Tonawanda News — For the region’s two professional sports teams, 2013 could be summed up by a familiar phrase: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A new era was ushered in at One Bills Drive this year when Hall of Fame owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. ceded full operational authority to the team’s longtime CEO Russ Brandon. With the aging Wilson, 95, stepping back, Brandon’s first task was replacing retiring general manager Buddy Nix. Installed was a top Nix lieutenant, Doug Whaley.
After firing three-year head coach Chan Gailey and cutting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the new leadership team hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone. The team then used its first round draft choice to select Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, who they — not to mention Bills fans — hope will grow into a franchise player.
The first season under the new regime showed promise at times but a slew of injuries, including Manuel missing significant playing time thanks to a trio of troubling knee injuries, leaves much in question.
A defensive unit showed flashes of brilliance and an uncanny knack for sacking the quarterback — they lead the league in that department — but uneven performances left fans wondering just which Bills squad was going to show up from week to week.
Despite showing some signs of promise, the franchise will miss the playoffs again this year, its 14th consecutive season without a post season berth.
As bad as that sounds, things at points in 2013 seemed even bleaker for the Buffalo Sabres.
The 2012-13 lockout-shortened season saw the firing of longtime head coach Lindy Ruff after 16 seasons on the job. The abysmal campaign ended with interim head coach Ron Rolston being named the permanent coach headed into the 2013-14 campaign. But that wouldn’t last long.
After opening the season losing 10 in a row and stumbling into early November with a paltry two regulation victories, Rolston was given his walking papers along with long-tenured general manager Darcy Regier, who had become the focus of fans’ ire.
In a shocking twist that elated many fans and offered some light at the end of the tunnel, Regier was replaced with former Sabres great Pat LaFontaine, who took on the title president of hockey operations. And in an even more unpredictable move, Rolston was replaced with former Sabres coach Ted Nolan, another fan favorite who held the job before Ruff but left during a bitter contract dispute with Regier in 1998.
At 10-24-3, the Sabres own the worst record in the NHL headed into the Christmas break, but recent outings have showed better effort as Nolan settles into the job.
Notable player moves included Regier trading veteran sniper Thomas Vanek, who was playing out the last year of his contract before entering free agency, acquiring forward Matt Moulson and a package of draft picks in return.
Goaltender Ryan Miller is again among the league’s best at the position and is a prime candidate to start for the United States Olympic team in Sochi in February. Miller is also a free agent at season’s end and his future with the team is far from clear.
Given the team’s sad position in the standings, Miller’s play at the Olympics may well prove the most interesting part of the year for Buffalo hockey fans.
Contact Managing Editor Eric DuVall at 693-1000, ext. 4112 or on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.THE LIST SO FAR • NO. 10: Niawanda Park pavilion opens • NO. 9: Kiddieland opens at carrousel museum • NO. 8: NT marina gets a boost • NO. 7: Joe Hollywood perishes in blaze • NO. 6: Malone's bar owner slain