West Seneca's Sean Malone admitted prior to Saturday night's USA Hockey Prospects Game he felt like the big man on campus during this event, and it turns out he had good reason to feel that way.
He was treated that way in his hometown during the first-ever game featuring American-born only NHL draft eligible players at First Niagara Center.
From the more than 100 family and friends he had in the stands cheering his every move, to his own coach, Phil Housley, letting him participate in a ceremonial faceoff with hockey legend Scotty Bowman, to being interviewed on the arena Jumbotron during a stoppage of play, Malone received rock-star treatment.
Malone's on-ice performance did get a rise out of the announced crowd of 5,519, but his homecoming wasn't a triumphant one as he and his Team Housley teammates dropped a 5-2 decision to Team McClanahan. Malone didn't record a point (he finished a minus-2 although he did break up a chance early with a nice back check) but did generate loud oohs and aahs on his scoring chances before the estimated 150 scouts and NHL general managers in attendance.
"It was fantastic," said Malone, the former Nichols player who is now with the U.S. National Under-18 Development Team based in Ann Arbor, Mich., of the experience. "Every time I did something important or had a shot on goal, everyone was cheering. It felt great out there. It was everything I was expecting and it lived up to its expectations."
If he had cashed in one of his glorious chances early, he not only would have had another fond memory to add to the experience, it likely could have provided some positive momentum for his team.
Twice during the first period he used his speed and long reach to give McClanahan defensemen the slip but came up empty both times. The first was perhaps his best chance, when he used a sick toe-drag move to go around expected NHL lottery pick Seth Jones during a rush along the right wing. It would have been destined for highlight reels if not for goalie Cal Peterson just getting a pad on the shot.
After being stopped again late in the first, he was denied on a one-timer early in the second period off a feed from Will Merchant. The McClanahans then turned a 1-0 game into a rout with three goals in a span of 8:52.
Malone, 17, may have not scored before the home folks in his only game of the season in the area, but the experience of the whole event, including going home to see family and friends after the game, is something he'll always treasure.
"Yeah, I think so," he said.
"I think I did pretty well," the Harvard-bound Malone continued. "It's a great way to get your name on the radar for the NHL. I think everybody did great tonight."
Hudson Fasching (U.S. Under-18 Team), Jones (Portland of WHL), Jacob Montgomery (Sioux City of USHL), and University of Denver teammates Dakota Mermis and Quentin Shore scored for the McClanahans, but Ryan Fitzgerald, one of just three players in the game not playing for a major junior or for a Division I college team, went home with the MVP trophy. The slick-passing forward for the Valley Jr. Warriors of the EJHL, who is the son of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald, had three assists.
"It's an honor," Ryan Fitzgerald said of being the MVP. "It was great to meet Scotty Bowman [who presented the award]. It is probably one of the greatest memories I'll have in my hockey career."
Rochester's Matt Lane also picked up an assist for the winners.
Evan Allen scored twice for Team Housley.
Malone and Lane weren't the only players in the game familiar with the area.
Scott Savage of San Clemente, Calif., played in the area as a bantam-aged player during the USA Hockey Championships at the Northtown Center in Amherst. He helped the L.A. Selects to a national runner-up finish.
That same year, Taylor Cammarata played for Shattuck St. Mary's, losing in the national semifinals. Cammarata played on the team coached by John LaFontaine, the brother of Sabres legend Pat.
R.J. Gicewicz, who likely would have played in the Prospects Game if he was eligible for it, picked up an assist and was a "rock" on the blueline, according to coach Jamie Printz, during the Buffalo Saints' 6-0 win over Amherst in the first of two undercard games involving three area Under-18 teams. Anthony Girabassi and Max Rosenthal combined for the shutout. Mike Ederer scored three goals, while Nick Smith had three assists.
Gicewicz made the final roster for Green Bay of the USHL but decided to return home to play for Nichols and the Buffalo Saints for one more season. A huge reward will likely be lots of playing time, including big minutes in key situations, which would further aid his on-ice development.
It's the same route Malone took last year when he opted to play for Nichols instead of fourth-line minutes with Lincoln of the USHL.
In the other game, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres/Regals earned an entertaining 1-0 win over the Boston Jr. Bruins. Nathan Sucese scored late in the second period and Blaine Brock made 25 saves in the win.