Hockey Heaven is for real

Can a city still be considered “Hockey Heaven”, even when its NHL team is in the midst of what seems like yet another historically-bad season?

Sure. Why not? Buffalo has proved it in the last few months.

While the Sabres have sojourned through another rebuilding season, the sport of hockey has quietly become ingrained in downtown Buffalo’s culture. Not since the Sabres’ 2005 and 2006 Eastern Conference Finals runs has hockey managed to feel like such a staple of this city.

It’s because hockey has manifested itself in more forms than just the NHL. Terry Pegula and his associates made it very clear that they wanted the sport of hockey—not just its apex league—to be the backbone of downtown Buffalo’s resurgence.

With the lineup they’ve brought to First Niagara Center and the Webster Block in recent months, they’ve succeeded. Dating back to October, Buffalo have been lucky enough to see all levels of hockey on display: NHL, minor league, junior, collegiate, and even international. That’s a magic combination that few other cities can boast.

First Niagara Center welcomed the Rochester Americans for a third straight contest in as many years, but it was an Ontario Hockey League matchup between the Erie Otters [Team Connor McDavid] and the Niagara Icedogs that generated even more buzz, for obvious and borderline-satirical reasons what with the Buffalo Sabres’ strong possibility of selecting Connor McDavid first overall in the next NHL Draft.

Fans who have occasionally taken a jaunt across the street to HarborCenter have seen the best of this hockey deluge. Mr. Pegula has ambitions to make Buffalo a marquee destination for international hockey events, and the city got off to a great start with its successful hosting of the 2015 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship.

“The fans proved to be even more than what we expected in terms of their support for the event,” said Mike Bertsch, the assistant executive director of marketing and communications at USA Hockey. “I think the enthusiasm that we saw at the games was evidence of the great buy in that the city of Buffalo has for providing support for these events. We’ve had nothing but super experiences when we’ve been here in the past , and it’s been matched or exceeded again with this [tournament].”

With the main rink inside HarborCenter adorned by flags representing all 8 countries involved in the tournament, nearly 14,000 fans showed up throughout the week-long event, the second largest attendance in the tournament’s history, including a packed house for the thrilling Gold Medal contest between Team USA and Team Canada. Team USA won that game in overtime, drawing a thunderous celebration from the crowd of over 2,000.

An ovation from 2,000 fans isn’t the same as an ovation from 19,000+, but there’s plenty of positives to that. HarborCenter offers an intimate, cozy atmosphere for its games that an arena the size of First Niagara Center can’t equal.

“The arena itself had a very up-close feel to it so no matter where you sat; you were pretty close to the ice and felt really a part of the game, which is hard to find in the NHL,” said 24-year-old Alex Cappola, a former Buffalo native now living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who made a trip to watch a Canisius College men’s ice hockey game in December. “I was able to sit right alongside the boards pretty easily which was great to see during in-game action.”

And the time it takes to get up from your spot and run for a bathroom break or to grab something from the snack bar? You’ll be back in under five minutes, ready to recline on the roomy, finely-cut wooden benches.

The homey ambiance to HarborCenter is perfect for its most regular tenants, the Canisius College men’s ice hockey team. The Golden Griffins adopted HarborCenter as their home arena at the start of the 2014-2015 season, which has been one of the program’s best in its history. The team is sitting third in the Atlantic Hockey conference, with an impressive 11-5-6 record against conference opponents.

If you have yet to visit HarborCenter for an event, find a way to stop out for a Canisius hockey game before the end of the season. There are still a couple of regular season contests scheduled to be held downtown, and there’s a good chance that a playoff game or two will find its way to HarborCenter.

The Golden Griffins are a very fun team to watch this season, and there are a bunch of Buffalo natives on the roster this season, including Nolan Sheeran of East Amherst, Josh Kielich of Orchard Park, Ryan Schmelzer of Buffalo, and Matthew Grazen of Clarence. All are former members of the Buffalo Junior Sabres. Former Golden Griffin and former Sabre Cory Conacher’s younger brother, Shane Conacher, is also on the team.

“I love the entertainment that the NHL provides, but watching hockey at the NCAA level felt pure in a sense,” said 24-year-old Shawn Misechok of Elma, New York. “There are no enforcers and bullies. There was no chirping or swearing, much less fighting. The game I got to watch didn’t have any sub-plot, and I mean that as a great compliment in this context.”

But, honestly, just get out to HarborCenter for anything, regardless of what game or what tournament you’re attending. There are too on the horizon to even name here, and there’s few better venues to enjoy them in than HarborCenter.

It’s allowed for hockey to become the norm in downtown Buffalo. Even if the Sabres aren’t playing, someone is playing the sport there most weekends, it seems.

That’s how you build Hockey Heaven.

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