"This is Going to Be Huge"
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Buffalo prepares to welcome the world when youth hockey tournament comes to town
Up to now it’s been sort of quiet. Almost too quiet.
Fasten your seatbelts, Buffalo, because in the next week or so the streets of downtown are going to be filled with fans, with visitors from 10 countries, many of them Canadians descending en masse to reclaim a title that they feel is rightfully theirs. Hotels will be filled to the brim, restaurants will be humming, and HSBC Arena will be rocking as the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under 20 World Junior Tournament comes to our city.
This annual event features the best junior players from 10 nations, who compete under their country’s flag in an 11-day tournament. It all culminates with the gold medal game on January 5 at HSBC Arena. “Seventy-five percent of the players you will see on the ice will become NHL players someday. They will be household names,” said Jim Johansson, general manager for the Team USA squad.
And despite the sour grapes and dire warnings of one local state Assemblyman, the Buffalo Sabres as the host of the event have been busy preparing for the onslaught of teams and fans, and the community is also gearing up to show local and visiting fans a good time.
“Our role is to set up the tournament, get the arenas ready [HSBC Arena and Dwyer Arena in Lewiston], bring the teams and the media in, and make sure that lodging and transportation is in place,” said Mike Gilbert, director of public relations for the Sabres. “We’ve had experience in putting these sort of events together before, so hopefully things will go smoothly this time as well.”
Gilbert said that his organization has been involved with some community initiatives as the date of the tournament draws nearer. “We are setting up a ‘Hockey Lodge’ in the plaza outside the arena, a tented and heated area, with TVs, where fans will be able to enjoy food and drink between games,” said Gilbert. “We’ve also placed all sorts of information on our website [www.buffaloworldjuniors.com], which offers everything from border crossing news, tickets, parking, schedule of sightseeing, and other area events, to assist our visitors. Beyond that, we know that the Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working with our local business community to promote local venues catering to the sports fans.”
“We can’t say enough for what the Sabres have brought to the table in their role as the host of this tournament,” said Johannson as he met the media on behalf of Team USA last week. “We’ve been involved in this event in other cities over the years, and I can comfortably say that Buffalo has the potential of passing them all in terms of fan support, organization and excitement.”
Steve Manson is the longtime publisher of WNY Hockey Magazine and has been active in junior hockey circles for decades as a team owner, manager, and ambassador. “This is going to be huge,” he said. “People have no idea what’s coming. This will be something that will dwarf the NCAA or any other sport event that we have sponsored before.”
Manson is coordinating a three-day fanfest at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center from December 27 through 29. “It’s called Hockeytowne USA, and it’s a celebration of hockey,” Manson said. There will be interactive games and vendors, plenty of food and drink, the ICE World Bubble Hockey Championships, a two-thirds-size-regulation hockey rink with synthetic ice that will be used for games and then be raffled off for charity, and much more. “We’re expecting thousands of people from all over, so a lot of companies want to show off the best that they have to offer to our visitors.
“I went to the World Juniors in Ottawa [in 2008], and I know how huge this is in Canada and how this event is growing in stature in the US and in Europe,” Manson added. “Even though the tournament doesn’t start till the day after Christmas, beginning next week a lot of these teams are already going to be here. There are four teams training in Rochester, Team Canada is up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the Americans are starting across the state and gradually making their way here. Fans are already going to be coming to town and filtering in the week before the tournament. So this will be a two-and-a-half- to three-week economic impact for Western New York. I hope the businesses and shops downtown are gearing up for this.”
While in recent years it has been the USA and Canada making it to the finals, with Team USA winning the championship in a thriller in Saskatchewan at last year’s tournament, Manson says not to count the other teams out. “These other teams aren’t just here to show up. They are playing for their countries.”
Taking center stage at Hockeytowne USA will be the first ever Bubble Hockey World Championships, and Innovative Concepts in Entertainment Inc. manufactures the Super Chexx game table right here in Clarence. Service manager Aaron Petritz hopes this will become a huge annual event. “We’d like to eventually tie this in with the Pond Hockey Tournament in Buffalo. This will be a test for us to see if there’s a demand for it.”
