BUFFALO -- The annual NHL Combine will take place in 2015 and 2016 at First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, and the soon-to-be completed HarborCenter.
"We've been working on this announcement for a couple of years," Colin Campbell, NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations, said at the announcement Monday. "[Sabres president] Ted Black and myself had a conversation at least two years ago now regarding bringing our combine to Buffalo. I had a discussion with our director of scouting, Danny Marr, and it just seemed like a natural fit with what Terry and Kim Pegula are doing now with this location. It's certainly opening up the eyes of the people in the National Hockey League, and I think it's a natural fit to bring our National Hockey League Combine here."
The annual event, held in Toronto since 1999, is overseen by NHL Central Scouting. It brings approximately 100 top prospects for the NHL draft into one place for interviews with NHL teams, and medical and physical testing. The 2014 combine featured 119 prospects taking part in five days of interviews and medical exams held at the Westin Bristol Place hotel, followed by fitness testing at The International Centre.
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Campbell said the bidding process to host the event was opened to all NHL teams, and the finalists were the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sabres. HarborCenter, which will open in the fall adjacent to First Niagara Center, gave Buffalo the edge.
"Buffalo, for a lot of hockey people, is like an Original Six team," Campbell said. "It's been here a long time and there's a lot of history here."
HarborCenter features two full-size NHL ice rinks, a Marriott hotel, a restaurant and retail outlets. With amenities like that centrally located by First Niagara Center, it made Buffalo's bid difficult to ignore.
"We've got 170 million-plus reasons right in front of us where we're going to use those competitive advantages," Black said referring to HarborCenter. "Maybe the NHL comes in here and looks at it and says, 'A three-rink campus that we've never had before and no one has, think of all the wonderful things we can do for fan-fests.' We have Canalside [park and entertainment facility] there and the hundreds of thousands of people that come down here. There's just so many opportunities. I look at it as an advantage.
“Buffalo is a large-market city when it comes to the appetite, but it's a small city; it's the smallest city in the NHL. That's an advantage. A proximity to Canada, a proximity to Ontario is an advantage. All those things that maybe we think about as a, 'Woe is us, those don't help us,' I think those are things we're going to turn around and make them strengths."
The Sabres as Combine host also has a bit of a twist with the team undergoing a roster rebuild.
Buffalo had the fewest points in the League last season and selected Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart with the second pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. The team has three first-round picks and two second-round picks in the 2015 NHL Draft and could be picking near the top again next summer. The 2015 draft will be hosted by the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center.
Among those expected to take part in the 2015 Combine are Erie Otters center Connor McDavid and Boston University center Jack Eichel, who will be a freshman in the fall.
McDavid, a 6-foot, 185-pound forward, was fourth in the Ontario Hockey League last season with 99 points last season. He had one goal and three assists in four games for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship at age 16; he was the sixth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the WJC, after Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Wayne Gretzky.
"When you look at Connor, the way he prepares himself off the ice, the way he prepares himself to play, he's a future pro," Canada national junior team coach Benoit Groulx said. "A future outstanding player."
Eichel (6-2, 195) had team-highs of 38 goals and 87 points in 53 games last season with the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team, and he had one goal and four assists in five games for the United States at the 2014 WJC.
"He could probably jump into the NHL right now with his skating ability," United States national junior team coach Mark Osiecki said. "Physical-wise he has a ways to go, but he's an unbelievable talent."
Getting to show McDavid, Eichel and many other future NHL stars what the city can offer was a prime motivation for the team to bring the Combine to Buffalo.
"Buffalo had, and is changing, a perception problem," Black said. "Once we have the player here and they have some exposure, and it goes to businesses too, once we have you, we keep you. Getting here is the challenge. Everything we can do to promote Buffalo, to get exposure, especially in that time of year when it's beautiful here in late May, early June weather-wise, it's just another push at the wheel that we're trying to improve the image our city, our franchise, and make this a desirable location."