BY ANDY KULYK and PETER FARRELL
Downtown arena marks special anniversary.
It was first called the Crossroads Arena project, a transformative development to jump start and re imagine lower Main Street. It opened as the Marine Midland Arena, then HSBC Arena, later First Niagara Center, and now a fourth financial institution gives the venue its name.
But downtown’s sports and entertainment venue, primarily home to the Buffalo Sabres, has held up well even after 20 years of use, and remains one of the elite venues of the National Hockey League.
Talk to anyone in Buffalo and you’ll get a huge variety of opinion as to the most memorable moments in the building’s storied history. Here is our top 10:
Sabres beat Ottawa in game 7 overtime – April, 1997
This rag tag collection of overachieving players, coached by the popular Ted Nolan, weren’t even supposed to qualify for the playoffs, much less win their division. But they did so, and amidst distractions such as ownership turmoil, feuds between the coach and general manager, goalie Dominik Hasek’s sudden injury, it all went to overtime in game 7. It didn’t take long for the Sabres’ Derek Plante to put one past Ottawa goalie Ron Tugnutt. Jubilation in the stands. And to this day the team’s only game 7 playoff victory.
Bandits win the title – May, 2008
After a string of near misses throughout the decade, the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits managed to secure home field advantage with only a 10-6 record, thanks to a complicated tie breaking formula. They made quick work of the New York Titans in the first round, and in the championship game, before a full throated sold out Banditland crowd, beat the Portland Lumberjax 14-13 in a thrilling finish. Under coach Darris Kilgour, the team would spiral into the abyss after that year’s exciting ride, and he was fired a few years later.
Niagara punches their ticket to The Dance – March, 2005
For the Purple Eagles, it was decades of disappointment in the men’s basketball program. But in 2005, they put it all together for one magical run. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference held their tournament in Buffalo that year, and Niagara took full advantage of the home court. With the explosive Juan Mendez taking over the game, Niagara blew away Rider 81-59 to win their first berth in the NCAA tournament in 35 years.
Virginia Commonwealth stuns Duke – March, 2007
The NCAA basketball tournament, aka “March Madness”, has visited the downtown arena five times, with the 6th coming next March, and has provided many memorable moments. None more so than the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils, coached by the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, playing VCU in an afternoon game to start the 2007 tournament. It all came down to the final few seconds, and VCU’s Eric Maynor went end to end to hit the winning basket as the buzzer went off. VCU stuns Duke 79-77 f-inal.
No Goal – June, 1999
The Buffalo Sabres run to the Stanley Cup finals was a thrilling one, and they had their hands full taking on the favored Dallas Stars. After winning game 1 in Dallas in overtime, visions of a championship had everyone buzzing, but reality quickly set in as the Sabres struggled to figure out Stars goalie Ed Belfour. Down 3 games to 2 and playing game 6 in Buffalo, the game headed to overtime. Three overtimes before Brett Hull would score a controversial goal inside the crease over a sprawled Dominik Hasek. 2-1 final. And at 1:31 AM, out came the Stanley Cup on Buffalo ice to be awarded to the Dallas Stars.
Russia stuns at the World Juniors – January, 2011
Ten national teams played for two amazing weeks as the IIHF World Juniors came to Buffalo for the very first time. Canadians descended on our city in droves to cheer on their team, and it indeed was Canada taking on Russia in the finals. Before a raucous and packed crowd of Canadian supporters, their team took a 3-0 lead after two periods and it was just a matter of 20 more minutes to start the party in earnest. But the Russians clawed their way back, taking a 4-3 lead with under 2 minutes and adding an empty netter. For Canada, the most bitter ending ever in this event.
Sabres and Rangers in the playoffs – May, 2007
While there have been more than a few great playoff games and overtime moments for the Buffalo Sabres, this one stands out. Game 5 of the 2007 second round between the Sabres and New York Rangers. With the series tied at 2, in game 5 both teams were scoreless until the Rangers broke out with the first goal with under five minutes to play. All seemed lost until Sabres captain Chris Drury, aided by all his teammates crashing the net, put one behind startled goalie Henrik Lundqvist to the tie the game with in the dying seconds of regulation. Maxim Afinogenov got the game winner for Buffalo in overtime with a shot from the point, and just like that, the Sabres would take a 3-2 series lead, and close things out 2 nights later.
Sir Paul McCartney takes the stage – October, 2015
Through five decades of performing, as a Beatle and a solo artist, Paul McCartney had never made an appearance in Buffalo. Until last year. And it was certainly worth the wait. The 73 year old McCartney gave it his all, delighting his fans with over 40 songs over the course of a 3 hour performance. The show was much more than just another concert, it was a celebration of McCartney’s life as “The Beatle”, and the euphoria in the audience, and on the streets, could be felt everywhere.
Sadness as the community mourns Flight 3407 – February, 2009
One day after Continental Flight 3407 dropped out of the sky and onto a neighborhood in Clarence, killing all on board and a fatality on the ground, the Sabres and San Jose Sharks played at the arena, and a sense of sadness could be felt everywhere. There was talk about cancelling the game, but all involved decided to play. In the pregame moment of silence, never before had the arena been in such a quiet hush. For many of the players and Coach Lindy Ruff, the tragedy hit close to home.
Terry Pegula takes the helm – February, 2011
There was a sense of anticipation and excitement as new owner Terry Pegula stepped onto the ice with his two sons prior to that night’s game between the Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers. The team was clearly entering into a new era, many not having ever heard of Pegula until the few months leading to the ownership change. And as the ceremonies unfolded, a surprise. Out came the French Connection – Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert, the iconic trio from the 70s and 80s who captured Buffalo hearts. The gesture brought Pegula to tears. Little did anyone know at the time that this would be the last joint appearance ever for these three players. A month later Martin would be dead, gone too soon from a heart attack.
Honorable mention – In 1998 the Clintons, President Bill and wife Hillary came to town, packing the arena to share their vision of the worlds’future. Earlier this year, Donald Trump held a rally, again a large house, drumming up support for the New York presidential primary. Which of these events makes the list?
The answer – In keeping with the spirit of this year’s presidential election which has become a race for the bottom, we instead decided to substitute Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock’s rant at a postgame press conference in the 2006 playoffs, following an overtime loss to the Sabres. When pressed by the media about certain comments made in the earlier press gathering by coach Lindy Ruff, Hitchcock fumed and replied, “tell Lindy to fuck off”, and stormed out of the room.
Happy birthday, KeyBank Center. Here’s to 20 more years of greatness (and maybe a Stanley Cup or two or five).