The bricks and mortar will be state-of-the-art, but what’s most impressive about the new twin-rink facility opening on the Buffalo waterfront late next year is the heady vision of where this will put the city on the North American hockey map.
Buffalo Sabres officials believe that the new HarborCenter development will become the ultimate hockey palace, headlined by two National Hockey League-size rinks sitting six and seven stories above the street.
“It’s the ‘Field of Dreams’ for hockey players,” said Clifford G. Benson, chief development officer for the Buffalo Sabres. “It’s the place where hockey players are going to want to come.”
The Sabres call the new project “Hockey Heaven,” hoping that the foot of Washington and Main streets becomes a hockey magnet attracting everyone from young Mite ankle-skaters to NHL stars.
Lost in all the fanfare about the ambitious project – with its 200-room hotel, 845-space garage, restaurant, sports bar and retail space – has been the project’s main purpose: creating a comprehensive one-stop hockey world downtown with three NHL-size rinks – including the one in First Niagara Center – in two adjoining buildings.
The facility will be used for youth hockey practices, games and tournaments; coaching clinics; top-flight college Division I and junior hockey competition; recreational community skating; world-class workout and training facilities; showcase youth tournaments; and international hockey events.
“It’s going to be so well-known in the youth hockey world, and the hockey world in general,” predicted Michael M. Gilbert, the team’s vice president for community relations. “And it’s going to be here in 18 months.”
The facility – at 650,000 square feet, about nine-tenths the size of First Niagara Center across the street – is scheduled to open in September 2014 on the current Webster Block parking lot. The hotel is set to open the following spring.
As many as 500,000 visitors may be lured to the site, helping further develop and revitalize the Canalside area, consultants have told Sabres officials.
On the strictly hockey side, the project should elevate the level of youth hockey played in Western New York, improve the Division I and pro chances for local elite players and even help attract NHL free agents to the Sabres.
Roughly five to seven years from now, Gilbert predicted, the local community will look back and see this project as a “watershed moment” for Buffalo.
“Every person aspires to get to heaven,” said Michael Peca, Buffalo Junior Sabres coach and general manager and a former Sabres player. “Now everyone wants to get to Hockey Heaven.”
People outside Buffalo are noticing, including Dave Fischer, spokesman for USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo., who cited the increased commitment of Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
“I think the reputation of Buffalo is that it’s always been a top-flight hockey market with knowledgeable fans,” Fischer said. “Obviously, the commitment to the sport at all levels, with this new facility across the street, there’s no question that it’s been enhanced.”
The price tag for the ever-changing project has risen now to $172 million, up from the previous $123 million.
The garage will have five levels of parking, topped by the two-story rinks, with the hotel rising another 11 floors above just the northwest quadrant of the building.
Both rinks will run north and south, occupying the sixth and seventh floors. One rink will be in the northeast corner of the building, with about 200 seats, while the other will be in the southern half, midway between Main and Washington streets, seating about 1,800.
The building also will house a Center of Excellence, on the northwest corner of the sixth floor, providing year-round professional strength and conditioning workouts for young hockey players, skating instruction, coaching clinics, pre- and postgame workouts and high-level skill development for hockey players of all ages.
“It’s not going to be Gold’s Gym or LA Fitness,” Benson said. “It will be much more geared to the hockey players we’re trying to train.”
All those assets have Sabres officials calling this a unique facility in North America, especially with a walkway connecting the third floor of the new parking garage to the 100 Level of First Niagara Center.
In fact, on the days when First Niagara Center hosts a concert, Sabres players will revisit their childhoods, donning their gear in their own locker room and then slinging their skates over their shoulders and using the walkway and elevators to reach one of the new rinks for practice.
Nobody can name another NHL franchise with that luxury.
While some agreements still have to be finalized, Sabres officials expect the building to be the new home of both Canisius College’s Division I team and the Buffalo Junior Sabres. The NHL team also is taking over the Buffalo Regals Tier I teams, which will skate there.
Many Sabres officials spent the recent NHL lockout hammering out details for the new building, a whirlwind project that has put shovels into the ground barely more than a year from the original planning stage. The project, with the support of Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, quickly gained the approval of the Common Council, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
“Tell me the last project that got the unanimous approval from all three groups,” Gilbert said.
Benson, Gilbert, Peca and Larry Playfair, the team’s director of alumni relations, cited such benefits as:
• Attracting youth hockey tournaments.
Sabres officials expect to fill the two rinks, and the adjacent hotel, maybe 24 to 30 weekends per year, with youth hockey becoming so specialized that tournaments and showcases are held all year.
“People from Southern Ontario love coming to Buffalo,” Gilbert said. Hockey tournaments also have the added charm of attracting people to downtown Buffalo in the dead of winter when downtown visitors otherwise may be scarce.
• Raising the quality of youth hockey locally.
There will be a focus on better coaching, specialized hockey instruction, better conditioning and improved pre- and postgame workouts – all in the same building. “We expect this to filter through the rest of the local hockey community, and all the boats in the harbor will rise,” Playfair said.
• Attracting more special events.
The Sabres have their eyes on a long list of potential events, some that have been staged here before, including the World Juniors, the All-American Prospects Game, the U.S. Hockey League showcase tournament, National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I and club hockey championships, Canadian junior championships and other youth hockey showcases.
• Creating connections among local teams.
The Junior Sabres, with Peca as coach and general manager, exist largely to send players on to Division I and III hockey teams.
“College coaches will realize that these junior players are getting preferred training both on and off the ice,” Peca said. “So they know they’re getting great hockey players and dedicated athletes.”
• Helping the Sabres attract NHL free agents.
“As a player, when you’re on the road, you go into a facility and say, ‘This is really cool,’ ” Peca said, referring to his playing days. “When you’re up for free agency, you think about that, and it might be the first place you want to play.”