Tonawanda News — One year later, as the Sabres were about to open their season against the Detroit Red Wings, there was a sentiment among many that Buffalo has a better claim to being “Hockeytown USA” than the Motor City. No offense intended, but I think Buffalo hasn’t quite proven that yet. The hockey institutions have stated their cases but not necessarily the greater fan base.
Niagara hockey has shown its respect for the game in Western New York, opening its doors to several local players including current Purple Eagles Kevin Ryan and Mike Benedict (Eden), Vincent Muto and Pat Conte (Niagara Falls), Sam Alfieri (Buffalo), Chris Paulin (Lockport) and Mike Conderman and Rocky Gruttadauria (Rochester). Having so many Western New Yorkers on the roster is evidence the Purple Eagles coaching staff recognizes the depth of talent in its own region.
The Sabres organization, which of course is the linchpin of local hockey, has certainly done its part to grow the game beyond its arena. They’ve demonstrated this by their involvement in projects including bringing the World Junior Championships to Buffalo back in December 2010. For the second straight year, they are sponsoring a 12-Under team that will compete in the prestigious Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament. Their HARBORcenter project, when finished, will be home to Canisius College hockey and, although the t’s are not all crossed yet nor all the i’s dotted, a more centralized youth program designed to develop the region’s best young players under the Jr. Sabres name.
When the term “Hockey Heaven” was first uttered by Ted Black on the day Terry Pegula was introduced as the Sabres’ new owner in 2011, I was left with the impression that they fully grasped that local hockey goes well beyond what was being played within First Niagara Center (let’s not forget, Pegula has also put millions of his own dollars into boosting the hockey program at his alma mater, Penn State).