Old Team Tuesday: The Buffalo Wings
Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. After a two-week hiatus, we return this week to close out a two-part series examining the history of professional roller hockey in Buffalo.
After financial ruin laid waste to the Buffalo Stampede during the 1995 RHI season, Buffalo was left without a professional roller hockey team. The absence of a team meant Memorial Auditorium would close its doors for good in the spring, rather than in late summer when the roller hockey season would come to a close.
Instability in pro roller hockey continued to be a problem, with teams folding and relocating at a frenetic pace. After playing for two years in Phoenix, the Cobras relocated to Glens Falls, New York for the 1996 season. The move failed to turn around the fortunes of the franchise, so they uprooted themselves yet again and signed a one-year agreement to play at the new Marine Midland Arena in downtown Buffalo.
Despite a new name that had a local flavor – the Buffalo Wings – the team remained relatively intact from the previous season, as 20 players from the Atlantic Division championship campaign were retained on the protected list. Included on the roster were former Buffalo Stampede goaltender Nick Vitucci and Riverside native Kenny Corp.
--- Welcome back, Rockers ---
The official revival of the RHI in Buffalo came on June 5, 1997, when the Wings welcomed an old friend, John Vecchiarelli, and an old foe, the New Jersey Rockin Rollers, back to Buffalo for the first time since the Stampede days. Much to the chagrin of the home crowd, Vecchiarelli continued to display the scoring prowess he became known for in Buffalo, as he and the Rockin Rollers spoiled the homecoming by beating the Wings 9-4.
Buffalo dropped their second game to another civic rival, the Montreal Roadrunners, and fell to 0-3 thanks to another defeat to New Jersey, this time by a 7-4 score. Buffalo’s homegrown player, Corp, posted one of the team’s goals in the loss.
--- Early unease ---
Just an eighth of the way through their 24-game slate, management was already feeling the pinch of small crowds and miniscule gate receipts. Unlike the Stampede, the Wings were unable to attract crowds that reached four digit sums. The problem had plagued them in Glens Falls, and was one of the reasons the franchise was forced to find a new home.
In Ottawa, things were looking even grimmer. RHI was forced to assume control of the Loggers after ownership said they needed to take time and reset their marketing scheme. That forced two early-season Buffalo-Ottawa matchups to be pushed back to late July. The scheduling chaos piled onto the havoc created just prior to the season beginning when Toronto, San Diego, and Minnesota all withdrew from competition.
The opponent in the fourth game of the season was once again the Rockin Rollers, and the result was another tally in the loss column. The next meeting went just as poorly, as the Wings watched a three-goal lead evaporate in a 7-6 loss to the defending champion Orlando Jackals. Attendance for that game managed to top out at 1,439.
Two nights later, the regrouped and rebranded Ottawa Wheels came in feeling rejuvenated, and continued their hot play to defeat the Wings 9-8, and inflate their record to 4-3. Former Buffalo Sabre Jocelyn Guevremont remained the team’s head coach throughout the turnover, and guided his team through a stretch where they had no facility for practice and no equipment at their disposal. Their quick turnaround vaulted them into third place in the Eastern Division, while Buffalo sank to 0-6.
After traveling to Montreal and suffering their seventh straight loss to open the season, the Wings returned home on July 3 to face the Roadrunners once more. In their eighth attempt, the Wings finally managed to make it into the win column by scrapping their way to a 5-4 win at Marine Midland Arena. The win came after the score remained locked at four apiece after regulation. Ken Blum and Dennis Maxwell tallied in the shootout and Nick Vitucci held steadfast to turn aside all three Montreal attempts.
--- The good feelings never last long ---
The Wings continued their winning ways by posting two more shootout victories to improve to 3-7. The following game was far more disastrous for the club, both on the floor and off it. Prior to their game against the Orlando Jackals, it was announced that the first 3,000 fans in attendance would receive a free gift courtesy of Darien Lake Theme Park. Unfortunately, more than 1,000 gifts went unclaimed, as fewer than 2,000 fans showed up to watch the Jackals pummel the Wings 13-4.
Four subsequent losses saw the Wings slip to 3-12 while getting outscored 41-18. Buffalo beat Ottawa twice in a row to end the skid and remain in playoff contention, but the schedule was coming to a close in a hurry, and with seven games remaining, Buffalo needed a miracle to make up the six point deficit they sat in and climb into playoff position.
