Hamburg native Patrick Geary arrived at LECOM Harborcenter for the Buffalo Sabres’ annual Development Camp last week on familiar territory. The 20-year-old had spent years at the state-of-the-art rink as a member of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres program from 2017 through 2021 prior to being selected by the Sabres in the sixth round of the 2024 NHL Draft last month.

But Geary wasn’t the only player returning to skate on his AAA junior hockey rink.

Sabres prospects Matteo Costantini (fifth round, 2020) and Gavin McCarthy (third round, 2023) and camp invites Ryan Smith, Jak Vaarwerk, and Aiden McKenna were also able to look back on their own Jr. Sabres journeys while taking part in camp. The group made up six of 18 former or current Buffalo Jr. Sabres players who attended an NHL Development Camp this year.

“I think it’s awesome, just like seeing how many guys come out of the Jr. Sabres organization,” McCarthy said. “And you know, we’ve all skated on this ice since we were younger, so it’s cool seeing each other out there and like hanging out just at camp and being around each other. It’s great to see.”

Gavin McCarthy addresses the media

Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams served as president of the Jr. Sabres organization from 2013 through 2020 while also enjoying stints as a head coach and assistant coach in the program. He credited the success of the program to the work that current Buffalo Jr. Sabres president and director of hockey operations Pat Kaleta, vice president and executive director Sean Wallace, and board member Larry Playfair, among others, have done to build up the program in partnership with the Academy of Hockey at LECOM Harborcenter.

“I think that’s a pretty cool thing to have six former Jr. Sabres out there,” Adams said on the opening day of camp. 

The Buffalo Jr. Sabres organization has a total of 15 youth teams, 13 boys’ teams and two girls’ teams, while its 20u team competes in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The program’s current and former coaches include a long list of NHL alumni, giving young players the unique opportunity to learn from those who have excelled at the sport’s highest level. Several local coaches supplement the NHL alums, including Jake Brozyna and Ryan Zimmerman, who coached the Jr. Sabres to the Chipotle-USA Hockey 15 Only National Championship in 2018.

“I think that’s part of what sets us apart, in my opinion, our coaching staff,” Kaleta said. “You have the guys that have that pedigree of playing that want to give back to the players, which is something special. You can’t teach that. Then you mix in guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Jake Brozyna who won a national championship for us that have been coaching for a number of years that haven’t been in the NHL but bring a whole different level of coaching to what we have going on. It’s a very good mix and I think that mix is important.”

Dennis Gilbert, who signed a one-year deal with the Sabres on July 1, shared during his introductory press conference how valuable his time spent with the Jr. Sabres program in 2013-14 was to his development while getting reps in with NHL alumni.

Former Sabres Tim Kennedy, Cody McCormick, Brian Gionta and Rob Ray, and former Los Angeles Kings captain and Stanley Cup champion Dustin Brown, are just some of the former NHL players who have devoted their time to coaching for the Jr. Sabres organization.

“It's such a massive resource,” Gilbert said. “Those guys have been there and have done it and they know what it takes to get to that level. So, to have people like that have their hands on you at such a young age was just massive for development.”

Dennis Gilbert addresses the media

While the Jr. Sabres are continuing to produce NHL draft picks, Kaleta shared that the main goal of the program is to teach kids how to play the game the right way while instilling the importance of relationship-building, effort, and embracing a growth mindset to succeed in hockey and in life. The organization recently created a mite program and two girls teams to continue growing the game in Buffalo, where the former Sabres forward was born and raised.

He has seen the Western New York area continue to blossom with more players while watching the number of Buffalo Jr. Sabres players move onto the next levels of hockey grow. 

“It’s something I think is really special and I think is only going to get better,” Kaleta said. “And on top of it, I think people don’t really understand how good of a job the staff, the people that are coaching and helping and running the Jr. Sabres, are actually doing. For us, it’s not only creating an elite place to play, an elite place to develop with the resources we have with Harborcenter and Impact and the Academy of Hockey, it’s also that we’re building fans. … For me, I look back at when I grew up and some cool moments in my life, I kind of want to create that too for more kids in our area.

 “The group that we have, the team of employees, coaches, etc., is a pretty special group that makes that happen.”

When Geary, Costantini, McCarthy, Smith, Vaarwerk, and McKenna all took the ice for the Sabres’ Development Camp, Kaleta was extremely proud to see six players who have gone through the program make their dreams a reality. Sabres director of player development Adam Mair gave props to Kaleta and his team for helping create these opportunities for young players through the Jr. Sabres development program.

“It’s incredible. I mean, I think it just speaks to the vision of the Pegula family and the work that’s gone into raising hockey in Buffalo at the grassroots level,” Mair said. “You know, you have a lot of us that worked with those players. Matt Ellis on the Sabres staff, Tim Kennedy, myself, even Kevyn. So, it’s exciting.”

Adam Mair speaks to the media

As Kaleta continues to focus on growing the game in WNY, he is looking forward to seeing the number of players at NHL Development Camps increase each year.

“They’re all great kids,” Kaleta said. “They’re all special players in their own unique way and what we do and what we try to do, again, is just develop the right way. Like I said, that might mean a national championship, that might not mean national championship. Either way, there’s adversity coming in their career, whether it’s on or off the ice, and as much as we can prepare these kids for that next level of hockey and life, then it’s a win for us.”