Be sure to come here tonight for our live game blog from the Sabres-Flyers matchup. And if you're following on TV, remember it's on Versus at 7:30 and not an MSG game (Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale will be on the radio only).
I don't expect there to be any immediate report from the morning skate today and we presume you will understand any absence of information because the funeral for our beloved late colleague, Allen Wilson, is today at 11 a.m. and our entire roster will be there.
Wilson passed away Saturday at 49 after a courageous battle with leukemia. Be sure to go back and read Mark Gaughan's wonderful obituary and Jerry Sullivan's from-the-heart tribute to Allen from Sunday if you missed them.
While this space is normally used for hockey -- check out my discussion on the Sabres' home woes in today's paper -- please allow me to say a few words, or maybe more than a few, about my friend Big Al.
I first met Al in 1991 when he had taken over the high school beat at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. He was a North Carolina guy who had come north from the Orlando Sentinel. I was the guy from Buffalo on the other end of the phone and he made snow jokes (can it, pal!). Back then, there were no state football playoffs so we didn't start talking until basketball season, but Al would call me a couple times a week to check how our teams were doing to prep for the postseason when Sections V and VI would meet.
His passion for basketball and his job were plainly obvious and it was great fun to sit and talk hoops with Al come playoff time. And it was easy to suggest Al give The News a call in the summer of 1992 when I was being moved to colleges and the high school gig was opening. Al came on board and what a job he did. He thrust himself into the community and one of his greatest highs was shepherding Western New York scholastic fans through the Tim Winn-Jason Rowe era, one of the greatest ever for high school basketball in this area.
Al became a fixture on the Big 4 college hoops scene and, of course, a highly respected NFL beat writer and columnist but never lost his touch with local hoops. How could he? He played pickup with Michael Jordan during his time in North Carolina!
So many people have talked about Al as a gentle giant and it's true. He was a huge man with massive hands, a former college tight end at NC Central who once played against Grambling and Eddie Robinson at Yankee Stadium. But what I'll remember is that laugh, that irrepressible cackle that you could get Al going on. So many hoop press rows where it came out for who-knows what I may have said.
Right until our final conversation in October, Al would needle me about a famous showdown with former UB coach Tim Cohane, who once railed at me to "be objective". A few months later, Bob Knight came to town for an NCAA Tournament and said to me, "that's a great question" when I asked if star A.J. Guyton had wore down because of overuse. Al used to love the "be objective" line for its pure silliness, especially when contrasted to Knight, the notorious anti-media guy who gave me props.
I can still hear the "whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" Al let out next to me when UB's Rasaun Young beat Bona with a 30-footer at the buzzer from right in front of where we sat in Marine Midland Arena in 1996. I can still hear the laughter we shared and the marveling we did together at the Final Four in New Orleans in 2003 when a freshman named Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its amazing title. We went to an Italian restaurant one night in the Big Easy and poor Al couldn't understand little old waiter Enzo for anything. "Hey Mike, why does he keep saying, 'cautious, cautious, cautious'?" was Al's question. I had to interpret for Al that Enzo thought we were coaches, coaches, coaches.
I was an add-on to the trip to the Meadowlands for the Bills-Jets game in 2009 while I was covering the ALCS. Mark Gaughan was driving the rental car and getting lost on the NJ Turnpike. Allen was in the front seat, Jerry Sullivan and I were in the back. You could tell Mark was getting more and more agitated. No one was saying a word in the car. Finally, I just piped up, "You guys go here EVERY year. How in the hell do you not know where it is???!" Allen just completely lost it. Major cackle. It still cracks me up to think about. (Sorry Mark)
I was not able to attend Football Night in Buffalo, the benefit for Al in October at DiPaolo's, because I was covering the World Series. I will always be sad for that but I will always have a wonderful last memory of Al as I called him from St. Louis the next day and we spoke for more than an hour. He was feeling pretty good that day physically and his spirits were sky-high from the event. We talked about the World Series, St. Louis restaurants, UB coach Reggie Witherspoon bidding on a Jerry West signed ball at the event and hoping West still had some eligibility, what was up with the Bills, even some Sabres.
I will cherish that conversation forever. Naturally, I wish there would be more of them but his body simply had only so much to give. As a Tar Heel fan, Al will be cursing me right now to invoke the memory of NC State coach Jim Valvano's famous ESPY speech in 1993 but it's true: Cancer took away all of Al's physical well-being but it cannot touch his mind, it cannot touch his heart and it cannot touch his soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.
A tip of the cap, a raise of the hockey stick and a nod to the heavens for you, Big Al. Hope you're having a great time in that stadium in the sky with that fantasy team of our late friends Jim Peters, Jay Bonfatti, Tom Borrelli, Bob Summers and Jim Kelley.
To hockey fans everywhere today, please keep Al and his wife Lisa (our executive sports editor), daughter Alissa and his whole family in your hearts. We will say good-bye until we meet again to Al this morning -- and then we will work in honor of Al and Kelley and all of our colleagues again this evening. It's what we do.
RIP, Big Al.