Sullivan: After News 4 and ‘Hockey Hotline,’ Brian Blessing never lost his love for Buffalo sports

Jerry Sullivan

John Blessing was 11 years older than his little brother, a gap that sometimes made him feel like a surrogate father. All their lives, like many siblings, he and Brian communicated best through the common language of sports.

John would take Brian outside to play sports every chance he got when he was younger. He taught him the games, shared his passion for certain teams, and dreamed of a time when his brother might actually work in sports for a living.

Sometime in the late 1960s, John was living in Buffalo and attending graduate school at UB. Brian was back in their hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., close enough to become a fan of the Buffalo sports scene. Once, John told his brother he had an opportunity to move elsewhere.

“He sent me a note that said, ‘I’d pick garbage if I could live in Buffalo and go to Bills, Braves and Sabres games and eat Bocce’s pizza and eat Bailo’s beef on weck!’

“Ten years later, I’m carrying the camera pack in the locker room when he’s interviewing players,” John Blessing said on Monday. “It’s such a wonderful story.”

Brian Blessing grew up to live his dream of living and working in Buffalo, where his older brother worked as a cancer researcher and settled down for good. Brian spent a quarter century there, first as a sportscaster at WIVB-TV and later as Mike Robitaille’s partner on Hockey Hotline, the popular Sabres post-game show at the old Empire Sports Network.

Blessing’s impact on the Buffalo sports scene resonated years later on Sunday with the news that he had died at 64 of an apparent heart attack in Las Vegas, where he hosted that city’s Hockey Hotline as well as “Sportsbook Radio,” a nationally syndicated sports gambling show. Social media sites were flooded with fond remembrances of Blessing’s time in Buffalo.

The people who worked with Blessing in his Buffalo days remembered him as an infectious, energetic personality who possessed an exhaustive knowledge of sports and a natural, effortless announcing skill.

News 4’s Jacquie Walker, Van Miller and Brian Blessing bundled up during coverage of Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis.

“In 42 years in this crazy business, I never worked with anybody who was better at working without a script!” said News 4 anchor Jacquie Walker, who covered four Super Bowls with Blessing. “Time and time again, as ‘crunch time’ approached, Brian would stride out to the set or our live remote location, throw on his mic, smile and deliver a lengthy, knowledgeable, smooth, and engaging wrap of the day’s events or the story at hand.”

Former News 4 reporter Rich Newberg has similar memories of Blessing as a young red-haired sportscaster. He remembers seeing Blessing stride into the building one day just before the noon news, wearing shorts and carrying a newspaper under his arm.

“I said, ‘Aren’t you doing the news?’” Newberg said. “He walked from the parking lot, took his seat in the anchor chair and 30 seconds later, the newscast began. He had no script, and it was flawless. He just knew. He knew the games, he knew the players, and he was able to do that.”

Carol Crissey Nigrelli, who was known as Carol Jasen at the height of her career at News 4, worked with Brian at a TV station in Harrisburg, Pa., in the late 1970s. In 1979, she quit the station and went to work as a cocktail waitress. Blessing, who always had his sights set on Buffalo, went up to interview at News 4. They had no sports jobs at the time.

Joe Kirik, the news director, asked Blessing if he was interested in doing weather. He said, no, but he knew someone who was looking for a job.

“Brian told me to send my tape, which I did,” Nigrelli recalled from Sarasota, where her husband, Craig, is an anchor. “I got the job as the 11 o’clock anchor and reporter.”

A few months later, a weekend sports job opened at WIVB-TV. Carol reminded the bosses about Blessing and said he’d be perfect for the opening. Soon, they were working together in Buffalo during a time that Newberg, a founding member of the Buffalo Broadcasters Association, refers to as ‘the second golden era at Channel 4.’

“Brian’s energy was so infectious,” Nigrelli said. “Everyone who worked with him loved him. He brought so much energy to that sportscast and he knew his stuff. It was a new era in television, for sure.”

Blessing also had a quick wit and an Elvis Presley impersonation that would put his colleagues in stitches.

“He’d get Carol Jasen laughing so hard I thought she would pee her pants,” Newberg said.

“Oh, my gosh, when he did his Elvis imitation!” Nigrelli said. “I’ve seen the same thing for 30 years and every time I’m on the floor. His humor was infectious. I know people will tell you how great a sportscaster he was. He ad-libbed and came in a minute before his sportscast.

