Van Miller on Cookie Gilchrist’s ear muffs

By Steve Cichon

Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.

Van Miller and John Murphy at Rich Stadium, 1985 (Buffalo Stories archives)

Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.

One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.

The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.

Cookie Gilchrist at the Rockpile. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”

It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.

The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.

In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.

The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.

There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.

The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.

A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964

That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.

Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.

The rise and fall of Buffalo’s college hoops golden era

By Steve Cichon

Canisius’ Tony Masiello and St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier fight for a loose ball in a Little Three game at Memorial Auditorium in 1969. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Buffalo have been fanatically devoted to sports.  Since 1960 for the Bills and 1970 for the Sabres, relatively large, rabid fan bases have supported those squads through lean years and even lean decades with open wallets and enthusiasm.

Buffalo fans warmly remember Saturday night college basketball doubleheaders, followed by Sunday night American Hockey League Bisons games at Memorial Auditorium in the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But with college basketball bringing March Madness to Buffalo again next week, thoughts and conversation inevitably turn to the years before the Bills and Sabres when “Little Three” games between Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Canisius were the city’s most riotous sporting events, tickets to Saturday night basketball doubleheaders at Memorial Auditorium were Western New York’s hottest ticket, and Buffalo was universally recognized as one of America’s great college basketball towns.

Up until World War II, the most ferocious rivalry among the Little Three schools was in football, but as football became too costly, each of the schools had disbanded its team by 1951. Once students and alumni had only hoops to hang their hats on, the heated rivalries burned even brighter, and all of Buffalo came along for the ride.

St. Bonaventure stuffs Niagara at the goal line in a 1940 Little Three football tilt. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In his infamous 1969 Sports Illustrated piece on Buffalo sports and Buffalo’s sports fans, Brock Yates’ account of basketball at the Aud sears an image:

“Saturday night standing room-only crowds elbow their way into the grim, lakeside fortress known as Memorial Auditorium to scream for Canisius.”

A few years later, Ray Ryan remembered it this way in a 1975 article in Buffalo Fan magazine:

“The collegians and their camp follows would converge on the downtown hall early in the evening, elbowing through the crowded lobby, passing the turnstiles, and crowding up to the beer stands … (with) an electric air of excitement as the cheering and jeering began …”

Basketball doubleheaders had been all the rage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden when Buffalo’s first two-game basketball set was played in 1936 at the Broadway Auditorium. Canisius played Georgetown and Niagara played St. Bonaventure in “a program worthy of any court in the country.”

The 1936 Canisius Golden Griffins basketball team, including future city councilman and “Over the Tavern” inspiration Big Joe Dudzick, bottom row, third from right. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The venue was an upgrade in size from Canisius’ usual home court at the Elmwood Music Hall, and the ability to fill the larger space showed basketball’s honing in on boxing as one of Buffalo’s favorite spectator sports.

But there was still room for improvement in those early years. The Broadway Auditorium was larger, but not regulation. Notre Dame’s coach George Keogan almost refused to play on the barn’s concrete floor, but with 5,000 spectators watching, he was assured by a Canisius official that it was “soft concrete” and the game went on with a laugh.

Canisius played many home games at the Elmwood Music Hall, which stood at the corner of Elmwood and Edward until 1938. (Buffalo Stories archives)

As World War II dawned, and continuing after the war, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure each became competitive and started attracting some of the country’s best teams on the way to or from those big dates in New York City. It was a confluence of great basketball, great fans, great gates and Memorial Auditorium’s opening in 1940 to make all parties involved excited for college basketball doubleheaders in Buffalo.

Through the early ’50s, the Aud was guaranteed 10,000 spectators, usually with more filling up standing room. Then things waned. There was a point-shaving scandal with several big New York City schools. Pro-basketball started catching on in New York in the scandal’s wake, and college basketball as a whole took some lumps.

Canisius vs. Niagara at Memorial Auditorium, 1951. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The local series was not without hiccups even through the glory years. The late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, himself a Little Three athlete as guard on the Cansius football squad, said that pettiness between the schools was as much a part of the tradition as the games themselves.

It was a critical hit was when, in 1958, Niagara pulled out of the Aud doubleheaders. A few years later, Bona opened the Reilly Center and trips to Buffalo became less important.

In 1965, then-Ellicott District Councilman James D. Griffin wrote letters to the presidents of Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure inviting them to a Common Council discussion on the use of the Aud and the Rockpile.

Niagara phenom Calvin Murphy can’t make it past Canisius players Tom Pasternak and Tony Masiello, (Buffalo Stories archives)

Writing “as a sport fan as well as a member of the Common Council,” Griffin hoped it would be possible for the differences that broke up the Little Three’s run at The Aud to be set aside “not only for the same of the loyal fans, but also for the sake of the City of Buffalo, which enjoyed much favorable publicity due to the high caliber of ball played in previous contests.”