A loss to Montreal stifled their momentum, but a third win over Ottawa in a four-game span allowed Buffalo to take valuable points away from the team that held the final playoff spot in the division. A return trip by Montreal once again put a gash in the Wings’ playoff aspirations, as the loss meant Buffalo needed to win out while both Montreal and Ottawa didn’t earn a single point in each team’s final four games.
6-14 Buffalo traveled to Orlando Arena for a date with the league-best Jackals, who owned a 17-4 record and had been well on their way to the postseason for quite some time. The Jackals had had Buffalo’s number all season long, and August 6 proved to be more of the same. Orlando led nearly the whole way through a contest they wound up winning 11-6. The loss officially eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention with three games to play.
The three remaining contests – against New Jersey, Ottawa, and Orlando – all went down as losses, leaving the Wings with a 6-18 record, worst in the Atlantic Division and in RHI overall.
Despite the absence of wins, fans slowly started to warm up to the Wings as the season progressed. A season-high 4,607 attendees came out for Fan Appreciation Night – a 13-8 defeat against the Jackals – and the late uptick in gate receipts gave ownership confidence that the Wings would be back for another year.
--- Where do we go from here ---
The confidence Wings’ GM Rick Seeley expressed was not common in the RHI. The Los Angeles Blades – who called the famed Los Angeles Forum their home and were operated by Lakers owners Jerry and Jeanie Buss – were openly dubious about their future in 1998.
Those feelings of uncertainty soon had traction, as league meetings following the Murphy Cup finals were twice postponed because the league could not come up with the funds to pay the champion Anaheim Bullfrogs for their successes. The stresses continued to mount, and by the winter, RHI announced it intended to suspend play and raise $12 million in a public offering to regroup financially in time to resume in 1999.
The hiatus put teams in a bind. While Los Angeles had withdrawn by that point, the other clubs were now in limbo. After five seasons, RHI had failed to establish itself and endear itself to its audience. After having invested so much with minimal return, eleven more clubs followed suit and pulled out.
--- To the eXtreme ---
Now a team without a home, the Wings entered talks with representatives from the new eXtreme Hockey League. In late January, 1998, the Wings were announced as the league’s first franchise, with up to five more to join the fray from New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Quebec City, and Montreal. They would begin a 16-game schedule in June, playing mainly on weekends. There were several rule changes from RHI that the XHL would feature, most notably using quarters instead of periods, and being more lenient on fighting to mirror NHL rules.
Rick Seeley announced he would no longer serve as the team’s GM, citing a job offer that was “too good to turn down.” As such, the team turned to former Buffalo Sabre and Stampede player Lou Franceschetti to be their general manager. He also assumed the responsibilities of head coach, replacing Murray Eaves who joined the Adirondack Red Wings of the American Hockey League.
The honor of becoming the XHL’s first team wasn’t sentimental or solid enough to keep the Wings anchored for long. By March, the Wings were still the only team signed on with the fledgling league, and by April, the team decided to jump ship and latch on with newly-formed Major League Roller Hockey. Also set to begin in June, MLRH was a uniquely-styled association with 20 total teams – including six in the United Kingdom – all competing for the Jason Cup. The cup was named to honor the memory of a young boy, Jason Kostelnik, who died at the age of 15 after chronic heart-related health issues.
The 14 American and Canadian teams were divided into three divisions. Buffalo was placed in the Great Lakes Division with the Columbus Hawks, Port Huron North Americans, Toronto Torpedoes, and Pennsylvania Posse. The 1997 Murphy Cup champion Anaheim Bullfrogs joined the Wings as the only other RHI franchise to join MLRH. Additionally, Anaheim was the only team in MLRH outside of the Eastern Time Zone, as no other club played west of Michigan.
Along with the league, personnel, and opponent changes, the Wings also pulled up stakes from Marine Midland Arena. The 18,595-seat building was never the right place for a team that could barely fill 10 percent of those chairs, so they looked north to Buffalo State Sports Arena. Capacity at the home of the Bengals was 2,000, smaller than their ideal venue size but much more appropriate for what the Wings could manage.
--- You root for the jersey ---
Prior to the start of the season, MLRH held a player draft, which even included a celebrity round, for teams to fill up their rosters. Buffalo used their celebrity selection on Cammi Granato, the captain of the U.S. women’s hockey team that had just won the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. They then used their first round pick to take RHI’s career assists leader, Victor Gervais, first overall.
