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Making Over HSBC Arena

Time sure flies, doesn’t it? This year our temple to hockey and entertainment will turn 10 years old. Seems like we walked into the building for the very first time just yesterday and marveled at the place.

Since 1996 a good number of big-league arenas have opened up throughout the NHL and NBA, all sporting newer and more dazzling amenities and features. Can Buffalo claim its place among the elite? We have to give props to Sabres owner Tom Golisano and the organization for making some dramatic improvements to the building. The surround ribbon boards and ice projection system in the seating bowl, the Studio 200 and Pour Man’s Aud Club dining areas, the splashy murals inside and outside have given the arena a fresh new look.

But there’s more, lots more, that can be done, and having traveled to all the NHL arenas we’ve picked up a few ideas along the way. So here are our proposals to vault HSBC Arena to the best in the land, and some commentary from Sabres Managing Partner Larry Quinn:

Location: The arena sits in prime real estate territory, yet is surrounded by a development wasteland screaming the word potential—Bass Pro, the Canal Harbor, DL&W, the Webster block, the Cobblestone neighborhood to the east, bridges to the Outer Harbor. Shovels are in the ground for some projects—for others the progress is frustratingly slow. 2006 and 2007 should be huge in creating what we hope will be a bustling and vital Cobblestone/Arena district.

Rapid Transit: One of the early design gaffes, no thought was given to providing riders easy access to the arena; people had to trudge two blocks through the snow from the Aud station to the front door, and the NFTA eventually responded by building a makeshift platform one block closer. Still unacceptable. At Montreal’s Bell Centre, Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and Washington’s MCI Center, patrons can exit the subway and step into their arenas via enclosed causeways. Building a permanent station with indoor access to HSBC should be a high priority.

Scoreboard: Oh, how cool that eight-sided monstrosity looked when the arena first opened! Today the Jumbotron is much like your old projection TV at home—still works, but it’s clunky, obsolete and you’d rather show off your funky new plasma screen Dazzling new HDTV video boards have been unveiled in places like Dallas, Charlotte, Minnesota and San Antonio among others. We should do likewise.

The old Aud scoreboard: Yes, it still hangs in that old building, so how about bringing it over to the arena, restoring it, hanging it at one end of the pavilion and firing the sucker up! Sounds crazy? The old Omni scoreboard hangs in the main atrium of Atlanta’s Philips Arena and is fully operational. And people eat up anything nostalgic when it comes to the Aud.

The displays at Headlines: Those backlit panels celebrating Buffalo’s sports moments are very cool. The only problem with such museums is that they are living entities, and ours is stuck in a 1996 time warp. Tour the display and you will see nothing of three Buffalo Bisons championships, No Goal, the Music City Forward Lateral or Niagara’s first MAAC title in a generation—all seminal events that happened in the last decade. This display needs updating pronto.

The “Adelphia” kiosk: Fess up! Were you one of the morons who stood in line to swipe your Adelphia Advantage Card to earn points for free merchandise? Yep, thought so. Time to pack up the screens, the monitors, dismantle the equipment and come up with a creative new use for this space. Ship the stuff to the rightful owners in Coudersport…er, Denver…er, Leavenworth. Wherever.

Concession signage: The food items are pretty good, but those concession canopies are really hideous. New marquees, designed with bright colors, perhaps neon, would brighten up the food stands and add much to the concourses.

The outdoor patio: Right outside the 100 level Harbour Club and next to Sabretooth’s House is a patio. The views of Main Street and the Canal Harbor project have to be amazing, but because this space gets no use, nobody can enjoy it. A bar, canopied areas, TV monitors and torch lamps for heating could make this a viable gathering spot during all but the harshest winter months.

“Top Shelf,” with a view of the seating bowl: In St. Louis’ Savvis Center, they cut out some of their cheapest seats in the upper end zone and created “Top Shelf,” a bar area with viewing rail, tavern-style concessions and extensive game area, all with a great view of the action on the ice. It has become one of the most popular amenities in St. Louis. So perhaps we can build our own Top Shelf in the 300s here in Buffalo—every Sabres fan knows very well that that’s where Momma hides the cookies.

Ground floor sports bar: Fronting Main Street is a large area of empty space. How about leasing the space for a themed restaurant or nightclub, open year round, complementing the emerging Canal Harbor development across the street.

The Sabres’ Larry Quinn shepherded the development and construction of the arena back in the 1990s and speaks proudly of recent enhancements to the facility. “The first thing we looked at was improving our athletic and medical facilities for the players, areas that fans don’t see,” said Quinn. “This has to do with attracting and retaining our top talent.”

Quinn admits that he and the staff pay attention to what other arenas are doing for their fans, but much of what has happened in Buffalo is original and creatively driven from inside the organization. “Our ‘Pour Man’s Aud Club’ is a nostalgic look at the old Aud and replicates some of its distinct features. That’s not something we can pick up from another building,” said Quinn. “Thanks to our creative director, Frank Cravotta, we have an ice projection system that is unique in the league. Others have made the trip here to see what we have done and how to do something similar in their rinks.”

So do the Sabres have a set budget for ongoing capital improvements and amenity enhancements? “Actually we do have a budget but that doesn’t mean we spend for the sake of spending,” Quinn replied. “We respond to things that make our product even more accessible and convenient for the fans, and also we try to appeal to a wide base of people.”

Quinn also said that a new scoreboard and an enhanced sound system is in the works down the road. “It’s something we’re looking at, and we’ll be addressing it at some point.”

And Quinn’s parting comment? “Our facility holds up well against any of the others in the NHL.”

No argument from us, Larry.

TARO SEZ…

• “I was really pressing,” admitted Buffalo Bandits superstar John Tavares after missing several chances on February 18 to become the all-time scoring leader in Indoor Lacrosse. Tavares and the Bandits are home again this Saturday at HSBC Arena, with history in the making from the opening faceoff.

• Did you catch Mike Modano’s rant about Team USA’s poor showing? Poor Mike! He had to book his own plane flight…awww! He says changes are needed. We couldn’t agree more, starting with dumping Modano off any future Olympics roster.

• Sabres assist king Teppo Numminen finally scored a goal—for Team Finland! Let’s hope he finally finds net for the Sabres.

• Cheers to the Sabres for rolling out the red carpet for Danielle Grunquist of Colorado, whose tour of all 30 NHL arenas ended here in Buffalo last month. Grunquist was given front-row seats, a Zamboni ride and an appearance on the Sabres telecast. Her journeys are chronicled at her website, www.hockeepuck.com.

Do you have any ideas for improving HSBC Arena? E-mail your thoughts and suggestions to editorial@artovice.com.