Here are the biggest stories in local sports of 2011:
1. Terry Pegula completes the purchase of the Sabres. Local hockey fans haven’t been too happy at times with Sabres ownership since the Knox family dropped out of the picture about 15 years ago. While Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn get credit for saving the franchise, their management style wasn’t particularly popular.
When Pegula took charge on Feb. 22, he removed all financial restrictions from the franchise and later made several fan-friendly moves. It’s too early to tell how Pegula’s ownership tenure will play out, but he needed no time at all to become one of the most popular owners in Buffalo’s sports history.
2. The Bills collapse. Remember the glory days of late October, when the Bills were 5-2 and seemed to have a chance at their first playoff berth in more than a decade? Doesn’t that seem like a century ago?
The Bills lost their sixth straight game in San Diego on Dec. 10 to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Granted, injuries played a huge part in the team’s demise, as players such as Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams were lost and the team didn’t have the depth to replace them adequately. As a result, it was another meaningless December for local football fans.
3. The Sabres lose to the Flyers in the playoffs. Buffalo had a 3-2 lead entering Game Six of its first-round playoff series with Philadelphia. The Sabres were at home. They were facing the Flyers’ third-string goalie. If you are the Sabres, you have to win that game.
Buffalo didn’t, letting a lead slip away and losing, 5-4, in overtime. Then the Flyers absolutely smoked the Sabres at the start of Game Seven, and went on to win the game (5-2) and series.
4. The Sabres sign Christian Ehrhoff as a free agent. General Manager Darcy Regier had received plenty of criticism during his tenure for being too cautious when it came to free agency and trades. Under new ownership, Regier came to life in dramatic fashion.
Ehrhoff signed a 10-year, $40 million contract to come to Buffalo.
In addition, the Sabres also signed Ville Leino as a free agent (six years, $27 million) and acquired veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr in a trade with Calgary just before free agency began.
5. Russia wins the IIHF World Junior Championship. In the semifinals, Canada defeated the United States and appeared destined to win the hockey title and please the thousands of fans who were streaming over the Peace Bridge to see games in HSBC Arena. But Russia had a surprise waiting in the final, scoring five goals in the third period to beat Canada, 5-3.
The Russian team added a postscript to the competition when it celebrated through the night and was kicked off an outgoing plane for rowdy behavior the next morning.
6. The Bills finally beat the Patriots. Buffalo hadn’t defeated New England since 2003, so a win over the Patriots on Sept. 25 was the highlight of the Bills’ season. The Bills fell behind, 21-0, but Rian Lindell kicked a 28-yard field goal on the last play of the game to wrap up a 34-31 win.
By the way, the Bills’ last win over New England was a 31-0 blowout, and the Patriots returned the favor by the exact same score later in the season. Buffalo ends its season Sunday at New England.
7. Orchard Park wins a state high school football championship. Orchard Park (13-0) claimed the second New York title in school history by beating Newburgh, 21-13. It came in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse on Nov. 27 for the Class AA title. James Fitzgerald scored two TDs.
No local teams won state basketball titles, although Jamestown came close. The Red Raiders lost to Mount Vernon, 62-51, in the AA final on March 20.
8. The WNY Flash wins the WPS title. It’s difficult to rank the Flash’s triumph on a local list. The team didn’t play any games in Buffalo, only practicing here.
Still, championships are rare in these parts, so a win over Philadelphia in the title game on Aug. 27 is worth noting. Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris stopped the last shot in a shootout to give the Flash the title.
9. The deaths of Rick Martin and Kent Hull. The passing of two of Western New York’s favorite athletes left the area’s sports fans shocked. Martin was a member of the Sabres’ “French Connection,” and the line’s three members had staged an on-ice reunion with Pegula just before Martin died.
Hull did not live in Western New York any more, but the Bills’ center was one of the most beloved players among teammates while he played.
10. Local college basketball takes a small step forward. In an era in which so many teams play in the “postseason,” it’s no great honor to have a few extra games in March. Still, even if teams don’t make it to the Big Dance, it’s nice to get a bit of a reward for a respectable season.
The University at Buffalo’s men’s team finished a 20-win season by playing in the collegeinvitational.com tournament, while St. Bonaventure made it to the College Basketball Invitational. In women’s play, the Bonnies played in the Women’s WNIT for the third straight year.
* The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, of Williamsville, set an NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end. And James Starks of Niagara Falls and UB won a Super Bowl ring with the Packers in February. In baseball, meanwhile, former Canisius standout John Axford was a big part of the Milwaukee Brewers’ success in 2011.
* Clemson-bound Chad Kelly of St. Joe’s was The News’ Player of the Year and won the Connolly Cup as Western New York’s top performer. Akeel Lynch of St. Francis, verbally committed to Boston College, was the Gatorade Player of the Year for New York State.
* The Bandits lost in the conference final to Toronto, the eventual champion of the National Lacrosse League.
* Some local college teams had very successful seasons. The Niagara women’s volleyball team and the Canisius women’s lacrosse team made the NCAA tournament.
* The Bills authorized a study of how to modernize Ralph Wilson Stadium. The price tag of the renovations could be $100 million, which might scare off local and state politicians and make the fate of the franchise very uncertain. This issue could become the biggest story of 2012.
* Close to home, Allen Wilson, the award-winning columnist and Buffalo Bills beat writer for The Buffalo News, died at age 49 on Dec. 3 after a battle with leukemia.
Wilson was known as the “gentle giant” because his large frame — he was an all-conference outside linebacker at his Durham, N.C., high school — was matched by a great heart. His soft-spoken manner endeared him to everyone from family members to the young people he mentored to the NFL football players whom he covered with utmost accuracy and fairness. Former News Sports Editor Steve Jones called him “a great reporter in terms of his work ethic, his sincerity and his involvement with the subject he was writing about.”
Wilson, a founding member of the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists and a former vice president of the group, was honored many times by the New York State Associated Press Association for his columns and stories. In 2007, he won the AP’s distinguished sports reporting award for a two-part series he wrote on former prep basketball start Ritchie Campbell.