Participants can register online at www.icechexxx.com, with most of the entry fees being returned in the form of prizes. “We’ve got 200 to 300 entrants registered right now, and are hoping to get to 1,000,” said Petritz. “If there are still slots available, we will have an onsite registration table at Hockeytowne for players who just show up.”
Downtown hotels will all be filling a vital role in a headquarters capacity. Team USA will be one of four teams housed at the Hyatt, while the Adam’s Mark will serve as the media center and host three other teams. Much of the action, however, will be taking place at downtown’s premier hotel destination, the Embassy Suites at Avant. Scott Parker, president of Brookwood Hospitality, the management group that oversees the hotel’s operations, said his staff will be prepared. “We will actually be welcoming three teams here at Embassy Suites,” Parker reported. “Canada, Slovakia, and Germany will all be staying here, as will scouting representatives from all the NHL teams. We’ve been used to this sort of thing, since almost all the visiting NHL teams stay with us when they play against the Sabres, so we will know what to expect.
“We’ve had the Frozen Four here, we’ve had March Madness. This is bigger than all of them. Perhaps combined,” said Parker. “My gosh, this is almost like the Super Bowl for the world. These are some of the best athletes in hockey from the entire world and it’s all coming to Buffalo. And as many a time as fans from Toronto or Montreal have come down for a game, this will be much bigger. This will be for two weeks. Visitors will experience our culture, our cuisine. They can do more shopping. I think they will be so impressed how ready Buffalo is for the World Juniors, that people will want to come back and check us out again and again.”
So will just the presence of the Canadians at the Embassy Suites attract all sorts of extra visitors, hoping to catch a glimpse or an autograph of their favorites? Parker said, “Our staff is already very versed in hockey. We’ll have a table here with brochures and helpers from the CVB to assist with people looking for a destination. Transportation will be beefed up. I would like to say we’ll have everyone dressed in Canadian garb, although that would not be fair to our other two teams. But we’ll have banners up and we will welcome all our teams with open arms. We want everyone to have a great experience being here in Buffalo.”
Drive around downtown, and signs that the games are coming are already beginning to sprout up. Banners hanging on Chippewa Street pubs are welcoming World Juniors fans, and flags of all the countries festoon the marquee down at Pearl Street Brewery. Over at Washington Square Lounge, just a long slap-shot away from the front door of HSBC Arena, they know what a shot in the arm an event like this brings to downtown businesses. “During the NCAA basketball games, we are jam packed with hungry and thirsty visitors. This will be that much bigger this will be over two weeks and we will be all set to show our patrons some good Buffalo hospitality,” said Bob Mecca, restaurant manager.
On Sabres game nights, Washington Square is already a popular postgame destination. “We got a call from the Vancouver Canucks, their scouting crew wants a reserved table here for their entire stay. So expect to see Stan Smyl and his guys over here a lot,” said Mecca. “Nothing makes us happier than greeting fans from far away places, serving up heaping plates of our chicken wings and beef-on-weck sandwiches, and getting visitors’ reactions when they try our culinary specialties for the first time. We’ll be open throughout the tournament, as will all the restaurants downtown. We can’t wait for things to begin.”
Buffalo has had its share of high-profile events this past decade, hosting a NCAA men’s basketball subregional in 2000, 2004, 2007, and 2010, the NCAA men’s hockey Frozen Four in 2003, and the NHL Winter Classic in 2008. One would think, however, that the World Juniors will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for the City of Buffalo. “Maybe not,” Gilbert replied. “We’re getting a positive reputation in sports circles that we can produce when it comes to hosting events of this magnitude. We certainly would express our interest in having them back again down the road.”
“I have no doubt in my mind that the movers and shakers who select the cities to hold these events will take a long look at Buffalo when they make their choices,” Parker added. “We have so much to offer—our culture, our food, our architecture, our friendly people, and yes, our weather. The best news is, we’ve actually learned from past experiences and gotten better at it as we’ve rolled out these sports extravaganzas. We’re ready. Welcome, World, to Buffalo!”blog comments powered by Disqus
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