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Sabres ready to welcome world to Buffalo for WJC

by Adam Kimelman / Edmonton Oilers
Tom Ahearn, the Buffalo Sabres' Director of Arena Services, knows exactly what's facing him in hosting the 2011 World Junior Championship in the middle of the Sabres' season.

"If you think about it, it's 21 games in 10 days," Ahearn told "That's half the Sabres' season."

While that might make some palms sweaty, the staffers tasked with bringing off this international tournament are just rolling up their sleeves and going to work.

The WJC runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2011; but for the Sabres, the tournament is the culmination of nearly two years of build-up.

"This is a significant event," Sabres Director of Public Relations Michael Gilbert told "Avid hockey fans in Buffalo know it; the casual hockey fan or person in Buffalo has no idea the size and scope of this event. Other than the Olympics, this is the next prestigious ice hockey tournament in the world. And we have the fortune to be hosting it here in Buffalo."

"This is a significant event. Avid hockey fans in Buffalo know it; the casual hockey fan or person in Buffalo has no idea the size and scope of this event. Other than the Olympics, this is the next prestigious ice hockey tournament in the world. And we have the fortune to be hosting it here in Buffalo." -- Michael Gilbert, Sabres Director of Public Relations

Count Sabres Managing Partner Larry Quinn among those who know exactly how important the World Juniors is. Quinn had watched the 2003 World Juniors in Halifax and was approached by members of USA Hockey to gauge the interest in potentially bringing the event to Buffalo.

On Oct. 27, 2008, it was announced Buffalo would host the 2011 event.

"Buffalo is a wonderful city and we could not be more pleased to be bringing the World Juniors to western New York," Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey, said at the time of the announcement. "The Sabres are a first-class organization and the participants and fans from around the world will have the chance to experience that first hand."

In order to pull that off, Ahearn has enlisted every member of the Sabres' organization and HSBC Center staff, as well as a number of a legion of others.

"We have about 300 or so volunteers," said Ahearn. "Our staff is running with most of the responsibility, and these folks are coming in to supplement what we do. We also have 100 travel and tourism students from Niagara University coming in, and they're paid positions."

Ahearn has worked out deals for transportation and hotels for the teams and hockey federations, as well as IIHF officials; but, as he's been discovering as the days until the start of the start of the tournament shrink, there's always something that needs to be done -- usually two or three somethings.

"There are little things," he said. "Magnets for the side of the courtesy cars. Ordering suite foods for the IIHF. Getting the right amount of lanyards. We have a 115-seat press box and there's over 300 requests for credentials. And that's on top of TSN bringing a crew of 100 for the broadcasts."

Despite all the stress, Ahearn said there really haven't been any major problems, thanks to the professionalism of the people working with him.

"The best part is we have the entire Sabres staff that does hockey games for a living all jumped up," he said. "Our changeover crew, housekeeping, our ice guys -- they all just step up."

"Our staff has worked very hard on both (Sabres and the WJC)," added Gilbert. "Everybody is involved and everybody is trying to be prepared for this event. It's going to be a lot of work. It has been a lot, but in the days leading up to the event it's even greater. And when it's here it'll be tremendously busy."

But, all the effort has not gone without notice and the tournament isn't even here yet.

"There's been a real explosion with the tournament over the years and this will be the biggest ever done in conjunction with USA Hockey and, in this case, the Buffalo Sabres organization and the Buffalo community," said U.S. National Junior Team GM Jim Johansson. "We're thrilled about that. From top to bottom, the Sabres organization has done a fantastic job embracing the tournament, and we're ready to go and excited."

The spotlight would have been on Buffalo for the World Juniors regardless, but the events of last January in Saskatoon -- the U.S. won it's second-ever gold medal with a 6-5 overtime win against Canada in the gold-medal game -- has made a big event that much bigger.

"The U.S. team winning the gold medal helped in Buffalo and now it's also ratcheted up the intensity level on the Canadian side," said Gilbert. "It was their tournament to win and the U.S. took their medal away from them. I'm sure they'll be looking to change that this year. That will help the competition be that much stronger."

Much like the last time the WJC was held in the U.S. -- 2005 in Grand Forks, N.D. and Thief River Falls, Minn. -- Canadian fans will have a heavy presence at the games. In 2005, it was fans from Winnipeg streaming across the border. This year, it will be fans in the Toronto area driving south to Buffalo.

Gilbert said of the 12,000 full-session passes sold so far, 63 percent have been sold to Canadian fans.

"We're glad they're coming," he said. "They're our neighbors to the north. They're coming down here and spending money in our town -- we couldn't be happier."

Beside the hockey, they'll have a few other things on which to spend their money.

Ahearn said there will be a 19,000 square foot tent erected in the plaza outside HSBC Center that will feature food, drinks and entertainment. The Buffalo Bisons minor-league baseball team will transform Pettibones Grille Restaurant, their in-stadium eatery, into an international beer house. There will be a hockey trade show and fan fest. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has a hockey exhibit featuring the history of hockey in Western New York, including archival photos of the Sabres during their current 40th anniversary season. The Hockey Hall of Fame also will have an exhibit at the museum.

There's also Buffalo's traditional New Year's Eve celebration, called First Night, and Niagara Falls is a short ride away.

Oh, and there's a Sabres game Jan. 1.

Yes, the Sabres will host the Boston Bruins smack in the middle of the tournament. So how will that get pulled off, considering the markings on the ice, the boards, sponsorships and in-arena advertising is completely different between the Sabres and the IIHF and USA Hockey?

"It's less of a challenge because the NHL isn't making us change out the ice," said Ahearn. "We're going to have everything changed over for World Juniors and they gave us a pass to not make us change anything."

It's just another challenge, but the Sabres appear as ready for it as they have been for every other challenge in this two-year journey.

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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