They continued to stockpile noteworthy additions. John Vecchiarelli and Mark Major – both members of the 1994 Murphy Cup-winning Buffalo Stampede – were brought back to Western New York. In the 10th round, Grand Island native Dave Seitz became the first of the mandatory four homegrown players the Wings would add to the roster.
Goaltending standby Nick Vitucci opted not to come back in 1998, one of 17 players to do so. That left Ken Blum, Ken Corp, and Scott Hillman as the only three returners to a completely revamped organization. Granato declined the invitation from the Wings, passing on the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Manon Rheaume.
--- Back at it again ---
Buffalo’s opening game in MLRH would be as difficult as possible. They were slated to take on the Bullfrogs – the only other squad with prior playing experience, and RHI’s last champions – in Anaheim to begin the season.
Predictably, the Wings didn’t fare well in California. They fell to Anaheim 12-2, equaling the worst offensive output in team history. However, they turned things around just two days later when they hosted Port Huron.
In front of 723 fans at their new home facility, the Wings rollicked to a decisive 14-3 win. The victory was the largest in club history, the 14 goals and 61 shots for were both franchise bests, and St. Catharines and Canisius College product Josh Oort set a new team mark with eight points (4g, 4a) in the triumph.
Wins against Toronto (which had since been renamed to the Force) and Pennsylvania propped up the team’s record to 3-1 before slip ups in Orlando and South Carolina leveled their record at 3-3.
The Wings returned to Buffalo State Sports Arena to take on the New York Riot in an interdivisional matchup on July 3. Mark Major notched a hat trick and John Vecchiarelli added five points (2g, 3a) to delight the crowd of 1,604 with an 11-4 win.
Buffalo’s win kept the Wings unbeaten at home through three contests. However, their road woes continued, as they fell to 1-4 as visitors with a 7-4 loss in Toronto.
On July 11, the Force paid another visit to Buffalo, suffering another loss at Buffalo State to fall to 2-7-1. Chris Palmer matched a team record by recording five assists, and James Richmond contributed one of his own to extend his team-record to nine consecutive games with an assist. One week later, the Wings would put their perfect home mark on the line against the team that battered them in the season opener.
--- David beats Goliath one time out of a hundred ---
--- David beats Goliath one time out of a hundred ---
While Buffalo (5-4) had managed to remain unbeaten through its first four home matches, Anaheim had managed to remain undefeated through its first 13 games overall, and had long since clinched a playoff berth. Meanwhile, Buffalo still had 11 games to play, but was comfortably in second place in a division where the top three teams out of five would make the postseason.
1,740 fans – the largest crowd of the season – turned out at Buffalo State to witness what many believed would be a seminal moment for the team. Prior to the game, head coach Lou Franceschetti stated that if the Wings won the game, they could overcome the nine point deficit they were currently in and overtake Columbus for first place in the Great Lakes.
Despite another assist from Richmond, Buffalo fell to 5-5 after Anaheim left town with a 10-6 win and a 14-0 record. With just six games remaining, the Bullfrogs not only had home-floor advantage on their minds for the duration of the playoffs, but were now eyeing the possibility of an undefeated season.
A quick turnaround was necessitated by the fact that the Wings were due in Toronto to take on the Force the following night. The weak Toronto squad still had slim playoff hopes, but was more so jockeying with Pennsylvania to avoid falling to last place in the division. A 9-6 Buffalo win didn’t help that cause much, but continued to buoy the Wings’ hopes of extending their season. Goaltender Kevin Kreutzer – who had won the starting job in training camp – posted 36 saves in the win. Kreutzer was the third of Buffalo’s local players, born in Buffalo and having played two seasons of collegiate hockey at Canisius after transferring out of R.I.T.
Consecutive losses in Columbus, at home to Tampa Bay, and at home to Columbus in a shootout put the Wings below .500 for the first time since their opening loss in Anaheim left them at 0-1. With a record of 6-7-1, the Wings’ 13 points ensured they would not win the division title, but still placed them in prime position to take the second spot in the Great Lakes.
--- Flying higher ---
Entering the final month of the season, there remained five games during which the Wings could clinch a playoff berth. In their first opportunity, they left nothing to chance.
