Make no mistake, the Buffalo Junior Sabres are having quite the campaign in their first season under head coach/general manager Michael Peca, the former Buffalo Sabres captain.
The season has been so good that it got me thinking. Does this current edition of Western New York’s Junior A-level hockey program have a shot at best-season ever in its history status?
The answer is yes and no.
The Junior Sabres (29-11-4) enter their final 11 games beginning with tonight’s clash at Hamilton just three wins shy of matching their best victory total in a regular season as a Junior A outfit. The program won 32 games during the 1995-96 season when they were known as the Niagara Scenics and played in the Ontario-based Metro Junior A League. That team bowed out in the playoff semifinals.
Best season ever on the other hand is a tricky question.
The 1981-82 team coached by Morris Titanic posted a 66-7-3 mark en route to capturing the program’s second straight U.S. National Junior B Championship.
Current Junior Sabres goalie coach Brian Willison and Frank Downing were members of that championship team, which played a double-league schedule against Canadian-based and American-based teams. The Junior Sabres also won the national title the following season. “We had a great team back then,” said Downing, who was one of at least five members of the 81-82 team to play Division I college hockey. “This team is another great team. Now the kids are bigger and stronger. These kids are much better at this age than we were. But our team was pretty darn good too.”
Downing and Willison believe the current team’s run is quite impressive considering it is playing against top competition every game and are ranked seventh in the latest Canadian Junior Hockey League poll out of 128 teams in Canada’s 10 leagues.
Eclipsing the 1995-96 team’s win total would be nice for Peca’s team.
What would be even better is securing home-ice advantage for the playoffs and perhaps going on a deep run.
That’s the Junior Sabres’ main focus as a mini slump (four losses in six games) has seen them fall one point behind Georgetown in the OJHL West Division, even though they have a better winning percentage (.705 to .700) than the Raiders and a game in hand.
The Junior Sabres’ quest should be aided tonight by the return of Ontario Junior Hockey League scoring leader Tyler Gjurich (38 goals, 73 points in 42 games), who has missed the team’s last two games due to a league suspension. Ryan Schmelzer has 20 goals and 54 points, while Pat Egan has 21 goals and 40 points.
“We’re just focused on getting back on track and starting to get on our winning ways again,” said goalie Parker Gahagen, who has committed to play college hockey at Army and leads the OJHL in wins (23) and shutouts (seven) and has a .921 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against average. “We’ve been getting a little outworked recently. If we start working hard, we’ll start dominating our opponents like we were at the beginning of the year. It all comes down to work ethic. I think our skill level is a lot higher than most teams in this league.”
Canisius College-bound forward Josh Kielich played through a shoulder injury to record 38 points in 39 games but will undergo a season-ending surgery to correct the lingering problem before joining the Golden Griffins in the fall. It’s a move the Junior Sabres strongly support since their ultimate goal is graduating players to Division I and III college programs.
The doors for doing that could be opening easier thanks to this season, which is one for the books regardless of its conclusion.
“As college coaches and people associated with college programs come out and watch these kids, when they start to see the Buffalo Junior Sabres go in and beat St. Michael’s, go in and beat Georgetown, go in and beat Oakville and the way we’ve beaten some of those teams, all of the sudden they’re like ‘OK, we’ve got to go see these guys,’ ” Peca said. “It went from trying to develop that relationship with the schools to all of the sudden we’ve got a handful of guys trying to decide between three and four different schools. It’s a great transition. It’s just one we hope to sustain as we move forward.”
Alexander Ahne, Dylan Gagnon, Richard Minicucci, and Sarah Stanczyk are the 2012 Gary Hill Memorial Scholarship recipients.
The Gary Hill Memorial Scholarship is awarded to graduating high school students “both male and female” who exhibit dedication to the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles program (length of time in the organization), along with achievement in school, dedicating time to community service and humanitarianism. Each scholarship winner receives between $1,500-$2,000 to be used toward college.
N.Y. State of mind
In the event no one has spread the news, all but six divisions of New York State’s hockey champions will be crowned in Western New York in March.
The Northtown Center in Amherst, which has been a host site for eight national tournaments since 2003, welcomes all the boys’ Tier I, Tier II and Tier III championship events in March. The 12-under and 14-under tournaments run March 8-10. The 16-under and 18-unders take over the facility March 15-17.
Amherst Youth Hockey Association has hosted five national tournaments since 2007. The other three were hosted by the Niagara Frontier Sports Association (2003 and 2006) and USA Hockey (2009 sled).
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bisons girls hockey program will host the Tier I 16-under and 19-under tournaments at Dann Memorial Rink and North Buffalo Ice Rink the weekend of March 8-10.
Amherst hosts girls Tier II nationals next year, but there will be a national event at Northtown Center this summer.
The facility was awarded the USA Hockey National Development Camps for 17-under, 16-under, 15-under and sled beginning the final week of June and running through July.
Roughly 200 players are expected to skate in each division as the tryouts mark the final evaluation step for selection into the USA National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor, Mich. West Seneca’s Sean Malone currently plays for the U.S. NTDP Under-18 squad.
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