You have to hand it to Terry Pegula. The billionaire owner of the Buffalo Sabres had a vision of his city becoming the mecca of American hockey when he committed $172 million to privately finance the construction of the HarborCenter complex back in 2013.
Just two years later, that’s exactly what the city in western New York has become. With the state-of-the-art facility now fully operational, Buffalo has, or will soon, play host to events ranging from the Under-18 Women’s World Championship to the International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey Worlds to USA Hockey's All-American Prospects Game to the NHL’s Draft Combine.
At this point, it’s almost safe to assume that if it’s happening in hockey, it’s happening in Buffalo.
And Buffalo doesn’t just do it. The city does it right. That U-18 women’s event last January drew nearly 14,000 fans to HarborCenter, making it the event’s all-time second-best attended tournament. Fans, players and hockey officials came away raving about the atmosphere at the rink and the work of the organizers.
“Even just our round robin games were unbelievable,” Team USA forward Melissa Samoskevich said. “I did not expect to have that many people. It’s been great.”
The willingness to roll out the red carpet for smaller events on the hockey calendar gave local organizers a leg up on St. Louis and Pittsburgh when it came to landing Buffalo’s most recent and biggest prize yet: the 2018 World Junior Championships. USA Hockey has scheduled a press conference for Friday at Ralph Wilson Stadium where it’s expected to formally announce plans for the under-20 tournament.
And in a twist befitting this visionary city, the event could feature the biggest game in WJC history: an outdoor showdown on New Year’s Eve pitting Team USA against Team Canada.
Of course, there’s a chance for a disconnect between planning and reality. The possibility of that match-up is predicated on those two teams being in the same round-robin bracket and that seeding won’t be determined until the conclusion of the yet-to-be-played 2017 event. But if Canada’s not available to take on the hosts, it could be almost as appealing for the Americans to battle Russia out in the elements.
There’s bound to be some criticism about staging a game of that magnitude in a setting where the elements could affect the outcome. That’s fair. In fact, USA Hockey may have to do a little bargaining to convince the opposing federation that it’s the right idea.
But probably not too much. It’s a brilliant concept, one that is sure to not only fill the 70,000-plus seats at the Ralph and sweeten the financial pot for all involved, but increase the visibility of an event that, while massive in Canada, has yet to fully grasp the imaginations of hockey fans in the U.S. and around the world.
There’s a chance to make more of it, of course. Pegula has stumped for Buffalo as the site for the 2018 NHL Winter Classic to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the inaugural event back in 2008 and having those two events back-to-back—with a Jack Eichel vs. Connor McDavid showdown on New Year’s Day, perhaps?—would make for a magical long weekend.
There’s bound to be some grumbling from St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the other markets that were vying for the WJC, that Buffalo is getting the event again after hosting it in 2011. No doubt they would have done a fine job and they’ll certainly be in the running when the U.S. hosts again in 2022.
But neither city stood a chance against Pegula, whose vision or commitment has turned Buffalo America's new Hockeytown.
The numbers game
• Patrick Kane, who tied Hall of Famer Bobby Hull’s 1971-72 Blackhawks record of registering points in 21 straight games (13-22-25), is now the fourth NHL player since 1992-93 to put up such a streak of 21 or more outings. The others: Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, 25 (Nov. 5 to Dec. 28, 2010—26-24-50); Ottawa's Dany Heatley, 22 (Oct. 5 to Nov. 29, 2005—17-21-38); and Boston’s Adam Oates, 21 (March 4 to April 14, 1993—9-30-39).
• The Metropolitan Division’s new leaders, the surging Capitals (18-5-1), have set a new franchise record of 37 points through the first 24 games of a season.
• Dallas now owns the NHL's longest active win streak (10 games) against one team (Vancouver). The Stars’ 20 wins and 41 points after 26 games are both franchise marks.
• A chain of recently released emails suggests that Seattle has not given up on its NHL dream.
• Three former netminders explain what it was like to back up Martin Brodeur.
• The folks at Sportsnet have a few thoughts on how to make the NHL game more exciting.
• Youth hockey in Russia is a whole different world.
• The Rangers made a key signing this week. Sounds like they added another good one.