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Coming to Buffalo: The World Juniors

Coming to Buffalo: The World Juniors
How to make this one the best ever

We all remember the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation World Juniors.

The annual event consists of under-20 junior hockey players from 10 different countries, playing in a pool and then elimination format to determine a world champion.

Buffalo was the host a few years back, and oh, what a party we put on. Over 300,000 tickets sold to the 31 staged games. Thousands upon thousands of our friends from Canada descending on our city for two whole weeks, packing the restaurants, pubs, hotels, stores and every downtown venue. With flags of the nations all over and headquarters for the delegations set up in every downtown hotel, the games had all the feel of an Olympic style event. Buffalo and its warm and friendly people rose to the occasion. And we nailed it.

For Canada, it was a brutal finish that year. Following a semi-final victory over their arch rival Team USA squad, it was Canada and Russia in the finals, and a packed and raucous pro Canada crowd saw their team stake a 3-0 lead after two periods, only to fall apart in the third and surrender 5 straight goals. It was the Russian flag and anthem being raised and sung to the rafters, and Team Russia’s headquarters hotel, the Adams Mark, getting torn apart in the night long party that followed. Of course, ahem, no alcohol was involved because this is a U20 event, and the legal drinking age is 21. Glad that was cleared up.

So with the event not scheduled to be hosted again on US soil until 2018, (the World Juniors rotates among the USA, Canada and Europe, with this year’s tournament set to be staged in Finland), planning was begun to get Buffalo designated as the host once again, pretty much the day after the IIHF packed their bags and left town. “Mind you, we pretty much were flying off the seat of our pants the first time we hosted this,” said Mike Gilbert, Sabres Vice President for Public Relations. “But the tournament was such a success, and so well received, our focus became to how we could successfully land this event on our next turn, and that focus even transcended from the previous ownership group.”

Five US cities vied to be the host for the 2018 World Juniors; along with Buffalo, it was Pittsburgh and St. Louis that made the cut as finalists. “Gone are the days when we had to go out in search of places to stage the World Juniors,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, at last week’s press conference held at Ralph Wilson Stadium. “It was an extremely difficult decision as all three finalists in contention to host the event were exceptional.”

What tipped the scales in Buffalo’s favor? “It’s been a multi-year relationship building process with USA Hockey that goes back a long ways,” said Gilbert. “Successfully hosting the IIHF women’s under-18 tournament, the sled hockey tournament, and the Team USA prospects games has been a huge part of this process and has given Buffalo the chance to shine. Our stock could only go up and up.” Sabres owner Terry Pegula added, “I heard the word ‘campus’ repeatedly being brought up,” referring to the combination of the arena, the attached HarborCenter and the evolving Canalside district.

With due respect to all the Sabres organization leadership and staffers who worked tirelessly to make this a reality for Buffalo, make no mistake. Gilbert’s behind the scenes participation was huge, and he was one of the people acknowledged by Pegula at the press conference. Gilbert is the point man on all the Team USA projects here in Buffalo, and in 2012 was named to Team USA’s public relations staff at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. For three weeks he traveled, ate, drank, slept and worked with the USA hockey players and officials. One will never know the true breadth of the conversations that took place during that time, but seeds were sown for sure to bring Buffalo to this point.

As the process continued to move along, there were two more pivotal moments. During the site visit by the Team USA delegation last February, the Sabres front office pitched a bold idea—presenting the first ever outdoor game in the World Juniors, to be held at Ralph Wilson Stadium, site of the first ever NHL Winter Classic back in 2008. “Would this enhance our bid? Would this hurt our bid? We weren’t quite sure what the reaction would be, but they loved the idea right away,” said Gilbert. “So this became the cornerstone of our presentation, not so much for the business end of things, which are pretty similar amongst all the bids, but to give the Buffalo games a new wow factor.”

The second came in July, right after Bills president Russ Brandon was named to the same leadership post with the Buffalo Sabres. “We had all the kinks in our presentation worked out, but they (USA Hockey officials) didn’t know Russ. He was seen as a football guy. So we took the day trip to Colorado Springs (headquarters and training facilities for USA Hockey) just to make the connection. In this day and age of teleconferencing that was huge. Add in Kim Pegula’s personal participation in some of the face to face meetings, and they could see the ownership was on board. And engaged,” said Gilbert.

Following the news conference at the stadium last week, Brandon was ecstatic about the designation of Buffalo for the World Juniors and holding its first ever outdoor game. And he promised more to come, as Buffalo is already to be the host city for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, and the NCAA mens basketball March Madness subregional returns in 2017. Along with the World Juniors, all these marquee events will put a positive spotlight on the city, along with millions of dollars of spending and economic stimulus from visiting participants. “We’re swinging at every ball being thrown at us,” said Brandon. “Let’s make this clear; Buffalo is the place to be for tournaments of this magnitude, and we will be pursuing future sporting events like this with plenty of aggressiveness.”