With 1,205 spectators on hand at Buffalo State Sports Arena, the Wings obliterated the visiting Philadelphia Sting with a historic 18-3 rout. The victory broke nearly every record, both individual and team, that had previously been set in the team’s win over Port Huron on June 14. The 18 goals scored and 62 shots for were among the most impressive stats the night produced.
A home-and-home series with Pennsylvania became something of a farce three days later. After the Posse’s primary sponsor pulled out, the team was financially strapped and couldn’t afford to host its game against the Wings. However, the league stepped in to fund the team’s travel expenses for the second game of the set, and on August 8, the Posse became the latest victim of Buffalo’s recently-discovered high-powered offense.
Buffalo could have slept through the first half of the game and still won breezily. The Wings didn’t just shatter any scoring records – they annihilated them, by hanging 27 goals on the shorthanded Posse. They poured on 69 shots during the course of the contest, and were led by Ken Blum, who supplied a team record 11 points (6g, 5a). His six goals would have been a team record, except teammate John Vecchiarelli tallied seven of his own. Chris Palmer had seven assists, also a team record, and James Richmond continued to push his assist streak to 16 straight games (at least one in each of the team’s games). The win was technically their third in a row, which also matched a franchise mark.
Things regressed to the mean three nights later, as Port Huron subdued the potent Wings in a 7-6 home victory. Port Huron’s home, however, was now actually Flint, after the North Americans struggled to draw crowds. The win cemented the North Americans’ playoff spot, and their first foe was to be the very same Buffalo squad.
--- Playoff hockey ---
The Wings then swung east to take on the New York Riot. Buffalo won 7-3, and won the final game on their schedule by default again when the finale against the Posse was called off. With four wins in five August games, the Wings were able to finish the regular season with a record of 11-8-1, good enough for second in the division, three points ahead of Port Huron but 12 behind division-winning Columbus.
In their first-ever postseason game, a home crowd of 1,500 fans cheered on the Wings as they dismantled the Port Huron North Americans 19-8. Five Wings registered hat tricks, including Scott Hillman, who put Buffalo up 2-0 with two goals in the opening 2:24. By halftime, Buffalo had pretty much sealed the win, as they held a commanding 9-1 lead.
The team’s opponent in the division finals would be the Columbus Hawks, who rode into the playoffs riding a 14-game winning streak, and beat the Wings in both of their regular season meetings. Their schedule concluded on July 31 after their shootout win in Buffalo, and with a first-round bye, the Hawks would be entering the game on nearly three weeks of rest.
The long rest was no disadvantage for the Hawks, who stymied the Wings early and led 3-1 at the half. But Buffalo clawed their way back into the game, tying things up at four 6:48 into the third quarter. The teams traded goals until Columbus led 6-5 heading into the final minute of play. Mark Major evened the score with 35.6 seconds to go and an extra attacker on the floor. Things seemed to be headed beyond regulation until a late penalty call put the Hawks on the power play. With 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Arturs Kupaks found the back of the net to take a 7-6 lead and send Columbus to the Final Four in Anaheim.
The call that cost Buffalo its season came with 18 seconds to go and incensed Lou Franceschetti so much so that he came off the bench with time remaining to protest it. Once he returned to his post, he tore down curtains, destroyed cameras, flipped the penalty box table, and threw water and ice cubes at the crowd of 900, who sarcastically cheered his antics.
In Anaheim, the Hawks lost in the semifinals 5-4 to the Orlando Surge, winners of the South Division. The other semifinal game saw the U.K. Division champion Brighton Tigers beat down by the Anaheim Bullfrogs 37-2. Anaheim went on to win the Jason Cup with a 5-4 win over Orlando, while Columbus earned third place with a 19-1 domination of Brighton. The win gave Anaheim the honor of becoming the first professional inline hockey franchise to win titles in multiple leagues, after their Murphy Cup triumphs in 1993 and 1997 with RHI. The ’93 win also happened to be the inaugural year for RHI, meaning the Bullfrogs also held the distinction of being the first-ever champions for both leagues.
--- Middle unease ---
Not long after the season came crashing down on the Wings, it became apparent that RHI would in fact be revived for 1999, meaning team management had to make a choice on whether to return to their roots or remain in their current league. They planned to attend both league’s fall meetings before settling on a decision.
