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March 23, 2008

Cliff Schmautz

Long before the Buffalo Sabres were a part of the National Hockey League, hockey fans in Buffalo were treated to minor league action with a team the city embraced - the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League.

Cliff, the older brother of popular NHLer Bobby Schmautz, was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on March 17, 1939. He grew up playing the great game of hockey on the frozen lakes of cold Canadian prairies. Though he was small, he was good enough to crack the Saskatoon Jr. Quakers in 1956. The intense Schmautz played with the Jr. Quakers for 2 seasons, but never had any interest from the six-team National Hockey League.

Undeterred, Cliff opted to pursue professional hockey opportunities in the minor leagues. He would play in little known leagues and in cities such as Nelson, British Columbia, Omaha, Nebraska, Calgary, Alberta, and Sault, Ste. Marie Ontario before finding a home in Buffalo with the American Hockey League Bisons.

Cliff, a 5'10" and 165 pound right winger, entertained Buffalo fans for parts of three seasons. In his only full season in Buffalo he enjoyed a 24 goal, 39 point 1962-63 campaign, and then erupted with 8 goals and 12 points in 13 playoff games.

Part way through the 1963-64 season Cliff was traded to the Portland Buckaroos of the professional Western Hockey League. It was in Portland that Cliff enjoyed his finest years as a hockey player. He would ultimately spend a total of 10 years in Oregon, and, along with brother Arnie, emerged as a star player who would rank as a legend in Portland hockey circles.

"Cliff had the talent to be one of the best ever," said Gord Fashoway, a Buckaroos player who later became the team's coach. "He just had so much ability. There were a lot of nights you'd look at him and wonder if all the NHL scouts had fallen asleep."

Cliff's scoring prowess could not be denied. In just second his full season in Portland Cliff led the entire WHL in goals (46) and points (104), both career highs. He would remain as a consistent performer over the following seasons, but was always in top form in the playoffs. He was always a threat in the post season, twice leading the league in goal scoring.

His offense was strong, but so was he. Despite his tiny size he was a feared fighter. You wouldn't know it from his low penalty minute totals, but not many people wanted to tangle with him. He used his lightning quick left hand to knock out more than one opponent who he was angry with. It was never a good idea to get Cliff mad - his brother and teammates agree that he played his best hockey when someone or something upset him.

In 1970-71 the Buffalo Sabres entered the National Hockey League. At that time there was something called the Intra-League draft which enabled movement from one league to another so that players wouldn't be buried in the minors without a chance at moving to a higher level. The Sabres took a quick interest in Cliff. Not only was he coming off of his second best professional season with 40 goals and 73 points, but his background in the city of Buffalo could be used as a marketing ploy. The Sabres selected Cliff on June 9, 1970.

Cliff had his ups and downs in his first NHL season. The 31 year old rookie scored 5 goals and 12 points in 26 games with the Sabres before he was placed on waivers. On December 28th, 1970, the Philadelphia Flyers picked up Cliff and he continued to play in the NHL for the remainder of the year, scoring 8 goals and 20 points in the remaining 30 games for the Flyers.

"He had the talent to play in the NHL long before that," Fashoway said. "I mean, he could do just about everything. He could shoot the puck, he could stick-handle, he could deke people. ... And he could skate. He could do it all."

The Flyers and the Buckaroos reached a cash agreement to see Cliff return to Portland in 1971-72, a move Cliff welcomed. He enjoyed his shot at the NHL, but his heart and home were in Portland. Cliff would play 3 more seasons in Portland before hanging up the blades with few regrets.

After retiring Cliff remained in Portland, working with Arnie at a local roofing company. Cliff died in March 2002 after complications from heart surgery.

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