Two months into the Buffalo Sabres’ first season in 1970, tenor Joe Byron got a phone call that would make him a Buffalo pop culture icon.
The anthem singer wasn’t working out, and the Sabres asked if he was available.
It was a quick turnaround, and he never even had the chance to rehearse with organist Norm Wullen before he sang for the first time. His first night at Memorial Auditorium, he climbed up to Norm’s spot in the rafters – only to be told that he’d be singing from the penalty box.
He asked Norm to play some standard tunes on the organ on his way down, so he could get used to his playing, and their first rendition of “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” went off without a hitch.
For next 15 hockey seasons or so, most Sabres home games would start with public address announcer Milt Ellis asking everyone to stand and for men to remove their hats for the singing of the anthems by Byron, accompanied by Wullen on organ.
Just about every part of Byron’s game night experience speaks of a simpler time.
After singing the anthem, Byron would leave the penalty box, and try to find an open seat to watch the game. He never had a season ticket, and was never assigned a seat by the club. He’d wander the aisles, and on most occasions, a friendly fan would recognize him and invite him to sit.
Before kiss cams, applause meters and T-shirt guns, it was Byron who kept the fans going during breaks in the action.
On holidays or special occasions, Byron’s voice was the Aud’s entertainment between periods. Christmas carols during the holidays: “Auld Lang Syne” for New Year’s, something romantic on Valentine’s Day and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for St. Patrick’s Day.
After a series of heart attacks, he began to slow down in the early 1980s and gave up singing at every game, and along with Wullen and Ellis, faded into our Sabres memories.
You can hear Wullen’s organ and Byron’s national anthem starting at 7:42 in the video below.