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Ice-play fever superheated in Niagara ; World Junior Hockey Championship players and fans fill Dwyer Arena and Lewiston

From his seat about 10 rows from the ice, Shane Myers leaned back to eyeball other hockey fans pouring into Dwyer Arena.

He spotted another Sweden die-hard.

"Hey!" yelled Myers, 25, wearing his bright yellow Henrik Lundqvist jersey.

"Hey! Hey!" the other Sweden fan answered, wearing a blue plastic party hat and sporting the Swedish flag painted on his cheek.

The puck dropped a few minutes later in this preliminary showdown between Russia and Sweden, and a small pack of Russia fans tried sparking a "Let's Go Russia!" chant.

No way, Myers told himself. Not today, not for a game he has waited for his whole life.

The South Buffalo native has been a Sweden fan from the start. His bedroom is covered in yellow, from the Sweden flag on the wall to the Sweden shot glasses.

Quickly, he muzzled those Russian fans. Cupping his hands around his mouth, Myers roared at the top of his lungs:

"Sweeeee-den!"

And the game began.

Buffalo was not the only city hosting hockey's World Junior Championship the past two weeks. With the exception of Team Canada's games, Dwyer Arena housed all Group B preliminary games and the entire relegation round. In a short time, western Niagara County grew into a hockey hotbed.

With the likes of Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic all playing at Dwyer, the past two weeks were the pinnacle of this growth. The best players in the world took over the ice in the cozy 2,100-seat arena at Niagara University.

"This area is a hockey town," Niagara hockey head coach Dave Burkholder said. "Between Southern Ontario and Western New York, they've shown that this is a hockey hotbed. I always knew that with our location and our commitment to hockey that we could do special things here at Niagara."

Burkholder remembers when the sport was one notch above a novelty in Niagara, back when youth leagues were being hatched. Just a decade ago, when he became NU's coach, the thought of Dwyer Arena hosting the World Juniors was scarcely a daydream.

But when Buffalo hosted the Frozen Four college hockey championship tournament in 2003, reality set in. If the World Junior Championship did indeed come to Western New York, a secondary rink would be needed. And Niagara, 30 minutes north of downtown Buffalo, made the most sense.

So all week, the Niagara area was entertained by future NHLers. While Canadians stuffed HSBC Arena to capacity, Dwyer offered an intimate alternative. It's smaller, more compact. All fans are within shouting range of players. The game-long trash-talking between bitter rivals Sweden and Russia could be heard from the stands.

No Rosetta Stone needed here. These two teams hated each other.

Myers, active all game -- sitting, standing and screaming -- soaked in Sweden's win. An official at the door had stopped him from bringing in his Sweden flag. "Must be a Russian," Myers' girlfriend said. But the entire experience was unforgettable.

"I'm shocked we actually got the tournament here to begin with because it's not that big of a town," he said. "But it's awesome, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The Sweden-Russia and Czech Republic-Russia games sold out. Four other games had less than 100 seats remaining. And all along, the atmosphere had a special charm to it. The best 18-, 19- and 20-year-old hockey players in the world competed in front of a raucous high school basketball-like crowd.

That enthusiasm spilled onto the main drag in the nearby Village of Lewiston, where officials and merchants saw an uptick in business and heard a variety of foreign languages.

Village Mayor Terry C. Collesano, who also runs the Old Time Barber Shop on Center Street, said that from his shop's picture-window vantage point he saw more people walking on the street, including a few Canadians wearing their country's distinctive red jerseys who came in for a haircut.

"One of them asked me what was a good restaurant, and I steered them to a couple of restaurants," Collesano said.

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

Collesano said it was exciting to have some tournament games played here. "And we won't charge $50 for parking," the mayor said. "In Lewiston, parking is free."

Back on the ice, Dwyer Arena's contests tapped into the pure nature of the game.

For the Russian win over the Czechs, Ken Kinecki of Wheatfield and his son, Matthew, were decked out in Team USA gear. Matthew, sporting buffalo horns, came prepared. Fans walked by, complimenting the Starpoint high schooler on his apparel. Unlike Myers -- who vowed to root for the Swedes if they played the Americans for a medal -- the Kineckis were staying true to their roots.

Already, the two hockey lifers had attended two juniors games at HSBC Arena in the 200 level. Those were great seats, but Ken Kinecki said, but it wasn't Dwyer.

"I was more excited to come here because if you've been here, when it's this close, it's so fast," he said. "So this is unbelievable with this level of competition."

A huge chunk of the fans filling Dwyer Arena were Niagara County residents. Before coming to the game, the Kinecki family had dinner in La Hacienda. Everywhere, fans were wearing team jerseys, scarves and hats. With an assortment of pizza pies on tables, the tournament's effect on the local economy was obvious.

"The Canadians have been coming over in droves," Ken Kinecki said. "You can see the backups at the bridges. So it's good for the economy and good for hockey. There are probably going to be smaller kids that see this and it's the thing they remember. 'Hey, I could go do that.' "

And maybe that's the intangible quality through all of this.

Hockey in Niagara will continue to grow.

Burkholder said the Junior Purple Eagles have nearly 700 kids participating on 17 teams. With NHL draft picks including Russia's Vladimir Tarasenko (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Sweden's Robin Lehner (Ottawa Senators) having played in the same rink, a love for the game is bound to grow.

For a while, Ken Kinecki coached kids with the Wheatfield Blades house team. Some of his best memories are waking up at 4 a.m. for practices. Having the World Juniors in town will make this lifestyle contagious.

"[Back then], it was so new," Kinecki said. "Everything was just starting. But now, this tournament, you could see hockey bringing the whole area up. So it's grown a lot."

On this day, the Kineckis were rooting for the Russians. Growing up, they always heard how the quality of skaters was different in that country. Today, they would see for themselves.

As for Burkholder, he sneaked into team practices whenever possible. Overseas, the emphasis is on puck possession. Rarely do teams dump and chase. They would rather rely on skating and set up offense.

"It gives you a different perspective watching some of the European styles and how they run practice and what they concentrate on," Burkholder said. "The overall skill of every team in this tournament was eye-opening for me."

Now, it's gone. For two weeks, speedy skaters without many vowels in their names put on a show at Niagara. In the sellouts, Sweden shut out Russia, 2-0, and the Russians put on an 8-3 offensive clinic against the Czechs.

Countries from all over the world came to Niagara in possibly the most anticipated sporting event the arena has ever seen. Hanging from the rafters were the flags of the 10 countries participating, right next those of the teams in NU's division.

Burkholder took a moment to reflect, staring up at the flags. Yes, the sport has come quite a long way here.

"To see the event take place, a worldwide event at Niagara U," he said, "I couldn't be more proud."

News Niagara Reporter Nancy A. Fischer contributed to this report.

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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