It’s become a regular occurrence to see the press conference dais setup in the atrium at First Niagara Center. Even in the heat of the summer months, updates on the HARBORCENTER project, along with announcements of events like the NHL Combine and an OHL game featuring phenom Connor McDavid, were commonplace. Sabres President Ted Black is wont to say that “all roads to the NHL go through Buffalo,” and soon those roads will be packed with cars carrying hockey fans.
The next big event to take center stage at First Niagara Center is the product of a burgeoning relationship between the Sabres and USA Hockey. The third annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game returns to Buffalo on September 25, featuring 40 of the top American-born players eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, including Boston University freshman Jack Eichel who is projected to battle McDavid for the number one overall spot.
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The Prospects Game made its debut in Buffalo in 2012, and is back at First Niagara Center for the next two years after a brief sojurn to Pittsburgh in 2013.
This is the first of three major events that will take in place in downtown Buffalo during this hockey season. The IIHF Women’s Under-18 World Championship will take place at HARBORCENTER from January 4-12, followed by the Sled Hockey World Championships from April 24-May 2.
“It’s just a market in which we have an awful lot of confidence,” explains Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey’s executive director. “The Sabres organization, the people that run this building and the fans in the market - we feel real comfortable here. We’ve had a lot of successful events here, and especially with the addition of the HARBORCENTER, we’ll have more in the years to come.”
Buffalo left a strong impression on USA Hockey in 2011 after hosting the IIHF World Junior Championship. The 11-day, 31-game tournament attracted 331,297 fans to then-HSBC Arena and Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena, shattering the previous US host-city record of 195,771 for the 2005 World Juniors in North Dakota.
USA Hockey feels important when we come to Buffalo. We matter a lot to the Sabres and the entire organization ... the sky’s the limit in terms of what the future might hold. - USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean
Black made it known recently the Sabres would like to pursue a bid for the 2018 WJC, and Ogrean said that USA Hockey will be listening.
“We learned that Buffalo is smart to invest in opportunities. Other NHL teams are smart enough to recognize that those opportunities exist,” said Ogrean. “We have more and more NHL cities that are looking at events like (the Prospects Game) and World Junior Championship. There are some very good ones and it’ll be a difficult decision when we get around to evaluating some of the events that we have coming up in the future.”
To Ogrean and his entire USA Hockey team, working with the Sabres organization is more than just going back to familiar face. They believe the World Junior success in Buffalo back in 2011 wasn’t a fluke, and think they’ve got the partners in place to continue growing hockey in the United States.
“We’ve got some equity in Buffalo. We’ve got friends in Buffalo. We have a lot of faith and trust in the people we’ve dealt with there. We have confidence that we know what we’re getting in Buffalo, and we’re very happy that we know what that has been.
“Thanks to the previous ownership, and certainly now with Terry and Kim Pegula and Ted Black, these are folks that have made a real conscious effort to befriend USA Hockey, to support USA Hockey, and to strategize with USA Hockey about the things that we can do to grow the game based out of (Buffalo.). The addition of the HARBORCENTER creates so many opportunities for conferences and symposiums, clinics and camps and so many other things that we might be able to do here. I think USA Hockey feels important when we come to Buffalo. We matter a lot to the Sabres and the entire organization. I think the sky’s the limit in terms of what the future might hold."
The Sabres have shown they are also willing to branch out to non-traditional hockey events, as shown by the announcement of the NHL Combine coming to HARBORCENTER for the next two years. Representatives from all 30 NHL teams, along with more than 100 top prospects will be in town for a week in late May to test and prepare for the 2015 Draft.
Buffalo beat out Pittsburgh and Toronto for the right to host the Combine, an event that had only been held previously in Toronto, most recently at a convention center near the airport. Moving the event to HARBORCENTER creates a host of new opportunities for the NHL’s Central Scouting team.
“When Terry, Kim and I came here three years ago, we wanted to transform Buffalo into a premier hockey destination,” said Black. “We also wanted to transform the perception and the image of Buffalo. Back then, the notion of luring an event like the NHL Combine to Buffalo quite frankly seemed far-fetched. Today, Buffalo is one of the hottest cities in America.”
While the success of Buffalo’s partnership with USA Hockey bodes well for the future, so does the construction of HARBORCENTER, which has served as a beacon of the city’s rapid growth over the last 18 months. The numerous recent press conferences are hopefully a sign of things to come downtown.
“You can see we’re just lining up a series of activities and events,” said HARBORCENTER president John Koelmel. “Whether it’s the special events, the World Championships or the Combine, this is just a really nice bump for the district, the city and the region.”