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BUFFALO TAILGATERS TAKE IT EASY

Tuesday, 01.01.2008 / 7:10 PM / 2008 NHL Winter Classic News
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BUFFALO TAILGATERS TAKE IT EASY
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. --Screech-screech, screech-screech-screech, went the air horns.

"Let's go, Buffalo," responded the tailgaters in the parking lot of Ralph Wilson Stadium before the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic.

Clang-clang, clang-clang-clang, went the cowbell.

”Let's go Buffalo!” chanted the tailgaters.

Clang-clang, clang-clang-clang, went the cowbell.

”Let's go, Buffalo!” rang out again and again.

Every time the arm of Buffalo Sabres' season-ticket holder Chris Fox got tired and he put the cowbell down, the crowd responded with ... well, you know how they responded.

More cowbell! demanded the fans.

Thousands of Sabres' fans and dozens of hardy Pittsburgh Penguins fans began filling the parking lots early Tuesday morning, many of them grilling hot dogs and cheeseburgers. There were tons of potato salad, tankers full of coleslaw, boxes of pizza, coolers of beer, flasks, kegs and even a few bottles of champagne, left over from New Year's Eve.

While most of the cooking was at the elementary level, some folks got more elaborate.

"I just dropped off Matt Jr., my nine-year-old, with some friends who are tailgating in the parking lot," said former Penguins and Sabres star Matthew Barnaby, a Buffalo-area resident who is working on TSN's broadcast of the Winter Classic. "They're frying three turkeys in a big fryer."

Meanwhile, Buffalo's Sarah Binkowski was doing her level best to pretend that her friend Chris, the cowbell banger, wasn't operating at about five brain levels below normal. Fox works as an IT technician. These treasured moments with his cowbell are obviously meant to be shared with thousands.

Clang-clang, clang-clang-clang, went the cowbell.

”Let's go, Buffalo!” went the passing throng.

Brother Tom Fox is the real genius. He bought three tickets, sold one for more than double face value and basically saw the Winter Classic for free.

Brother Kevin Fox was more in keeping with Chris's frame of mind.

"You know the Hansen Brothers from Slap Shot?" Kevin asked. "We're Buffalo's Fox brothers."

Chris was asked who his hero was, the questioner expecting a Sabres' player to be named.

"Will Ferrell," Chris offered. More cowbell.



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Clang-clang, clang-clang-clang, went the Fox brothers and Binkowski just shook her head.

If Binkowski was hanging out with nuts, the Cofftas were hanging out with a Maine-iac, sister Darcy who moved to Sanford, Maine, but returned to be with family for the first-ever NHL outdoor game held in the United States.

Brian Coffta, Rob Coffta, of Pavilion, and Dave Coffta, of Bergen, huddled

under a canopy with Jake and Chase Seiferth, Wendy Azzarella and Tammy Stachowiak, all of Attica. The Coffta brothers grew up in Buffalo and were season-ticket holders when the Sabres played at the Memorial Auditorium, better known as “The Aud.”

"Season-ticket holders before we had kids," said Rob. "We've been fans since the team began in the early 1970s. It all started for us with the "French Connection," a reference to the line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin.

The family's season tickets became a source of conflict among the young brothers.

"We had two seats in the front row of the balcony and we used to argue who would get to go," Rob said. "Right after altar-boy practice, we'd go to the Sabres or Braves games."

The Braves were Buffalo's entry in the National Basketball Association before moving to Los Angeles and becoming the Clippers. But older Buffalo fans still hold the team dear.

"Oh yeah, we were big fans of Ernie DeGregorio and Bob McAdoo," Rob said.

Dave moved east to Bergen and became a season-ticket holder of the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ upstate New York AHL affiliate.

"Everyone in the area is an Amerks fans," Dave said. "Rochester people live and breathe the Amerks. The team does a great job with the Boy Scouts. We take 25-30 Scouts to Amerks games once or twice a year. It's great because all the Sabres played in Rochester before coming up to Buffalo."

