I wasn’t Ed Kilgore’s biggest fan for most of his 40-year career at Channel 2.
He wasn’t mine, either.
So it might come as a surprise that we recently had a two-hour conversation over a few drinks catching up about his life a year after leaving Channel 2. We talked about his new career working for Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, his old career at WGRZ-TV, fracking and our children.
It started with Kilgore thanking me for giving him a month’s vacation a year ago when I wrote a column explaining that he couldn’t continue to do Channel 2 sportscasts after accepting a job with the Sabres owner.
For journalism’s sake, I should add that Kilgore’s “thank you” dripped with sarcasm.
Kilgore understood my stand but he still disagrees with it.
“I just felt like after 40 years that most viewers would understand that my first commentary wasn’t going to be what a great owner the Sabres have,” said Kilgore. “I was just finishing out the month and I felt I just sort of deserved some benefit of the doubt there.
“But the station agreed with you and said we’ll just have you do a final goodbye. … And then we’ll still pay you into the end of May. I got a month’s paid vacation. I’m saying it sarcastically. But if you hadn’t written anything, I would have finished May. I’m thanking you tongue-in-cheek.”
I’ll take a thank you any way I can get it.
Kilgore really is thankful he was hired by Pegula. He calls the year since he left Channel 2 “the best year of my life.”
“I feel like I’ve gone back to college again,” explained Kilgore. “I’ve read so many textbooks and loads of information about the oil and gas business and its problems and how it works.”
He also is pretty much his own boss. He works out of his Orchard Park home, with trips to Pegula’s East Management Services north of Pittsburgh two or three times a month. His official title is vice president of public relations for East Management, which he said is “sort of what became of East Resources after Terry sold it to Royal Dutch Shell.”
“Terry has given me some guidelines on what he wants me to do and I’m working on them,” explained Kilgore. “They are to put a more pro-slant on the controversial oil and gas business. Fracking is a dirty word, especially in New York State, where there is a moratorium going on. Part of my business is to win minds and influence people.”
In other words, after years covering sports, Kilgore has become a cheerleader. The old sarcastic me might have said that isn’t much of a stretch. But I’ve reformed.
He said he hasn’t studied this much since graduating from the University of Missouri in 1969. The 67-year-old Kilgore put a hard hat on, went out in the field and learned how things are done.
“I learned the business from the ground floor up,” said Kilgore. “And that exposure for three months or so convinced me that these people are very environmentally conscious. They are hunters and fishermen. They are very serious about safety and not polluting the environment. That made my job that much easier to do.”
“My job ultimately is to find ways to illuminate the public between the discrepancy between Pennsylvania and New York,” said Kilgore. “Here is the irony: New York City is now running its vehicles on natural gas. They are importing it from Pennsylvania.”
You can hear in his voice Kilgore’s passion for his new job, especially when compared to his final few years at Channel 2. He sort of concedes that point.
“I was very ready to leave television,” he said. “Forty years in one place was wonderful. I enjoyed most of it. But there comes a time. Adam (Benigni, who replaced him as sports director) was ready to go. I was ready to go, too. But I just needed something better to go to.”
So life begins at 66? “Actually it starts at 63,” said Kilgore. “That’s when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. That’s what really got me fired up.”
In a way, Kilgore’s survival at one TV station that experienced so much turmoil over decades might have been harder than climbing the mountain.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to survive in one place through seven or eight different owners, about 20 general managers, about 60 different anchor combinations,” he said.
He said his relationship with Pegula started when the Sabres owner sat next to him at a practice shortly after Kilgore emceed a 2011 memorial for the late Sabres great Rick Martin. Pegula knew Kilgore from his days as the host of Channel 2’s intermissions during Sabres telecasts. They had a long conversation. Then they had brief conversations over a few years.
“Our conversations were never about hockey,” said Kilgore. “They were about former ownership. And we reminisced. … One day I happened to mention to him that I was winding down in broadcasting and that’s what led to him finally asking if I wanted to make a change. One day out of the blue he called me at home. Then it was very quickly after that.”
He also got another important call recently, telling Kilgore he was in the 2014 class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
“It is like anything else, you go long enough without getting fired you’re probably eventually going to get in there,” he cracked.
He paused when asked about his sports TV highlights. There were the years the Bills went to the Super Bowl and he did a show with quarterback Jim Kelly. The years the Sabres were good. The years Channel 2 made its comeback.
“I never considered myself a journalist first,” said Kilgore. “I’m a guy who loves sports. I became a sportscaster because it was a way to relate my enthusiasm to an audience. Because of that, people like you and others have been critical of that.
“A lot of people think I’m too easy on teams, owners or players. And that’s fine. I really could care less about that. Here is the thing: I think you have to be yourself. That’s what I did from the day I came out of Mizzou to the day I retired. That’s just the way I looked at it.”
But he did point to one journalism highlight.
“I was the first one reporting that Alex Mogilny’s defection would be leading to Buffalo,” said Kilgore. “I can tell it now. Scotty Bowman was my source. He used to yell at me when we were on the road, which is kind of ironic. Some of the people I criticized have become my friends.”
I briefly thought that he was talking about how we were bonding and gave him a look.
“That won’t happen,” said Kilgore, laughing. “You put me near the bottom of the rankings of the Top 10 sportscasters. That is one thing I can never forget. I can never get past that. But I am also not one who has grudges. But I won’t forget.”
He said he doesn’t miss the criticism – or the job.
“I miss the people. I don’t miss the business at all because of the way it has changed … I don’t miss being on the air one bit.”
He texts to Benigni every other week about personal things. He said he never talks to Benigni about the speculation surrounding Terry and Kim Pegula’s plans to bid for the Buffalo Bills.
“I have not been the source of one single thing that Adam has said,” said Kilgore. “I told him right away that whenever it came to being a source for something, I’m not going to be that guy. There is no one in the world I am more loyal to, other than my wife, than the big guy and Kim.”
Recently, Kilgore said Benigni asked if he missed the excitement surrounding the stories concerning the Bills’ future.
“I told him ‘you have no idea – how much I don’t miss it,’ ” Kilgore said.
Kilgore has bigger plans to worry about. Family plans. He and his wife, Deborah, are planning the marriage of their daughter Shannon in Scotland next summer. After our two-hour bonding session, I wouldn’t be too surprised if an invitation arrived in the mail.
OK, that’s tongue-in-cheek. We may like each other now. But I have a better chance of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.