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Visiting writers tell tales of 2 -- or more -- cities

In this new world, where tweets and blogs are everywhere and instantaneous, Buffalo is being portrayed to Canada and the world as either a ghost city, a great hockey town, the world's chicken-wing capital or a hole.

Take your pick.

Most of the newspaper coverage from the World Junior Hockey Championship, of course, focuses on what happens on the 200-foot sheets of ice inside HSBC Arena and Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.

Thanks to bloggers and newspaper columnists, though, outsiders are getting contradictory views of Buffalo.

Everyone who hasn't been hiding in an icy cave here the last week knows about the ill-advised tweet sent out by U.S.A. forward Emerson Etem, calling Buffalo a "ghost town" and "the worst city ever," worse than Medicine Hat, Alberta.

But that tweet heard 'round the hockey world, accompanied later by Etem's apology, also has led to a backlash of sorts.

Toronto Star sports reporter Chris Zelkovich wrote that with the lure of the World Juniors and cross-border shopping, Canadians have invaded Buffalo and claimed it as their own.

"They've all but planted a Maple Leaf flag at City Hall and started talking up universal health care," Zelkovich wrote from here late last week. "They obviously disagree with Team USA forward Emerson Etem.

"Right now anyway, Canadians love this place," he added.

The other negative blast at Buffalo came from a Swedish blogger, Uffe Bodin, who called Buffalo a vulgar two-word term for a rudimentary toilet.

"Enough already," replied blogger Szymon Szemberg, communications director for the International Ice Hockey Federation. "This IIHF official is sick and tired of the constant bashing of this city by smug Euro bloggers or Twittering players. Hear this: Buffalo is a great hockey town with an excellent newspaper and TSN in your hotel. What more can one possibly want from a tournament?"

Szemberg tackled head-on the most specific complaint about Buffalo, that downtown -- once you veer from Chippewa Street -- seems ghost-town dead, especially at night.

"There have never been any people in the downtown area after 6 p.m., so why expect it now?" he blogged. "Why does it matter? The most important thing: This has always been a great hockey town (even before the arrival of the Sabres in 1970), with knowledgeable fans and excellent hockey coverage in the media."

The most constant message sent to readers of Canadian newspapers has been about the sea of red invading HSBC Arena, even for games not involving Canada. Its fans are in the vast majority, having bought about 63 percent of the all-session and day passes for the tournament.

Anyone near the arena has seen that army parading around downtown dressed in red, from their toques to their toes, as one Buffalo News reporter put it.

"The fact that all those red-clad fans have turned Buffalo into a Canadian city for 11 days shouldn't surprise anybody who's been paying attention," Zelkovich wrote in the Toronto Star. "When Grand Forks, N.D. hosted the tournament in 2005, Canadians traveling from Manitoba filled the arenas."

Now they come from southern Ontario, and much of the rest of Canada.

Kimmo Vari, 37, a Finland native who lives in Toronto, brought his wife and two children to Friday's Finland-Slovakia game, his second of the tournament.

He enjoyed the hockey, the downtown arena, all the team flags flown around downtown, the prices inside the arena, everything but the parking prices.

Vari got diplomatic when asked what Canadians hockey visitors think of Buffalo.

"They're not crazy about it," he said, from his seat in the 300 Level. "It wouldn't be their first choice for a place to live."

But other than the parking-price gouging, Vari enjoyed the environment and the prices at HSBC Arena.

"Inside the arena, everything is very nice," he said. "The hockey here is for the common man. In Toronto, you have to be a millionaire."

Vari's view apparently was pretty typical of outsiders' reactions.

Szemberg, the hockey federation's communications director, cited two different reactions from first-time visitors, during a press box interview Friday.

First, the hockey part. Visitors have noticed the fans' enthusiasm, their passion for the game, the first-rate facility and even the excellent media services.

"The players and the fans feel, 'I have been to a World Junior tournament, but a tournament played in an NHL-like environment,' " Szemberg observed.

But fans from big cities in Canada and Europe alike also are struck by the lack of activity in downtown Buffalo.

"People are surprised when they get here and ask, 'Where are the restaurants? Where are the bars? Where are the discos and shopping malls?' They find they're in the suburbs. This is how the city is structured."

Local officials have been put on the defensive by some of the negative remarks, especially Etem's tweet.

"On balance, the response to that story has been overwhelmingly positive," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Would I like for it not to have happened? Of course. But I think people are having a great time and are enjoying themselves. Certainly, the visitors our staff has encountered on the streets have been very positive."

Outsiders writing about the Buffalo scene are doing their obligatory blurbs on delays at the local bridges, the fine dining at the Anchor Bar, the heavy traffic at local malls and the crowds at restaurants within a mile of the arena.

Chippewa Street, Allentown and the current "Forty" photo exhibit on the Sabres at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery have gotten less notice, so far at least.

Anchor Bar, of course, becomes the iconic mecca for outsiders looking for "Buffalo color."

Martin Merk, writing on the IIHF website, notes that people can eat "chicken wings coated in cayenne pepper hot sauce" anywhere in the U.S.

"But to have the same authenticity you get when eating pasta in Italy, cheese fondue in the Swiss mountains or sushi in Japan, there's probably no better place than heading to the birthplace of the Buffalo Wings -- the Anchor Bar on Main Street," Merk wrote.

"The bar fulfills most cliches you could imagine of an American rock bar," he added, citing the old Harleys, license plates from Aruba to Ontario and sports merchandise of all stripes.

As for the wings, Merk opted for medium sauce, but he mentioned a Swiss photographer who sampled the suicide wings.

"By the end of the meal, everything but his lips seemed to be good enough to shoot photos for [that day's] game against Finland."

So we're doing something right.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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