After meeting with officials from both leagues and deliberating for about a month, owners Dr. Frances Ann Edmonston and Jason C. Klein decided the rejuvenated RHI would be the more appropriate fit for their situation. The league was set to be merged with an entertainment conglomerate, which would operate it as a public company to gain capital through an IPO.
An announcement the following January stated that 10 teams would play in RHI in 1999. Anaheim joined Buffalo in jumping back to the old league, while the San Jose Rhinos, Minnesota Blue Ox, and St. Louis Vipers would all rejoin the league after taking sabbaticals the previous season. New teams would be set up in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, and Utah to round out the 10-team circuit.
A national TV deal helped put the league above water and prepared it for a 26-game regular season with a restructured schedule that would be played primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. RHI previously aired games on ESPN2 before losing the deal due to fiscal irresponsibility. The loss of the broadcasting deal was one of the major dominoes to topple before the league shut down for the season.
--- More drafts than a middle school English class ---
RHI held a draft in February to allow its new teams to build up rosters and let its returners fill their own needs as well. Buffalo protected eight players, including Ken Blum and John Vecchiarelli. Wheatfield’s Mark Magliarditi, a goaltender, and forward Dave Dietz from Grand Island were Buffalo’s local selections in the draft.
Meanwhile, MLRH was still forging ahead with plans for 1999 despite losing two of its anchor franchises. In March they announced a team would be representing Denver in the form of the Colorado Inferno. However, plans for a team in Utica, New York were scrapped in April, and there was no mention about the return of the U.K. Division.
Rejiggering within the RHI saw Utah drop out of contention for a team, so the Detroit Racers were established as a replacement. However, the Racers and the Florida Jackals were forced to drop out in April, so the league opted to play the season with eight teams while holding a dispersal draft in early May.
Back in MLRH, the New York Riot were one of four teams to suspend operations, dropping league membership to eight franchises. The announcement from the Riot came less than two weeks before their scheduled home opener, and the league was forced to scramble and piece together a new franchise further west in Binghamton, named the New York Zoo, which it announced on June 5.
While the old league remained in turmoil, the reworked RHI got its season underway that very same day when the Las Vegas Coyotes traveled to Buffalo State Sports Arena to battle the Wings in their professional debut.
--- Bench stability ---
Returning to coach Buffalo was Lou Franceschetti. Franceschetti pieced together a roster that featured seven returning players, the most either Buffalo franchise had ever retained. Of the eight players Buffalo protected in the February draft, seven returned for the third season of Wings hockey. They were, Ken Blum, Ken Corp, Scott Hillman, Mark Major, Josh Oort, James Richmond, and John Vecchiarelli. That group of players was responsible for 70 percent of the team’s points in 1998, with Blum (30g, 32a), Oort (20g, 31a), and Richmond (19g, 32a) all surpassing 50 points each. Vecchiarelli posted 49 (25g, 24a) points of his own, but was limited to just 12 games.
Manning the crease for the Wings was newcomer Scott Vezina, whom Buffalo acquired in a trade from Minnesota. He spent 1998 with MLRH’s third-place Orlando Surge, and led the league in wins (16), minutes (765), and saves (606).
Against the Coyotes, Vezina made 39 saves and Blum scored four times, but untimely penalties and giveaways doomed the Wings, as 1,658 saw them lose their third straight season opener.
Six days later, the Wings traveled to Dallas to take on the Stallions. Level nearly all the way through the first three quarters, Buffalo pulled away late to earn a 6-5 road win. Notably, the Buffalo Sabres were also playing a series against the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Wings-Stallions matchup occurred on June 11 at Reunion Arena, just one day after the Stars beat the Sabres in the same building to level the finals at one game apiece.
After the road win in Texas, the Wings were scheduled to return home and face off against Minnesota the following day. The schedule was further compacted when team officials bumped up puck drop from 7:30 to 4:30 in order to accommodate Sabres fans, who would be heading downtown later that night for Game Three of the Stanley Cup Finals. Had the Wings remained at the Arena for the season, their game may not have been able to take place at all.
High winds in Chicago forced the team to alter their travel plans and once again adjust their start time. They were re-routed through Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and wound up at Buffalo State only minutes before their scheduled puck drop. The game eventually got underway at 5:00, and the beleaguered and weary Wings somehow pulled out a 10-2 win before a meager crowd of 572.
