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Steel is rising at the Buffalo Sabres’ HarborCenter project in downtown Buffalo, as work progresses from the concrete parking ramp and lower levels into the primary feature of the $172.2 million complex: the floors containing the two giant ice rinks and training facilities.

More than 1,800 tons of structural steel columns and girders are being erected on top of the concrete fifth floor, quickly raising the height of the project by three more stories, as the 650,000-square-foot project continues to advance despite frigid cold temperatures and occasional blowing snow.

The steel was delivered in seven truckloads, with the brown beams laid flat on top of the fifth floor. Workers last week began the task of swinging them up to erect the framework for the fifth, sixth and seventh floors of the hockey and entertainment destination.

With that, the long, slow process that has marked the construction so far is speeding up – 10 months after workers broke ground for a facility that Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula say they hope will be a major draw for hockey events and tournaments to downtown Buffalo.

“We’re all very, very excited,” said HarborCenter President John R. Koelmel, who was hired six months ago. “The structure will begin to go vertical at a quick and accelerated pace.”

Despite the weather – including the extra cold that shut down construction for one day – Koelmel said the project remains on schedule for the rinks, retail and parking facilities to open this fall, with the hotel opening in the spring of 2015.

The 58,000-pound compressor that will maintain the two National Hockey League-size ice rinks was brought in from Toronto. It’s now installed on the fifth floor, just below where the rinks will be constructed on the sixth floor. More than 125 workers from various trades are now on-site.

“We have been at it a very short period of time, but a tremendous amount of work is done … through one of the tougher winters,” Koelmel said, speaking to a group of real estate professionals for a program at First Niagara Center.

The rinks are the biggest challenge, given their height above the ground and the limited space to work with, Koelmel said. “We’re putting 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag over there,” he said. “It’s a parcel of land that’s less than 2 acres large, but compounding all of that is putting two sheets of ice with minimal if any vibration six stories up.”

The rinks, which will seat 1,800 spectators and include typical amenities, are intended to draw national and international hockey events and tournaments to Buffalo, while serving as a home for Canisius College’s hockey team and the Sabres’ youth hockey organization. The facility will also include 5,000 square feet of off-ice training facilities, equipment and staff to develop players and coaches, as well as 11 locker rooms – including dedicated space for Canisius and the Junior Sabres.

Last week, HarborCenter announced that Impact Sports Performance, a sports training facility in Boca Raton, Fla., for both professional and amateur athletes, will operate the Buffalo facility. Impact Sports is also owned by the Pegulas. Additionally, HarborCenter hired former Sabres goaltender Martin G. Biron as director of goaltending for the HarborCenter Academy of Hockey.

The complex on the former Webster Block in downtown Buffalo also will feature a full-service 205-room Marriott Hotel and a two-story, 13,000-square-foot sports-themed restaurant, with three bars and seating for 350 patrons. The hotel lobby will be on the seventh floor, with 12 floors of rooms above it on the northwest corner. The restaurant will be in the northeast corner of Scott and Washington streets, at ground level. There’s also additional street-level retail shops along Main Street and a five-level, 750-space parking ramp.

“As unique and terrific and wonderful as the facility will be, it’s only a means to an end,” Koelmel said. “Kim and Terry didn’t really want a hotel. They didn’t really want a restaurant. What they did want is to create a destination to change the development of hockey talent from around the world.”

Cognizant of concerns from other area rinks, Koelmel reiterated that the Sabres are not trying to poach hockey players and ice time from others throughout the region, but rather hope to bring new opportunities and business that will add to what is already here.

“We’re not here to be the shiny new toy that redistributes the existing pie,” Koelmel said. “Our job is to ensure we bring even more to the region. … My job is to ensure we deliver an experience that is second to none. You can hold us accountable to do just that.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com