College basketball’s last great kick at the can came in the end of the 1960s, and it had to do as much with great players as schools setting aside differences.

Each of the Little Three had big stars to help capture the sports passions of Buffalo. After starring for Black Rock’s Cardinal Dougherty High School, Tony Masiello went on to star for Canisius College before being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the 1969 NBA Draft.

Bennett High’s Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to an NCAA Final Four bid in 1970, before a Hall of Fame pro career with the Pistons and Bucks.

And before he ever shot a basket for Niagara, Calvin Murphy — who remains the shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame — was entertaining Bills fans with his champion baton-twirling during halftime breaks at the Rockpile.

The energy and excitement these three brought to the court and to the old Little Three rivalry was just enough for Buffalo to win an NBA franchise in 1970. The Braves were wildly popular until the end of the season, when top players were traded away and the franchise was sold and moved out of town.

But with the huge following of the pro Bills and Sabres, it was too late to rekindle the glory days of the Little Three. An attempt was made in 1996 with the opening of then-Marine Midland Arena, adding UB to make the Big 4. While there was some excitement among fans, it was the schools that put a damper on the idea by not cooperating in scheduling games.

“Does this sound like something out of a 35-year-old time capsule or what?” wrote Larry Felser on one of those opinionated days in 1997.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Carrying your own six-pack into Bills games

By Steve Cichon

It might have been the birth of the modern tailgate party in Buffalo.

A few days before the grand opening of the brand new Rich Stadium in 1973, the Buffalo Bills put fans on notice that they’d no longer be able to take their own six-packs of beer into the stadium, as they’d been able to do the previous 13 seasons at the Rockpile.

When the Buffalo Bills played at War Memorial Stadium from 1960-1972, fans were allowed to carry in a six-pack of beer with them to enjoy the game. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Noting that the changes were being made “for the safety of the fans,” Bills General Manager Robert Lustig told United Press International that the Bills were falling in line with “almost all other major league football stadiums,” and added that War Memorial Stadium was, in part, bring-your-own-beer because there weren’t adequate concession facilities in the 1937-built stadium.

While the more cynical among us might see dollar signs behind the safety warning, the ban was likely a long time coming after a handful of well-publicized incidents at Buffalo’s city-owned entertainment venues.

In response to what Larry Felser called “one of the most inept performances ever put on by a Buffalo football team,” several hundred fans at a 1962 game showered the field at the Rockpile with thousands of beer cans.

Buffalo Stories archives

Two years later, Buffalo Police called it a “near riot” when fans at The Aud hurled empty beer and pop bottles at the stage and at police when a music act failed to show.

Given those two incidents, Police Commissioner William Schneider requested that city lawmakers pass an ordinance barring people from bringing beer into city-owned Memorial Auditorium and War Memorial Stadium.

One of Buffalo’s more famous tailgate parties is hosted by Ken Johnson, who cooks on the front hood of his red 1980 Ford Pinto wagon. He’s known as Pinto Kenny or Pinto Ron– after a writer got his name wrong in a story. Known for his Pinto, he’s also known for bowling ball liquor shots and the spraying of condiments – which started after a request for some ketchup for his hamburger got out of hand at one tailgate party.

When Rich Stadium was built in 1973, there was a proposed law before the Erie County Legislature looking to ban fans from carrying beer into the stadium. A petition against the law gained nearly 5,000 signatures, but the Bills rule made the law unnecessary.

Starting with the Bills move to Orchard Park, if you wanted to have a few of your own beers for the game, you had to have them in the parking lot before you went in the gates. And out in the open farmland country of suburbia, there was plenty of room to have a few beers and spread out.

Tailgating at the Rockpile was different. People parked on city streets or on the tiny front lawns of the people who lived around the stadium. Maybe there were a few kids throwing around a football or older guys chomping on cigars, drinking coffee from a Thermos and reading the newspaper, grabbing their six-packs only as they walked into the stadium — not draining them before.

Over the 43 years since the Bills stopped allowing fans to BYOB, Buffalo’s love of football and beer and Buffaloness has evolved into its own unique cultural experience — the tailgate party like none other.

Buffalo in the 70’s: Bruins purchase should end whispers about Sportservice

By Steve Cichon

On this date 40 years ago, September 2, 1970, The News’ editorial board lauded the NHL’s approval of Jeremy Jacobs’ purchase of the Boston Bruins. In their editorial, they said the league’s blessing should serve as an end to attempts by journalists and the Justice Department to tie Jacobs and the company now known as Delaware North to organized crime.

The Buffalo company was built by Louis Jacobs and then his son Jeremy by loaning money to sports franchises in exchange for long-term concessions rights. Late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, among others, credited the Jacobs family with keeping Major League Baseball afloat during the Depression. Among hundreds of loans, cash lent to Detroit mafia kingpins and interest in a Las Vegas casino raised suspicion.