--- Get used to it, kid ---
For their June 15 matchup with the St. Louis Vipers, Buffalo once again moved up its scheduled start time to align better with Game Four. With a few days rest and no travel, the Wings fell in an early hole and dropped a 15-8 decision at home.
After a win in Chicago, the Wings traveled west to Minneapolis to take on the Blue Ox at Mariucci Arena. Blum and Mark Major each recorded hat tricks, and Vezina made 28 saves to drop Minnesota by an 11-7 count. It marked the first time the team started a year 3-0 on the road, and also gave them the first three-game road win streak in franchise history.
The win streak didn’t live any longer than that third game. After a home loss to Anaheim, Buffalo traveled to St. Louis to open a home-and-home with the Vipers. Trailing by one goal heading into the final quarter, Buffalo collapsed, and allowed six goals in a crushing 12-7 loss.
While their road mark was solid, their record at home was ghastly. In the second game of the set with St. Louis, Buffalo suffered a 9-6 defeat to fall to 1-4 at Buffalo State Sports Arena. However, they hosted two more games before hitting the road again, and began to reverse their fortunes on home court.
--- Searching ---
Midseason acquisitions came via trades and free agent signings. Among the new faces: Scott Humphrey, a goaltender who spent nine games with the Buffalo Stampede in 1995 and held RHI’s best career save percentage (.857). Humphrey was added to the roster in preparation for Vezina’s eventual departure for the Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg.
The second game of the homestand saw the Blue Ox wilt 15-4 in a wildly overheated gymnasium, and an 11-9 win against the Chicago Bluesmen featured John Vecchiarelli’s 300th career point when he assisted on the shorthanded, game-winning goal late in the game.
The Bluesmen and Wings became quite familiar with each other after that. Between July 9 and July 21, the two squads met four times. By the end of that stretch, Buffalo had won a franchise record four-straight contests, had taken three out of four games against their Windy City nemeses, held a 9-7 overall record, and sat two points behind division-leading St. Louis. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, the postseason and the offseason were both realistic possibilities for the up-and-down Wings.
--- Hell unleashed ---
A two-game trip to California proved utterly fruitless, especially since coach Lou Franceschetti had been hoping to use the matchups against the San Jose Rhinos and Anaheim Bulldogs as measuring sticks to show the team’s progress (or lack thereof). Franceschetti was beside himself when the team returned to Western New York after suffering losses of 5-1 and 13-3.
Things didn’t improve in the midsummer heat, as tempers flared in a July 28 showdown with the Rhinos. Despite the rising temperatures, Buffalo’s start was ominously cold. They gave up the opening goal 15 seconds into the first quarter, doubled the deficit one minute later, and soon found themselves trailing 5-0 early in the second. The 1,557 attendees that had Buffalo State Sports Arena’s stands at 75 percent capacity didn’t go home witnessing any ordinary loss, though.
In the fourth quarter, San Jose’s Rob Trumbley earned an ejection after he showed his disgust with a penalty call by cross-checking referee Scott Hoberg. Donnybrooks continued to mar the final frame, as Buffalo’s John Vecchiarelli, Mark Major, and John Hendry were all assessed 10-minute game misconducts for fighting. San Jose’s Alex Alepin also earned a 10-minute game misconduct. The 9-3 loss was the first game back for goaltender Scott Vezina since he guided Team Canada to the floor hockey gold medal at the Pan-Am Games.
Another loss against St. Louis – the fourth in four meetings with the Vipers – widened the gap between the two clubs in the standings, and after a fifth-straight loss, this time to Minnesota, it was announced that head coach Lou Franceschetti would be dismissed from his post. Despite their 9-12 mark, the Wings were still clinging to the Eastern Division’s second-place position.
Before Franceschetti’s departure and the insertion of Vice President of Operations
Benny Gulakiw into the coaching role, news broke that Team Canada’s floor hockey team would be stripped of its Pan-Am gold medal after Vezina was found to have tested positive for three banned substances.
The team’s next game – on August 6 against the Dallas Stallions – was receiving an unusually high amount of interest from the Canadian press due to the news about Scott Vezina. Entering the game, which was to be played at Buffalo State, Dallas held a 5-14-1 record, dead last in all of RHI. In the only other meeting of the season between the two teams, Buffalo went into Reunion Arena and topped the Stallions. Now, they were looking for more of the same to break out of their rut and deliver a win for their new head coach.
