots on five attempts. Buffalo nearly lost the game 7-6 in regulation, but a goal from Vecchiarelli with 18 seconds to spare gave the Stampede new life. They continued to pour on pressure and managed to put the puck past Minnesota goalie Bill Pye again, but officials waved off the goal, claiming the horn had sounded just before it crossed the line.
Facing elimination for the first time ever, Buffalo traveled to the Target Center hoping to turn the series on its head in front of a national audience on ESPN2. They did just that, as an offensive barrage kept Minnesota buried in their own zone for nearly the entire first half. Vitucci was perfect between the pipes for the first two quarters, allowing the Stampede to take a 7-0 lead by halftime. In the second half, the Arctic Blast narrowed the gap with two goals in the opening two minutes, but 80 seconds later, Vecchiarelli notched a hat trick that kept Minnesota at arm’s length for the remainder of the contest, which Buffalo wound up winning, 11-6.
The road victory by Buffalo knotted the series at one, meaning a mini-game would be needed to determine the Eastern Conference’s representative at the Murphy Cup. Buffalo continued to take penalties and played the majority of the 12-minute mini-game shorthanded, but took full advantage of an imbalanced Minnesota attack to strike for three shorthanded goals on their way to a 5-1 win. Vecchiarelli’s final stats included seven goals and three assists between the two games.
--- Closest to the Cup ---
Having made it so deep into the playoffs, both Buffalo and their Murphy Cup opponent – the Portland Rage – were subject to major fatigue. The grueling nature of the postseason schedule crammed the final three series into a span of 14 days. The week leading up to the finals saw Buffalo clinch on Monday, July 30 while Portland opened their series against Anaheim that same night and punched their ticket the following evening. Both teams met in Portland on Wednesday, August 1 for the series opener, and were scheduled to conclude RHI’s second season with the decisive game in Buffalo that Friday.
For their first trip out west, Buffalo didn’t look nearly as jet-lagged as the beleaguered Rage. Vecchiarelli opened the scoring by netting himself a natural hat trick to give the Stampede a 3-0 lead. The two squads traded tallies for much of the way thereafter, and the score stood at 9-8 Buffalo entering the final minute of play. With 48 seconds to go, Vecchiarelli iced the game by registering his seventh goal of the night. Vecchiarelli had been a menace to Portland all evening, as he was involved in every goal to that point, the second straight game night he finished with 10 points. An empty netter that made it 11-8 with 19 seconds left was the only score he didn’t have a hand in.
After traveling to Buffalo and a day’s respite, both teams took to the Memorial Auditorium court on August 3. The day off seemed to serve the Rage well, as Gerry St. Cyr put the road team up just 45 seconds after puck drop. Another goal from Sergei Stas doubled the lead, and by the end of the first period, Buffalo had dug itself a 4-0 hole.
The second period didn’t provide the league-record 14,175 fans in attendance with much more to cheer about, as a Stampede power play goal was nullified by two more goals from the Portland side. By the end of the half, the Rage held a 6-3 lead and had looked like the better team for the first 24 minutes.
Bergeron pulled the home team to within two on an odd-man rush early in the third quarter, and Buffalo held its own when they were whistled for a five-minute major that only saw two goals go in, one for the Rage and one for the Stampede.
Trailing 7-6 with less than six minutes to play, Buffalo took advantage of a Portland penalty and burned 1:54 of the power play before leveling the score at seven with 3:25 left. Buffalo’s second-half blitz was not over yet, as Neal flung a pass in front of the net that Hendry buried for an 8-7 lead. With 20 seconds all that separated the Stampede from the Murphy Cup, Portland pulled the goalie and won a faceoff deep in Buffalo territory, but Vitucci and the defense survived a mad scramble in front of the net that saw Portland’s last-ditch effort sail over the crossbar.
With that, the horn sounded, “We Are the Champions” blared from the speakers, and captain Alex Hicks took the trophy from Commissioner Ralph Backstrom, then passed it along to each of his teammates. After a postseason that produced 23 goals and 17 assists, Vecchiarelli was given playoff MVP honors. Head coach Chris McSorley, meanwhile, took home his second consecutive RHI championship.
Reflecting on their successful inaugural season, management brought in 99,921 total spectators over 11 regular-season and four playoff games. Averaging 6,329 fans in the regular season allowed the team to break even.
--- If it ain't broke, try not to break it ---
The team underwent some personnel changes as the 1995 season approached. McSorley was hired by the International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder, meaning he could not return to coach the team. That task was passed off to Vecchiarelli, who assumed coaching duties in addition to his responsibilities as a forward. He would be aided by Buffalo Sabre Rob Ray, who signed on to become the team’s bench coach for home games.
McSorley’s departure also left a hole in the front office, so Dan Wilkins was hired to fill the role of general manager.
Adjustments were made to RHI as a whole in the offseason, as six teams, including the Portland Rage, all folded. The Minnesota Arctic Blast suspended operations, and three teams relocated. Two new teams were brought into the fold, with Detroit being represented by the Motor City Mustangs, and the Twin Cities welcoming a new franchise named the Minnesota Blue Ox. With the changes came a new alignment shift, and Buffalo was removed from the Atlantic and put into the Eastern Conference’s Central Division alongside the Chicago Cheetahs, Mustangs, Blue Ox, and St. Louis Vipers. The league also announced that the regular season would be increased from 22 to 24 games.
