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Junior Hockey in Buffalo

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Ted Black called Buffalo Hockey Heaven in his initial address to the media and fans at Terry Pegula’s introductory press conference. While the city’s professional team hasn’t claimed a title just yet, those players who aren’t on the payroll in Western New York are thriving.

Long before Terry Pegula began the process to buy the Sabres, hockey was big in WNY. In fact, the Sabres 2005-06 run did a lot for interest in hockey in the area. But this has long been a hockey town. One question that many have asked revolves around what might come of the thriving amateur hockey culture in Buffalo.

WNY is a textbook example of a hockey hotbed with near countless amateur programs and a pro franchise that is a hot-ticket each season. However, outside of the impressive support for the Sabres, there is very little interest for other levels of the game in Buffalo. On the whole, Buffalo is a hockey town full of Sabres fans.

While there are plenty of people in WNY who have an interest in hockey not played by the Sabres, the vast majority are only bothered by what the Sabres do. This attitude breeds quite a bit of the low hockey IQ that is seen at FNC, heard on the Whiner Line or read on Twitter, Facebook or message boards. However, that is a different topic for a different time.

The point is that the game of hockey that so many people in WNY love has plenty to offer outside of the NHL. Between the pair of DI programs (Niagara and Canisius) in town and the OHL teams a short drive away (Erie or St. Catherines) there is plenty of hockey being played at a high level in the area. However, it would seem as if many fans have little interest in such games.

Just look at the All-American Prospects game that was played a few weeks ago. The 5,000-person crowd was more than respectable for the first time the event was played and the Sabres organization and USA Hockey should be applauded for the results they obtained. However, it shows what non-Sabres players do for hockey fans in the area. The truly interested ones come out in droves, but the casual fans ignore the option.

Even the World Junior Championships were driven by Canadian fans hopping the border. US fans in Buffalo were sparse as it appeared that many of the US games were played in a road atmosphere with Canadian fans rooting for the US opponents most of the time. The Frozen Four was also driven by many out-of-town visitors buying up tickets for the games, not as much from college hockey crazed Buffalonians.

The line in the sand for most Sabres fans appears to end with players who are part of the organization. If similarly sized crowds show up for a development camp scrimmage as they do for a showcase of the nation’s elite prospects, the writing is on the wall. Based on that attitude, is it possible that a Buffalo-based major junior team would do well?

The OHL, as most fans are aware, is one step from the NHL. Even if your hometown team is a doormat, NHL-ready prospects will be rolling through town and will not only provide fans a peek at the next NHL stars, but a tremendous product. As for the USHL, it has become an increasingly impressive league with players going right to the draft as opposed to the NCAA. Giving Buffalo either one of these two gifts would be a blessing on the hockey community as a whole.

Previous evidence seems to indicate that a USHL or OHL team in Buffalo might not garner much interest from the majority of fans simply due to their affiliation compared to that of the Sabres. Sure. It would be great if the USHL or OHL dropped a franchise in Buffalo, but the support may not justify the decision.

The bottom line is that most “hockey fans” in Buffalo can’t be bothered by teams who aren’t wearing a white bison on their chests. If they were, NU and Canisius games would be a far more popular draw, as would the Jr. Sabres. What the fear should be is the same treatment being directed towards a similar or even superior product just because the team doesn’t have Ryan Miller or Tyler Myers.

The showing at Jr. Sabres games is quite misleading for a few reasons. While the organization has been doing a very good job in recent seasons – becoming a near direct line to the NCAA – they aren’t playing the type of hockey that registers with most fans in Buffalo. Also, despite playing one one of the larger rinks in their league (true story), it is a small community rink that most fans can’t be bothered to drive to.

Now, if they make the HARBOR center their home, this could change. But I’d gather the change will be minor. The same could be said of an OHL or USHL team calling the new building home. Since the only connection with the Sabres will likely be via ownership (at the most) there won’t be much that fans will identify with. The residual marketing in this case would be quite beneficial, but the safe bet is that most fans would be unfazed by the addition of such a team.

The x-factor here is the fact that this would be a Buffalo team. The biggest difference between fan interest in non-Sabres hockey games in the area (WJC, AAPG) and the potential of a major junior franchise would be the Buffalo connection. Rather than being a collection of players most fans haven’t heard of, it would be a franchise the fans could invest interest in over the long term. The added benefit of being a major junior league as opposed to a league most Buffalonians wouldn’t be able to identify.

Considering the way local radio treats sports teams not called the Sabres or Bills, the junior club probably wouldn’t get much coverage. The same couldn’t be said of the paper. Based on the coverage that high schools and the major UB teams get, the News would probably give this team their due. Still, exposure would be a major issue, unless the team was directly affiliated with the Sabres in some way.  Add in the fact that teams not named Bills or Sabres seem to have little impact on the interest of most Buffalonians could be cause for concern.

The truly hockey mad fans in Buffalo would kill to get an OHL or USHL franchise. Not only would they make for a great anchor tenant at HARBORcetner, they would give a very different product for hockey fans to follow.

If I was a betting man I wouldn’t put money on such a franchise to enjoy much success in Buffalo, despite the hometown connection. However, I’d love to see the hockey community prove me wrong and provide impressive support for such a franchise in either the USHL or OHL. Maybe then Hockey Heaven would be an appropriate name for Buffalo.

Joe

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