Dave Smith thinks about the possibilities all the time, mainly because they’re nearly impossible to ignore. Look out the window and check the radar. We only wished it was freezing in Buffalo, where temperatures were in the 20s Thursday with a thin layer of snow blanketing the region on the first full day of spring.
You can thank our natural resources for making this a terrific hockey town, but the sport still hasn’t reached its full potential in Western New York. Smith envisions a day in which college hockey takes hold in our community the way it has in other places, such as Boston, Michigan and Minnesota.
Buffalo fans are so hung up on the Sabres that many fail to recognize the anticipation that comes with Division I hockey. Canisius and Niagara play this afternoon in the Atlantic Hockey Association semifinals in Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. The game should generate more drama and excitement than any Sabres game this season.
And the price is right, too.
“I want to look at the big picture,” said Smith, who has coached at Canisius for eight seasons. “Our games are being played at such a high level. We need to make the people outside the hockey community more aware so it’s an event. It’s not just the hockey game, and it’s not just Canisius and Niagara. It’s the thing to do.”
Nothing accelerates the process more for Canisius and Niagara than meeting for a high-stakes game like the one today. The two schools, separated by 22 miles, are playing for the fourth time this season. The winner advances to the conference championship with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Atlantic Hockey isn’t a power conference like Hockey East, and this isn’t North Carolina-Duke in hoops. But in the big picture, the matchup will nurture a rivalry that has grown more intense with every season. They’re starting to despise one another when it comes to sports the way Canisius and Niagara have for years.
Niagara is ranked 15th in the nation — two spots ahead of Boston University, five spots ahead of Michigan and miles ahead of Michigan State — in the latest poll conducted by U.S. College Hockey Online. The Purple Eagles had a 2-1 edge in games during the regular season but outscored the Golden Griffins by only one goal in the three meetings.
“In the playoffs, you’re playing for a national bid,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “Now, when you look across the rink and the other bench has ‘Canisius College’ on it, it just adds to it. It’s as big of a game as we’ve had in years. I don’t want to use the ‘H’ word. ... It’s well on its way, at least from the Niagara office. I’ll leave it at that.”
The Purple Eagles would likely receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament if they lost in the conference tournament. Both teams would likely advance to the NCAAs if Canisius won this afternoon and again Saturday. If that happened, they would probably land in opposite brackets with the potential to meet in the Frozen Four.
Can you imagine?
It’s unlikely but possible when you consider RIT reached the Frozen Four in its fifth season in Division I. Canisius and Niagara are very good defensively, which makes them dangerous in a single-elimination format. Both can play with any team in the country on a given night. Plus, upsets are more frequent in hockey than most other sports.
While there’s no public animosity between the two schools, their mutual genuine disdain simmered just beneath the surface Thursday. It’s like any other rivalry in sports. The two don’t like one another and would enjoy nothing more than ruining the other’s weekend with a win in the conference tournament.
“On our campus, there are signs that say, ‘Beat Niagara,’ ” Smith said. “My personality, I’m not going to create that animosity for poster material. But the two schools are as an intense of a rivalry as BU-BC or RPI-Union or Clarkson-St. Lawrence. The passion is there. I don’t believe there’s been a vehicle to carry that passion publicly.”
For years, Canisius has had an inferiority complex about Niagara. Canisius played in a weaker conference that allowed fewer scholarships. The Griffs still don’t have an on-campus rink. They’re reduced to playing home games at SUNY-Buffalo State, which has forced them to battle through the appearance of having a small-time operation.
Niagara had 18 scholarships and played on campus at Dwyer Arena when its conference folded three years ago. Rather than play an independent schedule with the idea it would eventually join a bigger conference, it downsized the program with six fewer scholarships and humbly joined Canisius in Atlantic Hockey.
Canisius can brag about having the best player to come out of the two schools. Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher is leading NHL rookies in scoring with eight goals and 22 points just two years after a four-year career at Canisius. Niagara has never produced a player who made an impact in the NHL.
Smith and Burkholder described their relationship as “cordial” Thursday. They agree on that much, but they’re not meeting for Happy Hour any time soon. They have kept a safe distance from one another for years while their teams attempted to beat the daylights out of each other. In truth, if they grow, they need each other.
“This is an elite level of sport, and it happens to be hockey in a hockey community,” Smith said. “There will be a tipping point, meaning fans and non-fans will start to identify that NHL prospects are playing here. The level of play is extremely high. They will start coming out. What’s the tipping point? Is it a semifinal game in Rochester?”
If nothing else, today’s game will add another layer to their history. It’s what they need to build the college game in the region. Pardon me for fantasizing about a future that would include a tournament in Buffalo similar to the Beanpot, which has been a marquee event in Boston for the past 61 years.
Canisius and Niagara are exponentially closer to winning an NCAA hockey title than any local college basketball or football team has been in the past 40 years. Our region needs to get with the times, starting with UB adding a Division I program and joining a conference that would include Canisius, Niagara, RIT and Mercyhurst, among others.
Terry Pegula’s plans for the Webster Block, which includes an 1,800-seat jewel Canisius will call home, can only help change the culture. Perhaps someday the demand for tickets will exceed the seating capacity in his new facility. Smith isn’t the only coach in town who has looked around and imagined the possibilities.
“It’s why Niagara started hockey,” Burkholder said. “Canisius had a program for a long, long time. I aspire to play in First Niagara Center. That’s what motivates us to go to work every day, trying to get this program in the national spotlight.”
First, check the local radar.