It has been such a busy news week for the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills that I couldn’t help but think of legendary Channel 7 sports anchor Rick Azar.
Actually, I was thinking about Azar even before the mess with former Sabres President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine and the Bills’ postponement of the Toronto game.
That’s because Azar, news anchor Irv Weinstein and weatherman Tom Jolls are coming to the Buffalo Museum of History on March 21 to talk about their historic reign as news champions here.
All the recent sports news just made me want to talk to Azar more.
We haven’t spoken in 25 years. That’s when the 84-year-old Buffalo native surprised everyone and had his final sportscast on the top-rated news station as Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” played to highlights of Azar’s career, which started when he signed the station on in 1958.
Azar’s commentaries often were a highlight. He delivered many with that golden voice. He got mad in his commentaries. Really mad. He let his anger show. He remembered one that still has relevance today. It was delivered after Bills fans were outraged that the team raised ticket prices. (See, it has happened before).
“All hell broke loose,” recalled Azar. “I said, ‘Hey, the Buffalo Bills can charge anything they want, and if you don’t want to pay it, nobody is holding a gun to your head to pay it. Don’t buy a ticket.’ ”
The suggestion to stop buying tickets didn’t please the Bills’ public relations department.
Azar and his wife, Edith, moved to Whispering Pines, N.C., after he retired, but he still follows Western New York teams. He was happy to see that the Bills “postponed” playing the Toronto game.
“I thought it was bad idea to go there in the first place,” he said. “I thought it was like an insult to the fans in Buffalo. I didn’t think taking a game away from fans that were primarily supporting them was a good idea. I thought it was a bum idea.”
He goes on his computer every morning to chat with Weinstein and to see what is going on in Western New York, where two of his four children live. The Internet helped him follow the Sabres’ intrigue and imagine how he would have handled it.
It used to be much more difficult for teams to play “I Got a Secret” and keep controversial details to themselves. It was stunning to read on the social networks last weekend how little the media knew and how much erroneous speculation there was.
“There is a story behind the story there,” said Azar. “I’d sure like to know what was going on behind that baby.”
He hasn’t seen the TV coverage here. But he has correctly gathered that it isn’t like the days when he had relationships with team owners.
“If this was going on when I was working, I could put a phone call in to the owner,” said Azar. “Not that I would get a story or anything, but I sure as hell would find out something that developed there and why it developed. … Anybody who was worth his salt in my day – we had some tough competition with you guys in print. If you didn’t dive in there, you’d get your fanny kicked. You had to make those connections.”
“I’d be guessing, but I don’t know if TV guys do that or are as competitive as we were. If I want to know anything, print is my source of information. It doesn’t seem like TV is as competitive or maybe as caring. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is missing. That really is an observation made without being there and watching the guys on TV. Reading the columns every day, I think the guys in print still have their finger on the pulse. I’m not sure the guys on TV do.”
Azar has his fingers in many things in retirement. He just finished a book, “Tales from Azar’s Attic,” about his life and career. He expects it to be published shortly. He and his wife attend theater and symphony performances in North Carolina. They also visit Western New York often.
Near the end of our conversation, I had to ask him about Channel 7’s production of “I’ve Got a Secret” 25 years ago: It was difficult to learn why he left Channel 7 almost a decade before Weinstein. He wasn’t 60 yet. There was speculation that he left in a contract dispute with Queen City Broadcasting after it took over from Capital Cities.
Azar, who had a brief acting career, said that wasn’t it. He figured he had enough money to go on to his second act in life. His wife, a Niagara Falls native, had also had enough of the weather and enjoyed their vacations in North Carolina, where they have a house by a lake.
“I was ready to leave,” he said. “It was my time. … I think some people were surprised. I didn’t do what I did for the fame. I understand people that want that notoriety. That was never part of me. I’m not a limelight seeker or any of that stuff.”
“In some ways, it was an annoyance to have people recognizing you wherever you went. Sometimes you wanted to be sitting in a place and not have people coming over to you. It was very nice, and I appreciated it very much. But Irv, Tom and I never really wanted that. We were guys doing our job and lucky enough to be extraordinarily successful at it. We had a great run. I was lucky to be connected with those two guys, and it is something I will cherish and take with me on my last day.”
He’s been off Channel 7 for 25 years, but Azar should still expect some fans to recognize him when he visits area restaurants later this month. If someone comes to his table now, he won’t be annoyed.
“Are you kidding? At my age, I’d be thrilled if somebody recognizes me,” he said with a laugh.