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Tourney nets winners, losers ; Downtown hotels, restaurants do well

The hockey was first-rate at the World Junior Hockey Championship, right down to the final shocker as Russia beat Canada for the gold medal.

The facilities were great and the crowds, totaling more than 330,000, easily set a record for the tournament on American ice.

Canadians and a few other visitors invaded downtown Buffalo, filling its hotels and jamming nearby restaurants. Traffic also was brisk at selected niche spots away from downtown, including Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Anchor Bar and Walden Galleria.

But there were complaints, too.

Visiting bloggers and tweeters put Buffalo on the defensive with their shots at downtown. For at least one day, Canadians got hit by price gouging at parking lots near HSBC Arena. Some restaurants a few miles from the arena never saw a major boost in business.

Some grumbling was heard about the lack of fan support for Team USA, as red-clad Canadians turned the city into "Buffalo, Ontario," as one fan said.

The tournament that wrapped up its 11-day run in Buffalo and Lewiston on Wednesday night got high marks, especially from visiting amateur-hockey officials who raved about the host city.

"The people of this city -- the cab drivers, the bartenders, the hotel housekeepers -- everybody in this city has been just a spectacular, spectacular host," USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said at a farewell news conference. "We can't thank Buffalo enough," he added.

But some business owners felt betrayed by overly lofty expectations about how they would do financially, and for many visiting fans, Buffalo did little to shed its gray, rust-town reputation.

Two ventures exemplified the hit-or-miss results for local merchants.

With tens of thousands of hockey fans roaming around downtown, organizers of the HockeyTowneUSA Fan Fest expected at least 20,000 fans would find their way to the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

It sounded like a good idea.

But only about 1,500 showed up for the four-day festival, which offered everything from skating on synthetic ice and playing in a bubble-hockey tournament to meeting with the Buffalo Sabres' famed French Connection.

"The world came to Buffalo," festival promoter Frank Calieri said. "We tried to throw a party, but not many people came."

"We didn't get the draw from the Canadians that we expected to get," he added, noting that many Canadians went to the games, walked to a nearby restaurant or bar, then went back to the arena -- or back home.

Barely a mile away, the World Juniors did wonders for WJ Morrissey Irish Pub on Mississippi Street, a cobblestone's throw from HSBC Arena.

Fans came early and stayed late, providing a major boost in sales, particularly on days when there were tripleheaders. "It really gave us the opportunity to expose Morrissey's to a huge audience," owner Dennis Brinkworth said. "It definitely helped all of [the bars] down in the Cobblestone District."

Bars that did well included those that had a kitchen, where customers could grab a burger or wings, and were not too upscale -- places where fans could wear a hockey jersey without feeling uncomfortable -- said Jay Manno, president of the Buffalo Entertainment District Association.

But for many, the tournament's economic impact didn't live up to expectations. "The expectations were made too high," Manno said. "Some people are upset, but the better operators just roll with the punches."

He added that thousands of visitors were in Buffalo for the tournament. Some bars went out and got that business, while others didn't.

"Sure, they're disappointed, but they'll get over it," said Manno, owner of the Soho Bar on Chippewa Street. "It was still good for the city, no matter how you look at it. Those places down by the arena, they probably did better than us, but the rest of the year they don't do nearly what we do. So, hopefully, it evens out for everyone."

Jay Dellavecchia, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, is sad to see the tournament end. Thanks to the hockey visitors, the 396-room hotel has been 95 percent occupied throughout the tournament and completely booked since Monday. "It's like Christmas," Dellavecchia said. "You wait all year, and it's over in a heartbeat."

Merchants were in the curious position of rooting for their best customers' team, Team Canada.

"I probably shouldn't say this, but we were terrified the Americans would win," Brinkworth said of the USA-Canada matchup Monday, "because the Canadians would go home."

Lewiston also got a bounce from the tournament.

With the exception of Team Canada's games, Dwyer Arena at Niagara University hosted all Group B preliminary games and the entire relegation round. In a short time, western Niagara County grew into a hockey hotbed.

"For this time of year, [business] has been positive," said Steven Matthews, general manager at the Brickyard Pub and BBQ, on Center Street in the Village of Lewiston. "I have seen some foreigners walking around and have heard some non-native dialects here and there."

Mayor Terry C. Collesano, a Center Street barber, said he cut hair for several Canadian customers and steered visiting customers to village restaurants. "And we won't charge $50 for parking," he said. "In Lewiston, parking is free."

Dave Burkholder, Niagara University head hockey coach, said it was a dream come true to see the best young hockey players in the world compete in the school's cozy 2,100-seat arena.

The biggest winner may have been the Buffalo Sabres. At Wednesday's news conference in HSBC Arena, Managing Partner Larry Quinn said reports of the Sabres making $10 million off the tournament were not accurate, adding that the actual figure was "substantially below" that.

But would the team make a substantial profit on the event?

"I hope so," Quinn replied.

The biggest financial loser had to be the Fan Fest, which ran Dec. 26-29.

Bruce J. Weinstein, owner of Western New York Hockey magazine, said he expects to lose close to $100,000 on the event. That loss could jeopardize the future of the magazine.

Weinstein is trying to work out a way to pay the French Connection and suppliers who are owed money.

"They just didn't have a lot of foot traffic," said Robert Dowdell, co-owner of Adam's Apples, which makes gourmet caramel apples. "For a four-day event, to sell 50 apples is pretty bad."

Weinstein cited overstated estimates about the number of visitors and how long they would stay, along with what he sees as a lack of support and promotion from the Sabres and local officials.

He also pointed to a "disjointed effort" among the Sabres and various local public officials. "They didn't play nice in the same sandbox," he said.

Weinstein didn't dispute the sometimes-frayed relationship between him and his magazine on one side and the Sabres on the other. That goes back to magazine stories two years ago about the possible sale of the Sabres and to a dispute over Memorial Auditorium seats at the "Farewell to the Aud," sources said.

Weinstein chose his words carefully when asked about the Sabres' role in the festival's failure. "I think they really did very little to support the event," he said, before adding that the team had no obligation to help Fan Fest other than to help showcase the city.

Sabres officials don't understand why they are being faulted.

Daniel J. DiPofi, Sabres chief operating officer, said Fan Fest, like the Sabres, was a private enterprise, charging admission, risking capital and trying to make a profit. "They came to me, we offered to promote it for a price, and they didn't want to spend it," DiPofi said. "It's not like it's a charity. We don't give our product away."

As the Sabres basked in the rave reviews from USA Hockey and International Ice Hockey Federation officials Wednesday, team officials were asked when the tournament could return. It's expected back in the United States in 2017-18, and the Sabres sound interested. "I'd like to think we would be strongly considered for it," DiPofi said.

News Niagara Reporter Nancy A. Fischer and News Sports Reporter Tyler Dunne contributed to this report.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com

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