By Miguel Rodriguez
NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
The Buffalo Sabres may struggle on the ice with the man advantage, but off the ice their power plays have been a different story.
For years, the Sabres have picked their spots when it comes to influencing the area’s amateur/youth hockey scene. Their most recent score off an assist by Buffalo Regals President Mike Answeeney, however, could be either the best thing to happen to Tier I hockey in Western New York in the last 30 years, or – depending on who you talk to – have minimal impact.
The Sabres announced last week they have acquired the Regals’ Tier I organization. The move is effective for the 2014-15 season, just in time for the Sept. 1, 2014 grand opening of the Sabres’ HarborCenter complex.
The Sabres have applied to the state amateur hockey association to become an official youth hockey organization. Officials will vote on the application during meetings April 20, but regardless of how the vote goes, the Regals’ Tier I teams will be known as Buffalo Junior Sabres as of March 2014. (The acquisition of the Regals basically put the Sabres in a win-win situation regarding the application process because the Regals already have the documentation the Sabres would need to operate travel teams.)
The teams will call the new two-rink facility at Washington and Perry streets home and will operate teams from Mite Major (8-under) to Midget (18-under) levels. The teams will play in the same top leagues that currently boast the Regals as members. There will still be season-registration fees just like any other association to cover ice time, officials, etc.
“I feel after 35 years this is the right decision for the area and the right decision for the Regals,” said Answeeney, who made the pitch to the Sabres and whose Regals organization will still offer Tier II and house league playing opportunities. The Regals also recently purchased the Junior B Blades of the Golden Horseshoe League. “The Sabres want this to be a community-wide effort. You can’t argue with what they’re doing.”
The Regals aren’t the only Tier I association in the area but their teams play in the top leagues at all age groups – including their 16-under and 18-under teams who play in the prestigious Tier I Elite League. The Regals’ 14-under team has added to the association’s reputation by earning a bid to the USA Hockey tournament after winning the state championship last weekend.
Unlike other Tier I (or Triple A if you prefer) associations, the Sabres plan to hire and pay experienced coaches – preferably not parents. If they have a coach who happens to be a hockey parent on that particular team, it’ll be because that parent has the qualifications as a coach who has proved an ability to develop talent.
“We’re hoping to put the best kids in the area on one team with an independent coach, hoping they can become the best hockey players they can be,” said Sabres spokesman Michael Gilbert, who has two children who play for Amherst Youth Hockey and grew up playing for Tonawanda. “What we’re trying to do is just enhance youth hockey in Western New York.”
That means, ultimately, eliminating politics from the team selection process while trying to create some semblance of order in the chaotic world of Tier I hockey in the area.
For an area our size, which has roughly 21,000 kids (including girls) playing the sport, the fact Western New York has more Tier I associations (seven) than vast metropolises like Chicago (four) and Los Angeles (two) is simply ludicrous. There’s just not enough talent to make each of those teams competitive within the state or on the national scene. Including Rochester, there are 12 Tier I organizations.
The Sabres’ hope is to eliminate the need for the cream of the crop to leave the area in order to get noticed (see: Patrick Kane, Dylan Blujus, etc.) by top junior, college and pro scouts. The blueprint: Have the top talents in the area all playing together on one team that will consistently compete and beat the likes of Detroit Honeybaked, Little Caesars, Chicago and the L.A. Junior Kings. Do that and players will attract boatloads of attention.
There is proof that works already in place in the form of the OJHL Junior Sabres, who have attracted more college and pro scouts to their games this year than in past years simply because they’re a championship contender, and scouts love to recruit talented players who happen to be part of winning outfits.
The Junior Sabres’ 12-under Quebec Pee Wee Tournament team (fully funded by the Sabres) earns positive attention, too.
Answeeney stresses that the Junior Sabres’ association will not raid other existing organizations for talent, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Sabres have the advantage over everyone else in this game.
They will have a new building. They will be able to offer top coaching. They will put the needs of the children ahead of adult egos. They will have more resources at their disposal than other associations. It’s only natural top players and parents of elite talents would gravitate toward the Junior Sabres or at least express some curiosity.
Whether that leads to perhaps the number of Tier I programs in the area shrinking to a manageable number (say three or four) won’t be known until down the road.
Kevin Rozo believes what the Sabres are doing for Western New York hockey is good. Like any good coach, however, the West Seneca Wings and West Seneca West High School pilot offers words of caution regarding a potential side effect to the move, which would be other associations opting to switch from the existing split-season format to a full-season format in hopes of competing with the Junior Sabres.
“I think it’s what Western New York needs, but again not having all the answers their impact is going to depend on the other associations,” Rozo said. If other associations “are going to compete with them and go full season it’s going to crush high school hockey in the area. If they decide to keep the split season, then it’ll be OK.”
Amherst rolls out welcome
The changing landscape of amateur hockey in the area continues, as Amherst Youth Hockey recently announced it has lifted its residency requirement for players.
What exactly does that mean?
It means all levels of Amherst’s house-league programs are open to non-residents for the first time. The association’s Tier II teams can now have up to four non-residents, too. In the past, only Amherst’s Tier I could have non-resident players on a limited basis (now up to eight) for its travel teams.
Why is Amherst doing this?
Simple. The association has seen its registration numbers go down, according to board member Bob Schell. He said the numbers aren’t significantly down, but if you look down the road, not significant could become significant, which is something the association, which operates out of a four-rink facility in the Northtown Center, doesn’t want to happen.
“We want to be proactive versus reactive,” Schell said.
Registration for Amherst residents begins March 24 at amherstyouthhockey.org. Non-residents can go on the website and their registrations will be put on a waiting list. A couple weeks after that, the waiting list will open up and the association will begin signing up those kids.
Congratulations to the following teams for winning state championships last weekend. Just a reminder, only the 14-under, 16-under and 18-under (19-under for girls) champions advance to the USA Hockey Tournament.
Boys – 12-under: Tier II: Niagara Junior Purple Eagles. 14-under Tier I: Buffalo Regals.
Girls – 12-under: Tier I: Buffalo Bisons. Tier II: West Seneca Wings. 16-under: Tier I: Buffalo Bisons. 19-under: Tier I: Buffalo Bisons.
Around the boards
• The Niagara Junior Purple Eagles’ under-12 girls team recently captured the Pee Wee B Division championships at the 34th Annual March Madness Hockey Tournament in Toronto. Niagara beat Mississauga, 2-1, with LeeAnn Wright scoring the deciding goal in a shootout and goalie Madison Wesolowski denying all three Chiefs shooters to preserve the triumph.
• From the “sometimes things slip through the cracks” department: Kudos to the Bud Bakewell Bruins Pee Wee Mixed Team winning the Mid-Winter Classic in Jamestown. The Bruins beat North Pittsburgh via shootout, 2-1, to capture the title game. J.P. Haettich scored the title-clincher in a shootout. Goalie Evan Kumpf earned the win. Austin Spatorico had three goals and two assists during the four-game tournament, Kumpf won three games and Michael Ranieri had three goals and an assist.
• Send organizational news, story suggestions and tournament results to the email address below.