“But I just wanted to say, Brian was a singular talent and I don’t think he realized that. I don’t think he took himself seriously.”

Blessing’s gift for getting a rise out of people came in handy when he went to the Empire Sports Network to co-host Hockey Hotline with Mike Robitaille. Bob Koshinski, the Empire general manager, had competed with Blessing in his days at Channel 7. He felt Brian’s TV skills and personality would be an ideal complement to Robitaille, who had handled the show on his own for the first four years.

“I felt Mike was somewhat hindered by some of the formatics,” said Koshinski, whose father grew up in Wilkes-Barre, like the Blessings. “It was the logistical issues that a host has to do, such as throwing it to commercials, taking cues in his ear and that type of thing.

“Mike was always at his best when he could just go, when he could rant and freelance and talk about the game. So, I brought Brian in. It took off. Mike was able to just be Mike. And Brian knew exactly what buttons to push to get him going. It was a little bit of pro wrestling.”

Brian Blessing and Mike Robitaille on “Hockey Hotline”

The public loved it. Koshinski said Hockey Hotline had a TV rating about half the Sabres game telecasts in his heyday, which was huge for a post-game show. Robitaille and Blessing didn’t pull punches. They were there to give honest criticism. They didn’t kiss the players’ behinds.

“No, we didn’t,” Robitaille said Monday. “We didn’t, and we took our beatings for it. We weren’t the most popular people with the players. But it’s funny, they also listened and watched and couldn’t wait to hear what was said, though.”

Robitaille and Blessing became good friends on Hockey Hotline. They went on vacations together, played the horses together (neither was averse to the occasional wager). At one point, Robitaille became general manager at Fort Erie Race Track and hired Blessing to be the marketing and public relations director.

On the air, they would sometimes spar like brothers.

“He could piss me off from minute to minute and fire the show up.” Robitaille said. “Yeah, he was good at pushing my buttons. I got him pretty good, too. He was really intense, boy. He was good at his job, and I loved working with him. We worked so well together, and he was a bulwark. He had the constitution of a horse.

“Oh, my god. He had a 24-hour clock. He was non-stop!”

They had a rousing seven-year run on Hockey Hotline, which ended when the Rigas family, which owned the station and the Sabres at the time, was embroiled in financial scandal. Blessing was let go in 2003 and Empire ceased operations two years later. He moved to Las Vegas, where his son, Brian Jr., was living, and made his way in the sports media world out west.

John Blessing said his brother was found dead in a bathroom of his home in Las Vegas early Sunday morning. Brian’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter had gone out late at night for tacos, one of his favorites. They found him when they returned, apparently of a heart attack. His wife, Marie, was in the hospital at the time, recovering from COVID-19.

“He had been complaining of leg pain, sciatica stuff,” said Newberg, who remained close to the Blessings over the years. “It may have been a blood clot, I don’t know.”

Brian Blessing, left, and the News 4 team post for a photo in Miami in 1993.

Robitaille said his immediate reaction on hearing the news was “Another one. I’m losing all my friends that I was close to.”

John Blessing lost a dear friend, too, his little brother and his hero. John admired Brian and considered him lucky to work in sports. He often wished he had done the same. They shared a love for sports that endured over the decades. If you read Brian’s social media, you knew a big part of his heart remained in Buffalo.

“He had the dish and would still watch the games,” John Blessing said. “One time I went out and we went to a bar to watch the World Cup and he was telling me about Dylan Cozens. But the Bills game was always the ticket. We’d send text messages back and forth during games, talking about how they were doing, questioning Daboll’s play calls.

“I thought Hockey Hotline was a great show,” John said, “and I’m glad to see how many people responded to it when he died.”

He hesitated, sobbing over the phone. “The thing that probably meant even more to me was the people who said what a nice guy he was. He spoke sports to me for a long time. I was proud of him.”

It was sports that connected them, through the years. The day his brother died, the Bills clinched the AFC East title. John watched the game from home after hearing about his brother’s sudden death. On an impulse, he reached out to Brian one more time.

“I sent him a text message during the Bills game, even though I knew he wouldn’t get it. It’s like, ‘They wasted another damn timeout. I don’t believe this!’”

Time is such a precious thing, after all. You never know how much you have left.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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