Wippert captures 40 years with Sabres


Dave DeLuca/ The Record

SUNY Buffalo State graduate Bill Wippert is closing out his 40th season photographing Buffalo Sabres hockey. Wippert worked at The Record during his tenure at Buffalo State

Dave DeLuca, Managing Editor

It’s Monday night, two and half hours before puck drop between the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals. The stands are empty and players are outside their respective locker rooms stretching and kicking around soccer balls.

Bill Wippert sits alone in his “office,” or as former Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi called it, the “Batcave.” The makeshift work area is pinned in the framework of the First Niagara Center’s retractable seats and is just big enough for two small tables and three chairs.

As Wippert works on captioning photos, a lone light in the room glows on his face from his laptop until…

“Ah, yes, got it,” Wippert says after getting the tiny luminaire light mounted on the wall to finally turn on. “Now we can see a little bit in here.”

Wippert, with a camera wrapped around his shoulder, steps over metal bars and avoids the puddles of water left behind by melted ice as he works on setting up a remote camera. The room is anything but luxurious.

“We’re here for one reason – because it’s beautiful,” Wippert jokes. “Just kidding, we’re here because of the three rules of real estate, which is location, location and location. There’s nice, warm, beautifully lit areas somewhere else, but here, it’s all about immediacy and we don’t have time to run around.

“As the players are going on the ice, I can finish my last caption of a picture I’m working on and in 15 steps, I’m in my photo spot.”

Wippert is a photographer and he’s been capturing Sabres hockey for 40 years. During a 60-minute game, he can’t miss any action. He never knows what kind of moment might play out right before his eyes.

“That’s just a crazy number, seems made up,” Wippert joked about this season marking 40 years with the club. “It’s sort of the same thing over and over, yet, it’s completely different. You never know when you’re going to see something that you haven’t seen before. Time flies when you’re having fun, they say.”

40 years ago, the Batcave wasn’t even necessary. He could arrive to games much later and relax during intermissions. Today, it’s all about sending photos as quick as possible. Every period he’s sending eight to 10 photos to the Sabres’ broadcast booth where they’ll be shown on TV. Then, some photos are filed to the Sabres website staff and social media coordinator Craig Kanalley.

“His work is really invaluable,” Kanalley said. “He’s so talented at what he does. He’s able to get us images very quickly from ice level that people really respond to on social media.”

There is so much editing, so much filing and it has to be done so fast that Wippert usually has one or two assistants helping him. Joe Dinki, one of Wippert’s buddies from college and a former writer at The Record, helps Wippert edit photos, caption them and ship them off to the respective destinations.

“I’ve known Bill since we were in college,” Dinki said, “we became friends the moment we met. I’ve been helping him out since September and it’s a blast. I understand it’s not a one-man job anymore and I’m happy to help out.”

While Wippert takes photos for the Sabres, the National Hockey League images are distributed through Getty Images. Getty is a photo wire that distributes photos to any outlet with a subscription. Wippert’s photos end up appearing in newspapers and websites across the country.

“Before digital, nothing I shot was being used the next day,” Wippert said. “Now there is this immediate use. They’re being uploaded right away, we’re now an immediate news service.”

Wippert got his start with the Sabres much earlier than some would expect.

He remembers when he was a senior at St. Joe’s, a catholic high school in Tonawanda, and seeing Sabres’ public relations director, Paul Wieland, at a father-son communion breakfast at his local church.

After the breakfast, Wippert manned up and walked over to Wieland.

“I went up to him and said, ‘I’ve always been a hockey fan, I play hockey in the town. I was wondering if I could take some pictures at a game.’” Wippert recalled. “At that point, he could have said no. But he said yes and set me up with an exhibition game.”

It was the days before digital cameras, electronic filing and cameras that captured 13 frames a second. Wippert had friends process his film and had some prints made. When the prints were done, he went back to Wieland and showed him his work.

“He asked me to do another game, of course I said yes, “Wippert said.

That was all Wippert needed.

In January of 1975, Wippert’s third game taking photos, Sabres great Gilbert Perreault broke his leg after getting in a collision with Mike Robitaille. It was season-changing injury for the Sabres.

“I got a really good picture of it,” Wippert said. “My friends processed it for me and I took it to Paul. He liked it and said, ‘Hey, can we use this in our program? We’d pay $5 a photo and if you’d like, I’ll give you a press pass for the rest of the season.’”

It eventually led to a career.

Wippert chose to attend Buffalo State over Syracuse University. Buffalo State was in its early stages of building the communication department and Wippert looked at it as his best option.

“I thought I could go to school and stick around town and get some experience doing the Sabres thing and whatever else I could find,” Wippert said. “As opposed to going away for school and possibly just getting a great four-year education, but maybe not getting that experience.”

He began interning with The Buffalo News and immediately after graduating from Buffalo State, The News hired him full-time. That’s where he’d spend the next 31 years.

Along the way, he covered everything from general news assignments to the Buffalo Bills four-straight Super Bowls, while continuing to do work for the Sabres, usually heading over to games after his shift at The News. Wippert left The News in 2011 after being given incentive based buyouts to retire.

His retirement from The News allowed Wippert to turn his focus to the Sabres. He gets to the First Niagara Center three hours before games. He sets his laptop up and makes sure his equipment is working properly. When the puck drops, it’s non-stop working.

“I have friends come to the game all the time,” Wippert said. “They’ll call me up and be like, ‘Hey, Bill. We’re in Suite 46 tonight, you should stop up and have a drink when you’re not shooting.’ It’s just so funny when people say that.”

“It’s constant go, go, go. We’re running around with our hair on fire from beginning to end.”

His workload has increased even more since Terry Pegula bought the team and then purchased the Buffalo Bills. One day he’s taking pictures of food at the Harbor Center, the next he’s shooting a Sabres game, the next he’s following the Pegulas around Ralph Wilson Stadium.

But, heck, he doesn’t mind hammering out edits in the Batcave either.

“It’s not lost on me that I’m privileged to get paid to do things that are so much fun,” Wippert said. “I have a great view of, sometimes, historic events. Sometimes, it’s just another game. Every once in awhile, it’s those things that people will remember forever.”

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