Though Vecchiarelli, the leading scorer from the year before, was still in the mix, the next three most productive scorers from 1994 – Chris Bergeron, Alex Hicks, and Jason Cirone – all parted ways with the Stampede, meaning scoring would be at a premium unless the team’s new acquisitions stepped up.
--- What fresh hell is this ---
June 2, 1995 was the date of the team’s regular-season opener against the New Jersey Rockin Rollers. Though the Stampede had made a regular habit of playing (and beating) the East Rutherford-based club the season prior, New Jersey had reloaded its roster by signing three of the top four scorers from Portland’s old club. With the Rockin Rollers looking to defeat Buffalo for the first time ever and the Portland alums out for championship redemption, Buffalo was stifled on the road, falling 9-5 in front of 7,623 attendees. A hat trick from newbie Claude Morin was one of the lone bright spots for the overwhelmed Stampede.
Three nights later, both teams headed west for a rematch at Memorial Auditorium. After a banner raising ceremony memorialized the team’s Eastern Conference win and Murphy Cup triumph, both teams were hard-pressed for goals until Buffalo finally broke the scoreless deadlock after more than five minutes had elapsed in the first quarter. The Stampede built their lead to 5-2 midway through the third, but Pat Mazzoli kept a clean scoresheet from that point on, and New Jersey rode a four-goal wave to a 6-5 victory to drop the defending champs to 0-2.
In their next game, Buffalo welcomed their old foes from Montreal to the Aud. A sparse crowd of 2,902 was treated to another entertaining chapter in the Stampede-Roadrunners rivalry. Buffalo managed to tag the visitors for three goals in a span of 12 seconds midway through the second quarter, propelling themselves to their first win of the young season. Montreal, meanwhile, was held winless at 0-2.
After alternating losses and wins with Motor City and the Philadelphia Bulldogs, Buffalo was in a quandary when deciding who to start in net. Nick Vitucci had backstopped the Stampede to the title the previous season, and was on the court for all but 16 minutes over the course of the regular season. But Scott Humphrey, acquired from St. Louis in the offseason, had proved to be more than capable in his own right, and was the only goaltender to register wins for the 2-3 Buffalo team.
In the sixth game of the season, Vecchiarelli and Ray opted to go with the hot hand, Humphrey, who held a goals-against average of 5.00, compared to his counterpart’s 8.06. Humphrey, however, let three of the first six shots offered to him from the Orlando Rollergators slip past, and he was yanked from the game just 5:30 in. Despite pouring 57 shots on net, Buffalo never recovered, and succumbed to a 10-8 loss in front of just 1,300 home fans.
--- Rout for blood ---
The crowd rebounded somewhat for the final game of the club’s six-game homestand. More than 4,000 wound up witnessing Buffalo’s most prolific win in terms of scoring, but it came at a cost.
The Cheetahs came into town unbeaten, but struggled to keep Buffalo in check, and were trailing 7-4 in the third quarter when the Chicago bench turned into an actual crime scene during the course of play.
Chicago’s Michael Martens cross-checked Buffalo’s Jaime Hicks into the boards of the visiting side’s bench. Seemingly unprovoked, Cheetahs trainer Phil Kopinski then proceeded to take hold of Hicks’ head and smash it into the boards, following it with a vicious uppercut.
Hicks was immediately transported to Millard Filmore Hospital and treated for a concussion and several broken teeth. Chicago was assessed a bench minor and officials sent Kopinski back into the locker room. Dan Wilkins then placed a call to the Buffalo Police Department, who arrested Kopinski after he was charged with assault.
After play resumed, Buffalo used the remaining 16-plus minutes to register another seven goals to put the first blemish on the Cheetah’s win-loss count. The Stampede put up 64 shots on net and their 14 goals set a new club record. Each of the 13 Buffalo players that saw action registered at least one point, while Vitucci had a big night in goal to earn his first win of the season.
--- Life imitates sport ---
Out on the road, Buffalo fell to the Rollergators and Blue Ox to fall to 1-2 in the Central Division and 3-6 overall. Orlando’s win upped their record to 2-5 as they opened their home slate 1-0. Minnesota used eight straight scores to make a 2-0 deficit an 8-2 advantage, a lead they would not relinquish in a 10-7 victory.
While the Stampede struggled with bad luck on the court, the team’s next game – scheduled for June 30 against the St. Louis Vipers in Buffalo – was postponed. Mark Sander, the principal owner of the club, had filed for bankruptcy in California, casting a huge shadow over the future of the franchise. Instead of preparing for the game that day, Wilkins was scrambling to find the people and resources that would be able to keep the Stampede afloat.