We now know about the outdoor game. So how else can this community prepare to make this the best games ever?

■ The “Olympic Village” concept. Pegula alluded to this in his remarks. Canalside and the Cobblestone district offers an outstanding platform for temporary food, drink, outdoor markets and bazaar, live music, perhaps amateur hockey exhibitions, public skating and winter sports. All designed with offering splendid visuals to the world audience that Buffalo is a special destination. “This is all very, very preliminary, but eventually there will be a pipeline of ideas for just that,” Gilbert promised.

■ Continued buildout of Canalside. The public improvements at the foot of Main Street are nothing short of spectacular, from the replica canals to the central wharf to the first lighting of the grain elevators. People are coming in droves to enjoy the rebirth of the district and giving rave reviews. Look closer, though, and too many of the entertainment amenities at Canalside are serviced via temporary installations—shipping containers turned to food stands, fiberglass huts, portable toilets and shanties. While no one can expect a full buildout of the district in accordance with their Master Plan by the time the puck drops in two years, fast tracking three announced projects and getting them open for the World Juniors would be huge. They are the planned Hofbrauhaus, the Explore and More Childrens Museum, and the old style carousel secured in an indoor pavilion. Permanent comfort stations? If people at the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation are doing their jobs, 2016 will be the final year of the Canalside port-a-pottie.

■ Engage the public. Stakeholders, hotel operators, downtown businesses, hockey organizations, even the sports media, are replete with ideas on how to enhance and improve the event. The Sabres and Pegula Sports and Entertainment have a crack team of some extremely talented and creative staffers. Opening up the planning to the community and mining for yet more ideas and involvement just brings more enthusiastic participants to the table.

■ Fix Main Street. About a month ago the good news came that another federal grant has been secured to continue the cars sharing Main Street reconstruction program, this time to remake lower Main Street from Exchange Street to South Park. If you haven’t yet seen the results of this reconstruction on the 600 and 500 blocks of Main Street, go have a look. The streetscapes and lighting are spectacular, and businesses and shops have pretty much occupied all of what once were long time vacant storefronts.

Mayor Byron Brown was in attendance at the World Juniors press conference. Hopefully he was on the phone to his public works commissioner as soon as he got back to City Hall. And with this conversation, “The World Juniors are coming in 25 months. That’s the time we have to get lower Main Street designed, bidded out and constructed. We can’t have our hockey visitors climbing over and around construction barriers.” Let’s hope the city gets this done. And done right and on time.

■ Beware the falling loonie. Team USA officials would like nothing better than to see an ocean of red-white-and-blue at these events, but everyone knows that the influx of Canadians made this event its huge success in 2011, and are being counted on again to bring their mojo come 2018. Remember, though, that our two currencies were roughly at par last time around. Right now the US dollar is trading at $1.375 Canadian and the trend is for the further strengthening of the greenback. With the cost of visiting the States that much more expensive, a lot more thought and creativity needs to be deployed to market to the Canadian fans.

■ Riverworks. No ideas yet how this amazing and unique venue can fit into the World Juniors matrix of fun, but the potential there is staggering.

With four new downtown hotels having opened since 2011 and two more coming online just in the next few months, HarborCenter offering yet another destination including hosting some of the secondary games, downtown development being white hot, and so much more to see and do than last time, this has the potential of being the best World Juniors ever. “We learned so much doing this in 2011 and that will be very helpful as plans move along,” said Gilbert.

After 2018, USA next gets to be the host nation for this event in another seven years. “And the 2025 World Juniors is awarded to...?” Sorry Pittsburgh. Sorry St. Louis. And sorry to, pfff, “Hockeytown” in Detroit. There’s a new Hockey Heaven. And it’s not you.

2018 International Ice Hockey Federation

Mens U20 World Juniors

Dates: December 26, 2017—January 5, 2018

Venues: First Niagara Center, HarborCenter and Ralph Wilson Stadium

Outdoor game: Wednesday, December 27 or Friday, December 29 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Opponents Team USA v Team Canada (planned)

2016 World Juniors host: Helsinki, Finland

2017 World Juniors hosts: Toronto and Montreal, Canada

Past USA World Juniors hosts:

1982 • Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN 1989 • Anchorage AK 1996 • Boston, MA 2005 • Grand Forks ND/Thief River Falls MN 2011 • Buffalo NY

Tickets: Plans, packages and pricing will be announced in late 2016.

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