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Ten greatest athletes in Buffalo sports history

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Bruce Smith (L), Thurman Thomas (C) and Jim Kelly.
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Bruce Smith's (L) HOF Induction ceremony with Thurman Thomas (C) and Jim Kelly. (USA Today Sports)

Editor's note: YCN contributor Paula Thompson has alphabetically compiled her list of the 10 greatest professional athletes for Buffalo. Jim Kelly was easily voted No. 1 by the users over former teammate Bruce Smith. See poll results to the right.

[Vote for No. 1: Los Angeles | Oakland | San Diego | San Francisco | Complete series]

Buffalo takes a lot of punishment when it comes to sports: "Wide right," four straight Super Bowl losses, "no goal" -- that's just a handful of what we've been through as fans. The Bills and Sabres may not be contending for their respective titles annually, but many of the athletes that have come through our town are champions in our hearts, leaving a lasting impression by not only what they've done on the field or the ice, but what they've done away from it. These 10 athletes are among the top "champions" we've seen.

Joe DeLamielleure (Bills, 1973-79, 1985)

DeLamielleure was a key member of the Bills' "Electric Company" that paved the way for O.J. Simpson's 2,000-plus-yard season in 1973. The offensive guard, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003, is still active in the community around Buffalo, and recently undertook a new challenge: he's walking from Buffalo to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio to raise awareness for Grace's Lamp, an organization that helps pay for prosthetics for the children of families in need.

Dominik Hasek (Sabres, 1992-2001)

One of the all-time great goaltenders in NHL history, his time in Buffalo was sometimes controversial, often unbelievable, and very rewarding for the Czech netminder. Hasek won the Vezina Trophy as top goalie six times as a Sabre as well as the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Hasek played 491 games for the Sabres with a record of 234-172-70, 55 shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.22. A gold medalist in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Hasek is still active in the charity he set up during his time in Buffalo, Hasek's Heroes, which helps underprivileged children in Buffalo play hockey.

Jim Kelly (Bills, 1986-96)

Kelly, who appeared in four straight Super Bowls and directed the "K-Gun" offense that resulted in him throwing a franchise record 237 touchdowns, had his No. 12 jersey retired by the team. Kelly, a first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2002), stayed in Buffalo after his 11 seasons with the Bills, becoming a community advocate for newborn disease screening after his son, Hunter, was diagnosed with Krabbe disease. He also runs youth football camps in Buffalo.

Pat LaFontaine (Sabres, 1991-97)

He came to town and the fans immediately opened their arms and hearts -- after all, he mentioned that one of his heroes growing up was Sabre legend Gilbert Perreault. LaFontaine scored a team-record 148 points (53 goals, 95 assists) in his first season in Buffalo. Following numerous concussions, LaFontaine retired from the game and began the Companions in Courage Foundation, which builds interactive game rooms in children's hospitals throughout North America, some of which can be found in Buffalo. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.

Rick Martin (Sabres, 1971-81)

Along with Perreault and Rene Robert, "Rico" was part of the Sabres' popular and potent "French Connection" line in the 1970s. After spending the last couple years of his career with the Los Angeles Kings, he returned to the Buffalo area following his retirement as a businessman. His death in March 2011 brought a huge outpouring from fans and Sabres' management, who opened up the First Niagara Center for a public memorial to the popular player.

Ryan Miller (Sabres, 2002-present)

Miller came from a hockey family in Michigan and became the darling of the Sabres franchise for most of his eight seasons as a starter in the NHL. Miller has played 500 NHL regular season games -- all as a Sabre -- and has a record of 269-164-53 with 28 shutouts; questions remain about how far into the future he'll remain a Sabre, however. On the international level, Miller nearly stole the Olympic gold medal from team Canada single-handedly in 2010, leading the USA to a silver in Vancouver and being named the MVP of the tournament. In the community, Miller formed the Steadfast Foundation to raise awareness of childhood cancers.

Gilbert Perreault (Sabres, 1970-87)

The popular "French Connection" member was the Sabres' first draft pick in 1970 and played his entire career in the Blue and Gold, retiring in 1987 with 512 goals and 814 assists. Perreault, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990, is the only Sabre to have worn No. 11, and it was the first number ever retired by the Sabres; today it sits in the rafters of First Niagara Center between the numbers of Martin (7) and Robert (14). The trio has also been immortalized in bronze as a statue in front of the Sabres' home arena.

Bruce Smith (Bills, 1985-99)

The overall No. 1 draft pick in 1985 lived up to the hype in a long, lustrous career with the Bills. In his 15 seasons in Buffalo, the defensive end averaged 11 sacks per season, including a career-high 19 in 1990. With 200 total, Smith is still the all-time leader in QB sacks.

With the Bills, Smith was selected to 11 Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro eight times. In his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. A vital player in Buffalo's four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, Smith stands as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history.

Steve Tasker (Bills, 1986-97)

After two seasons with the Houston Oilers, the Bills claimed Tasker off of waivers in 1986 and he went on to become a special teams specialist. In 12 seasons with the Bills, he went to four Super Bowls and was a seven-time Pro Bowler. Tasker is currently a broadcaster for CBS Sports, and also does commercials for the Buffalo-based West-Herr Automotive Group.

Thurman Thomas (Bills, 1988-99)

Another member of the Bills team that went to four Super Bowls, the popular running back was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. After one season with - gasp! - the Bills' top rival, the Miami Dolphins, Thomas signed a one-day contract with Buffalo to retire as a Bill. He returned to Buffalo with his family in 2007, and is president of Thurman Thomas Sports Training, as well as being involved in other area businesses.

So who is the most beloved athlete in Buffalo sports history?

Paula is a freelance writer and photographer living in Buffalo, NY.

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