Another game – what would have been a rematch against Chicago – was also postponed while the ownership situation was still being sorted out. On July 5, RHI had come to a conclusion that the debts owed by Sander were too much to overcome, especially without a new ownership group in place. They sent out a press release stating that the Stampede would not finish the season while the team was practicing in Buffalo. However, a spokesman for the Stampede announced they were still in talks with the league. By 9 p.m., the team’s fortunes had reversed, and it was announced that Wilkins, Vecchiarelli, and Buffalo tax preparer Vincent Mangione had bought the franchise. A few days later, a fourth investor was added to the ownership count.
--- Lou's no loser ---
Following the fallout from Sander’s bankruptcy proceedings, Buffalo lost its first game back but won its second, the latter in Aldrich Arena against Minnesota for their first win away from Memorial Auditorium all season. 10-year NHL veteran and one-time Buffalo Sabre Lou Franceschetti provided an assist in his team debut.
Franceschetti’s arrival sparked the team to a three-game winning streak that put the team just four points behind first-place St. Louis in the division race. A subsequent loss to the Mustangs in Detroit didn’t seem hamper their winning ways much, as they rebounded to roll over the Cheetahs with a 7-4 win.
The road trip swung east afterward, but with the change of direction came a change of luck. At the CoreStates Spectrum in Philadelphia, Buffalo was pummeled by the Bulldogs 12-4, their worst goal total in franchise history. The following night, Buffalo rewrote its own record books yet again, as they suffered an agonizing 8-2 defeat to the Montreal Roadrunners at the Forum. In the two losses, Buffalo was outshot by a combined 117-58 margin.
--- Dogfighting ---
Just four points out of first place less than two weeks prior, Buffalo was now in an uphill battle to even vie for a playoff spot. After returning home, Buffalo topped Chicago 11-8 to sit just one point back of fourth-place Motor City. A second straight win over St. Louis put Buffalo in prime position to set itself up for a playoff berth with a road match against the Mustangs looming.
At Cobo Arena, Buffalo met an equally desperate Motor City squad with a potential playoff spot on the line. The Mustangs, Blue Ox, Cheetahs, and Stampede all sat within two games of each other, knowing one of the teams would be the lone Central Division member left out of the postseason.
Buffalo’s offense continued to recede on the road, but Nick Vitucci kept the Stampede close by holding Motor City to four goals in regulation. It was still nearly enough to cost the visitors a much-needed win, but Rick Corriveau managed to score with two minutes remaining to force a shootout. In the shootout, John Hendry and Corriveau each put pucks past Daniel Berthiaume, and Buffalo escaped with both points. The other divisional game of note that night, Chicago-Minnesota, ended with the Cheetahs on the losing end. That put Minnesota and Motor City in a tie for second with 22 points, while Chicago and Buffalo were neck-and-neck with 20 points each.
The final three games of the regular season all came against division opponents, and the next two would be perhaps the most meaningful. Buffalo was slated to have a home-and-home against St. Louis to close out the schedule, but their postponed game from the ownership saga fell through, costing them a chance to claim two highly valuable points.
With the Blue Ox in town and two points ahead of the Stampede, Buffalo was looking to come out on top to put itself in the thick of the playoff positioning. Instead, they delivered yet another dud. Although Buffalo appeared to score early, the referees waved off the goal, killing any momentum the Stampede had in the process. They coasted their way through the rest of the game, which they lost 8-3 and lifted Minnesota into second place in the Central.
Elsewhere, the Mustangs secured their spot in the playoffs by virtue of the poor play both the Cheetahs and Stampede were exhibiting. In Chicago, the Stampede finally let the Cheetahs get the best of them at the most inopportune time. The home team raced out to a 4-0 first quarter lead, held the same margin at halftime, and waltzed the rest of the way to an 11-5 victory that put both teams on the brink. For Chicago, the win staved off elimination, as a Buffalo win would have put the kibosh on the Cheetahs playoff aspirations. For Buffalo, they now needed to visit division champion St. Louis and win while also hoping the Cheetahs lost in Detroit on the season’s final day.
--- Last call ---
John Vecchiarelli opened the scoring against the Vipers by notching his 31st goal of the season. 12 minutes into the game, Buffalo maintained a 1-0 advantage. In the second quarter, St. Louis responded with a couple of goals that put them ahead, but Mark Major pulled the Stampede by scoring with under a minute left before the half. In the third, the Vipers struck for two quick goals to retake the lead, but Jay Neal made it 4-3 soon thereafter. Unfortunately, that was all the offense Buffalo would produce, and St. Louis put the game on ice with an insurance goal before the end of the frame. Buffalo’s season ended with a thud, and allowed Chicago to sneak into the playoffs despite their own loss to Detroit that same night.
--- Reflections in a shattered mirror ---
The drop in performance led to a drop in attendance, and the team failed to break even as they had done the previous season. With half of Buffalo’s home games played on weeknights before schools were out for the summer, the family atmosphere the team was looking to cultivate could not be created.
The bankruptcy filings and loss of home games also hurt the team’s bottom line. Prior to the 1996 season, the team’s four owners met to discuss the future of the franchise. They ultimately decided to pull the plug. The once-bright future of the summertime sport in Buffalo was seemingly extinguished thanks to a litany of extenuating circumstances.
--- To be continued ---