Western New York has taken to calling itself Hockey Heaven with little justification behind the claim. The Buffalo Sabres typically sell out and have a season-ticket waiting list, but the team’s successes have been limited. Looking beyond the Sabres, there has been little else to support the idea of the Buffalo-Niagara region as the pinnacle of the sport.
Could that be about to change?
If timing’s everything, this weekend’s NCAA Tournament appearances by Canisius and Niagara might be ideally slotted. It’s the first time both schools have made The Dance in the same year, thereby doubling the local interest in the event. What’s more, their parallel ascent comes at a time when the Sabres are launching the Webster Block development project that will magnify the sport’s downtown presence and perhaps provide Canisius with the “home-feel” rink it has lacked.
To make the claim of Hockey Heaven requires a layering of the sport from the top down, which makes Canisius and Niagara integral to the quest.
“We’ve seen where college hockey draws extremely well in other places and if this truly is going to be Hockey Heaven then I would think real high quality Division I hockey programs would definitely capture the imagination of the community, probably faster than basketball would frankly,” said Bill Collins, a partner in the public relations/advertising firm Travers Collins. “I think these schools can compete on a national level in hockey versus basketball, where it’s probably not going to happen.”
“We’re in a hockey ecosystem and the more success there is within that system the better, whether it’s the youth level, the collegiate level, the minor league level and the professional level,” said Buffalo Sabres president Ted Black. “I think it’s great for Western New York. Hockey is so imbedded in the culture around here and it’s just one of those things where success builds upon success.”
Development of the Webster Block, a project replete with two hockey rinks, could hasten the region’s climb to the elite status it desires. Canisius, which now plays its home games at Buffalo State, would likely play at the Webster Block facility.
“I think the Sabres can really kind of frame the whole thing with their support,” Collins said. “They’re putting $175 million into this thing downtown. I mean, it’s incredible, their plans to develop local talent. This really could become Hockey Central in due time. When you think about development of the kinds from youth hockey through high school to junior to college, gosh, this really could become a mecca.”
The NCAA Tournament provides Canisius and Niagara fertile opportunities to increase awareness on campus and among alumni while also further validating their programs in the eyes of potential recruits. Niagara, which plays North Dakota in Grand Rapids, Mich., at 5:30 today (ESPNU), has the benefit of making a fourth NCAA appearance in the program’s 17-year history. For Canisius, which goes against top-seeded Quinnipiac in Providence, R.I., at 5:30 Saturday, it’s a first.
“We just don’t have a lot of history on our side at the Division I level,” said Canisius assistant and recruiting director B.J. Adams. “That takes time. We’re building some. That was our goal and we’re going in the right direction. I think this can have a big impact. I think it gets your name out there more, draws more attention to yourself, maybe from people who have heard of us and now do more research on their own. We’ll find out.”
Again, the timing seems perfect. As the Griffs were preparing to face Quinnipiac, the New York Times published a feature on former Griff Cory Conacher, a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a top candidate for NHL Rookie of the Year. With publicity comes pride.
“You can’t underestimate what a nice shot of morale for the alma mater that is,” Collins said of the tourney berths. “And then you take the story of Canisius and Niagara even further out, stories in the national media, where these two colleges are getting a lot of exposure where they normally wouldn’t get any.”
A key for Canisius and Niagara will be to maximize the leverage afforded by their lock-step NCAA opportunity.
“I have a ton of ideas, now we have to present them to the right people,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder “We used to play downtown so we’re hoping ... I think for what both programs have accomplished maybe we deserve a game downtown. Hopefully we can work on that, maybe something early in the year just to kind of recap what happened this year and start a fresh year for college hockey in Western New York.”
“We talk about filling up the First Niagara Center,” said Griffs head coach Dave Smith. “That’s what Division I hockey does in other areas and we believe Western New York is a special hockey hotbed. As the Sabres organization says, we want it to be a destination. And events like this with two teams going to the national tournament help create that.”
Black said the Sabres are all for furthering the cause. The idea of a Canisius-Niagara game at the FNC early next season, with both schools recognized for their accomplishments this season, has legs.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Black said. “It’s not something that we’ve talked about yet because we don’t have our schedule put together but I think that’s a great idea and one we’re interested in exploring with those schools.”
At the least the coaches hope dual NCAA appearances further legitimizes their programs in the eyes of the Western New York sports fan and leads to more support for the programs, particularly in terms of attendance.
“If this doesn’t springboard Division I hockey in Western New York nothing will,” Burkholder said. “We’re happy for [Canisius], as happy as Niagara could be,” he said with a wry smile. “But it’s great for our league and great for Buffalo.”
“It is special. It’s absolutely special,” Smith said. “It’s something I don’t think we’ll recognize the tipping point until we reflect, whenever that is, not only on this particular season for us but for Western New York and Division I hockey.”