The News editorialized that congressional findings of no wrongdoing and the swift NHL approval should both spell a clean record for the company.

Rest in Peace, Larry Felser… Memories of a great writer and great friend

By Steve Cichon

BUFFALO, NY – It’s one of those opinionated days, and all of my opinions are on my friend Larry Felser today. Larry used to weave silly observations into gold in columns that started this way. I’m just writing down a bunch of memories of my old pal and sharing some great audio clips.


For about a decade, I got paid to hang out with Larry Felser on Mondays for an hour. I produced his radio shows on WBEN and WNSA Radio. Larry was one of those special guys who was able to move comfortably among millionaire athletes and sports owners, and just as easily among 16 year old kids who worked in radio and loved hearing his stories. Well, at least this 16 year old kid.

My friendship was cemented with Larry the day his car broken down a few blocks from the station in the middle of the Elmwood/Hertel intersection. He called from a payphone saying he’d be late, so I drove down there, let him take my car to the station, and waited for Triple-A with his car. He mentioned that all the time, never forgot it. I think he may have even mentioned it the last time we spoke.

He was like that. Those were the kinds of stories he’d tell you about people. He could sum up a Hall of Famer by describing the time he had breakfast with him in a hotel lobby.

To know Larry Felser was to know the heyday of print journalism. He was a Buffalonian in the way we used to mean it. He was the smartest, best mannered lunch bucket guy, but he knew he was no better than the kid he went to Canisius with, who was working at the mill. And while Larry wasn’t throwing around 100 pound bags of feed, he was one of the hardest working guys I ever met. Even after he was “retired” from The News.

“Now here’s a guy….” as Larry would say, who just loved to talk and listen. Larry is the only person I’ve ever met who I could imagine, 1940’s movie style, get on the phone, and tell an editor, “Stop the presses! Have I got a Cracker Jack story for you!” He had that gutty old school newspaper man feel about him, even though he was at least a generation removed from working in that old, old school environment.

Some quick hit Larry memories::

“Fast as wood.” It was fast as wood, or skates like wood… This phrase was written by Larry about Dave Andreychuk, I believe. But I know for a fact it was one of Jim Kelley (the hockey writer)’s all-time favorite line, and as he repeated it so often, it’s become a favorite line among those of us who loved both Jim and Larry… namely Randy Bushover, John Demerle, and me.

Larry was one of the best storytellers around. His delivery was plodding, but he made up for it with his keen and scathing observation skills, and his ability to turn a phrase. The best stories, of course, came during the commercial breaks. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but one day Larry went on the most wonderful, colorful, captivating description of how he used to sneak off to “The Palace Burlesk,” and give a very vivid diatribe about why “Rosie La Rose” was the favorite dancer of him and his friends.

I remember word for word the 1940s slang phraseology used in that discussion of Ms. La Rose, and supplemental offerings she’d provide above and beyond the other entertainers at The Palace. For Larry’s sake, I’ll keep it to myself right now, but I’ll never forget it. In fact, I use the line often. In 1945, it was almost certainly vulgar. Today, it simply makes people laugh.

Another line I heard Larry say often, one which I almost always credit him when I use it.. “My most creative moments in front of a keyboard are when I write my expense accounts.”

I’m picturing Larry’s whole face smiling as he’d say that. Larry’s whole face smiled. It filled a room with warmth.

Toward the end of his career at the News, he grew a full beard. The line I heard him use on more than one occasion… “When I started growing the beard, I was going for Hemingway. It’s come out more like Box Car Willie.” He had the beard for quite a while before The News updated his photo.

One year, he gave me a book for Christmas, and told me that if I wanted to be able to picture what football used to be like in Buffalo in the 40s, that it was just like this book. I’ve read this book about the Baltimore Colts and their fans about 10 times. I wish I asked Larry which other books I should read.

One book I decided to read was Larry’s on the AFL. I bought it and took it with me on vacation one week, and loved it. Read it cover to cover very quickly, and I still can’t put into words what happened when I got to the last page. Larry went through a list of thank yous. NFL and AFL owners (all his friends). Hall of Fame players (all his friends). Some of the greatest sports writers of the 20th century (all his friends). Some of the great sports writers and broadcasters from Buffalo (all his friends). And me.


I was just thunderstruck, and to this day, I don’t know what to say. While he has the ear of most of the most important people in sports; that Larry even knew the name of some chump kid from a radio station really shows something about the man. That he’d memorialize our friendship on the same page that he did with Lamar Hunt and Will McDonough is still beyond comprehension to me.

But Larry is beyond comprehension to me. I’m better at an awful lot of things for just having been in his presence. Thanks, Larry.

Reformatted & Updated pages from finding a new home at
Reformatted & Updated pages from finding a new home at