May 29, 2015

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel's presence alone at the NHL's pre-draft scouting combine next week is enough to spur league-wide buzz.

There's more. Aside from having two highly touted players included among the 120 prospects scheduled to attend, the combine is finally entering the 21st century.

After spending the past 25 years in stuffy and carpeted hotel and convention center ballrooms in suburban Toronto, the weeklong event is moving for the first time into an actual hockey facility in downtown Buffalo. Starting Monday and running through June 6, the combine will be held at the newly built hockey/entertainment HarborCenter complex connected to the Sabres home arena.

''This is taking the combine to a whole other level,'' Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ''I'm looking forward to getting in there and seeing how it's run this year and, maybe going forward, that's the way it's going to continue to be run.''

Anything would be an upgrade after last year, when the hotel air conditioning didn't work during the team-player interview portion of the combine.

''I felt bad for the kids, because it was like we were sweating them out,'' Benning said, laughing.

The $200-million facility, funded by Sabres owner Terry Pegula, opened in November. It features two NHL-sized rinks, a training center, meeting rooms, a bar and restaurant, and will eventually include a 200-plus-room hotel.

Regarded as a one-of-its kind North American facility, HarborCenter immediately captured the NHL's attention two-plus years ago.

''It kind of dawned on me because we were kind of running out of runway with our combine,'' NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said.

Sabres President Ted Black jumped at the opportunity and, as part of the team's formal bid, agreed to pick up some of the NHL's costs.

HarborCenter has become a focal point of the city's re-developing Erie Canal District. And it has placed Buffalo on the map as a hockey destination by having already hosted the Under-18 women's and sledge hockey world championships.

For now, Buffalo will host the next two combines before the NHL assesses whether to have other teams bid for the event.

What's clear is the combine likely won't return to its ballroom past.

''We will see how it goes, but I view this to be the natural evolution of this program,'' NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press. ''I don't see this moving backward.''

There are numerous advantages to holding the combine at HarborCenter.

The player-testing portion will be held on the floor of the facility's main rink, which provides a raised seating area for team officials, and far more room to film player workouts, NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr said.

Each team will be assigned a suite inside the Sabres arena, where player interview sessions will occur. That's a switch from shuttling prospects to offsite hotels.

The Sabres also have control over the entire facility, from security to food preparation, to better serve the NHL's needs.

The move to Buffalo has the potential to open new possibilities for the combine, which remains closed to the public and does not include any on-ice testing.

Fans have not been allowed in because of a lack of space, and a fear they could create a distraction.

As for getting prospects on the ice, that was not feasible to do in a ballroom. Concerns have also been raised that on-ice testing would be unfair to prospects whose seasons ended earlier than others.

Former NHLer and Detroit Red Wings special assistant to the GM Kris Draper doesn't see why the combine can't eventually incorporate both fans and an on-ice component.

''We're playing a little catch-up with the NFL combine, obviously,'' Draper said, referring to football's annual event that has grown in popularity. ''You'd like to think that one day (the NHL combine) becomes a media-driven event as well. The bigger that it can get, the more recognition it can get, the better it is for our sport.''

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