Vezina’s “week in hell” didn’t improve much immediately after the puck dropped. With what felt like the eyes of an entire nation scrutinizing his every move, the netminder allowed two goals while Buffalo was shorthanded and at halftime, the Wings trailed 2-1. After the intermission, Vezina found a groove, however, and allowed just one goal the rest of the way while his teammates rallied to score six more goals and take a 7-3 decision. Despite the wide final margin, the game remained a nailbiter until John Vecchiarelli poured in three goals in the final minute of play to clinch the win.
--- Return to normalcy ---
The following game, Buffalo went west to take on St. Louis at The Kiel Center. In their fifth attempt of the season, the Wings finally came out victorious, handing the Vipers an 8-7 shootout loss that wrapped up a playoff berth for the Buffalo club. The winning streak didn’t stop there, as a 10-6 home win against the same Vipers three days later put Buffalo back at .500 and vaulted the team to 3-0 since Franceschetti’s removal. The team then improved to 13-12 overall with a win in Chicago before they dropped the season finale in Minnesota 8-3.
--- Playhoff hockey, redux ---
As had been the case in 1998, the team Buffalo played in its last regular-season game was also the opponent they drew in the opening round of the playoffs. And just as similarly, the Wings defeated the opponent when it mattered more – with the season hanging in the balance.
Buffalo traveled to Anaheim, where RHI had decided to stage the entirety of their postseason at Arrowhead Pond. In the conference semifinals, they sent Minnesota packing by mirroring the 8-3 loss they had suffered just a few days prior. Shots on goal narrowly favored Buffalo 42-41, but Scott Vezina was strong between the pipes, turning aside 38 of those attempts to ensure the Wings would advance.
In the conference finals, Buffalo faced a tough St. Louis team that had their number for nearly the entire season, until the final two meetings of the year saw the Wings take both contests. Buffalo came in undermanned defensively, and proceeded to lose another defender midway through the game. After South Buffalo native Ryan Shanahan fell victim to a groin injury, St. Louis reeled off five unanswered goals to take the lead and maintain it the rest of the way. The final score in the Final Four read St. Louis 11, Buffalo 7.
In the finals, the Vipers took on the Anaheim Bullfrogs - who had come within one shootout goal of a perfect season, instead settling for a regular-season record of 19-0-1. In the championship game, St. Louis upset the heavily-favored Bullfrogs to win the Murphy Cup for the first time in team history.
--- Late uneasy ---
In April of 2000, RHI announced it would not play again the following summer. Anaheim team president Rob Montague cited the league’s lackadaisical approach to business that failed to give teams adequate time to get their affairs in order before June. Around the same time, Major League Roller Hockey made a similar announcement, blaming their woes on their rival organization’s failures. Of course, MLRH had its own issues to look at, as just a few weeks after placing a team In Binghamton, New York, their 1999 season was permanently called off on June 29. However, they restructured their entire business model and were back on the floor in 2000. With most of its teams now made up of amateur players and not ice hockey professionals in their offseasons, MLRH was out of the professional ranks.
The implosion of pro inline hockey brought down the Buffalo Wings as well, though not entirely. The organization had previously created a Junior A squad called the Buffalo Mission Wings. That team continued play in the new millennium. In place of a top-tier pro team, however, team management decided to refocus its efforts on growing the sport at the youth and adult recreational levels. They formed 18u, 16u, 14u, and 12u elite travel teams with tryouts at the Pepsi Center that May, and continued to funnel resources into grassroots efforts.
In 2005, MLRH expanded its efforts overseas, and once again had teams in North America and Europe compete against themselves before facing the other continent’s winner in a Super League world championship showdown. That arrangement lasted four seasons before the league switched to a tour format and became a professional outfit once again. In 2009, the first year of the tour, the Buffalo Wings had a team compete for – and win – the MLRH Pro World Championship.
After two seasons of touring, the league reverted to its original, traditional league layout, but remained a professional organization. Following the schedule change, an adjustment was made to the time frame in which the season took place. Games would no longer be played in summer as a complement to winter ice hockey. Instead, they now directly competed with ice hockey by playing from October to May.
In 2011, the Wings were replaced by the Buffalo Excitement, who played their home games at the Epic Center in Williamsville. They remained in the league until the close of the 2012-13 season.