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Buffalo Sabres to host '18 World Junior Championship

by Joe Yerdon

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The IIHF World Junior Championship is returning to Buffalo in 2018, and it will include an outdoor game for the first time in tournament history.

USA Hockey announced Friday that the 2018 World Juniors will be hosted by the Buffalo Sabres. It's the sixth time the tournament will be held in the United States, but the first time it will be played in the same location in the U.S. twice in a row.

"In the opportunities we have had to host it in the United States, our most successful experience was in Buffalo in 2011," said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey.

USA Hockey also announced an outdoor game will be held at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills. It will be the first game of its kind for the WJC.

"I need to thank these gentlemen from USA Hockey to get this event," Sabres owner Terry Pegula said. "I think the first time, two times in a row in the U.S., is quite an honor for us that we accept very graciously. Since we purchased the Sabres in 2011, Kim and I wanted to grow hockey in all levels that we were involved in. I think we've shown over the last four years that we've done this at the NHL level, AHL level, NCAA level, and now we have the honor of trying to enhance junior hockey in the world. I want to state that we do not do this out of any type of reach for power. We do this because we love the game and we want to help players around the world get better."

The exact game that will be played at Ralph Wilson Stadium has not been determined, but Buffalo's proximity to Canada could mean a United States-Canada matchup in the preliminary round could be in the offing.

"The IIHF allows some flexibility if the results of the 2017 tournament are such that [the U.S. and Canada] are not in the same pool so that a country can be moved," Ogrean said. "Those early discussions on a 'what if' basis have happened so nothing is quite certain yet, and there would be other options of course, but we think the U.S.-Canada rivalry is the best in the game and that's obviously what we're designing this for."

Assistant executive director of USA Hockey Mike Bertsch said the date of the outdoor game would be either Dec. 27 or Dec. 29, 2017.

Buffalo is no stranger to hosting outdoor hockey; the first NHL Winter Classic was held at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008. The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Sabres 2-1 in a shootout when Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored the deciding goal against goalie Ryan Miller.

"I am very grateful to USA Hockey for giving us the right to host the tournament," Pegula said. "I know you guys probably took a lot of grief for letting us host it two times in a row and we're going to make you proud. We're going to do the best job we can."

The Sabres beat out the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Chicago Blackhawks in the final bidding to host the 2018 WJC.

"It was a very, very difficult process," Ogrean said. "That's a great problem to have. It was not always like this. Fifteen years ago we were soliciting people to please host this event, but we've had a radical sea change in the popularity of the World Junior Championships and in the popularity of our sport. And so as we went through the process this time, we had… some sleepless nights because of friends we would be saying 'no' to despite the fact they put in very strong and compelling bids and we want to thank those cities and we will be doing events in those cities in the future I am sure. The good thing is there are so many places in America that love hockey, support hockey, and want to have events of this kind there. It makes our decisions very difficult."

When Buffalo hosted the 2011 tournament, Dwyer Arena at Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y., was used as the secondary venue. With HarborCenter, a facility that includes two NHL-size rinks, attached to First Niagara Center, a central location for the majority of the tournament made Buffalo an attractive spot to serve as host.

"Having the HarborCenter as a facility makes a major difference for us," Bertsch said. "It brings all 10 teams into the same facility, into the same community, and one of our concerns and the attributes to this is all 10 teams will feel like a major part of the event for the entire event."

The majority of games will be played at First Niagara Center and HarborCenter, but the possibility of seeing a record crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium for a World Junior Championship game helped put Buffalo's bid to host the tournament over the top.

"We had a lot of unique presentations by three of our organizations and I would say that there's confirmation for elements like this as well from other parties," Bertsch said. "There's a lot on the table and a lot of unique items and a lot of overlap as well. Certainly the outdoor game here in this type of a setting was a factor for the Sabres and for us, but I will tell you there were other options that were on the table."

In addition to Buffalo, previous World Junior tournaments in the U.S. were held in Minneapolis/St. Paul (1982), Anchorage, Alaska (1989), Boston (1996), and Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn. (2005).

The 2016 World Junior Championship will be played Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. The 2017 WJC will be jointly hosted by Toronto and Montreal, with the gold-medal game to be played at Bell Centre in Montreal.

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