Dave lived in Wilkes-Barre, Pa, for eight years in the 1990s and went to W-B Penguins' AHL games. He was asked if he saw any of the current Penguins there.

"Nah, I was still a Sabres' fans. The names didn't mean much. I was just there to see hockey," said Dave, who found himself on the ice a few times with Rob Ray while the former Sabres player was rehabbing an injury.

"’Rayzer’ was great, just busted on everyone," Dave said. "It was funny because a lot of people didn't know who he was until after the open-hockey session was over, but Ray would be skating around, needling everyone, getting under guy's skins and laughing his head off."

The Cofftas had a food tip for tourists. After offering a choice of either sausage and pepperoni pizza or a vegetarian pizza, they said they were made by Pontillo's Pizza in Batavia.

"Absolutely the best pizza in upstate New York," Dave said. "Sam, the founder died a little while ago, but his son, John, will do anything for you. Just ask."

Many fans made the trip from Pittsburgh to watch the Winter Classic.

You could tell a nearby group had been Sabres' fans for awhile. Eric Strohm was wearing an Alexander Mogilny sweater. Aaron Hrycko had a Lindy Ruff sweater, but Dan Celej was right up-to-date in a Drew Stafford sweater. Lisa Augustine had her camo Sabres' watch cap, but Scot Sandel was logo-free. Lisa had an excuse, she didn't have time to prepare.

"My brother stiffed me this morning," Scot said. "Said he was sick or something so I called Lisa, my sister."

The group arrived shortly after 9 a.m. and chowed down on Wegman's subs, washed down with beer, Bloody Marys and some leftover champagne. They're hockey fanatics. Dan has been playing for 18 years. Eric has been playing for seven years and Lisa's son, Alex, 9, plays for the Depew Saints Squirts. Hrycko bought his four-year-old son his first pair of skates for Christmas.

"The stains on this shirt are 14 years old," Strohm explained about his Mogilny sweater. "1993 was a very good year in Buffalo" with Mogilny, Pat LaFontaine, Dale Hawerchuk, Dave Andreychuk, Mike Ramsey, Doug Bodger, Ken Sutton and the goaltending trio of Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr and Darren Puppa.

"This organization has a great record, especially in the regular season. Maybe not so good in the playoffs."

Strohm was reminded that Philadelphia Flyers fans wouldn't agree, as it seemed Buffalo repeatedly eliminated the Flyers in the past decade. Strohm fired up with the suddenness of a diesel engine.

"We owned the Flyers," Strohm shouted. "Owned them."

John Demma was decked out in a No. 11 Gilbert Perreault retro sweater, but he didn't look old enough to remember the Sabres' star of the 1970.

"I remember the end of his career," said Demma, who was partying with 15 of his closest friends. "I've been a fan as long as I can remember. I go to five or 10 games a year and watch all the rest on TV."

The gutsiest group had to be Ernie Francestine, Nick Menchyk, Madeleine Konesni, Jordan Radaker, Dominic Pinto, Chris Decima, Matthew Colligan, Jason Hoffman and Angela Smith of Butler, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

"Typical group of Pittsburghers with ethnic names you can't spell," cracked Konesni, turning to razz some passing Sabres' fans, many of whom offered off-the-cuff evaluations of Pittsburgh and its residents. Don't you know what happens when you tease lions, tigers and bears, let alone Sabres' fans, they were asked.

"The Buffalo fans have been great," Francestine said. "Just a friendly bashing. It's all trash talk with no bad feelings. We're really having fun out here and it adds to the excitement."

The Butler group jumped on the phone the day tickets were offered. Decima said they decided to "make a road trip out of it and support the Penguins."

Radaker summed it up for everyone, be they from Pittsburgh, Buffalo or anywhere people came from.

"This is heaven," Decima said.

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