The worst kept secret in Buffalo sports officially went public Tuesday morning.
Canisius College and the Buffalo Sabres announced a partnership that will have the Golden Griffins hockey team playing in downtown HarborCenter starting with the 2014-15 season.
Canisius becomes the first tenant of the multipurpose hockey and entertainment complex currently under construction across the street from First Niagara Center. Neither side gave details of the agreement other than to say it was a multi-year deal.
“We’re the only college team to the best of my knowledge that is partnering with an NHL club,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “So while an on-campus rink is what some people have, I don’t know that this might not be better — to utilize the resources of the Buffalo Sabres, the City of Buffalo, Canalside. Recruits drive by here to go to every campus east of us if they’re coming from Ontario. So they’re going to see our rink.
“There’s just so many side effects from the obvious that we’re going to continue to push and realize those every day. We’re strategizing just as a hockey program how can we benefit from all of the resources that are going to be down here. It’s limitless right now.”
Canisius hockey has been on the rise for the last few years and created a national buzz this past season when the Griffs won their first Atlantic Hockey championship and earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
They will stage their title defense at the Buffalo State Ice Arena, their home base since the 2009-10 season. But when next season rolls around, the Griffs will have something they have lacked for decades — a rink to truly call home.
At Buffalo State, the Griffs are surrounded by, well, Buffalo State colors (orange and black), logos and banners. When the Griffs move downtown, not only will the color scheme be the same (it is not without note that the Griffs and Sabres both wear blue and gold), but the team will have dedicated time and space in the building.
The Griffs will be the primary tenant of an 1,800-seat area, one of two NHL-size rinks in the complex, which will feature the school’s logo and banners. They will have access to building’s “Center of Excellence” — a high performance training facility. And Canisius will have a dedicated locker room, a space of its own. That’s something that matters greatly in cultivating the team’s culture.
“When they were talking about it, I was getting chills thinking about moving in and getting to play here,” said forward Matthew Grazen, an East Amherst native, who is entering his junior year with the Griffs.
“It’s exciting having our own space, the locker room. Seeing the first class facility, all the training stuff, is going to be great for us to be the best we can.”
That space to call their own in a state-of-the art facility obviously becomes a key point for Smith and his staff in recruiting players. But the rink for Smith is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the energy and synergy needed to build a championship hockey program.
“I do believe in the philosophy that all boats rise with the tide,” Smith said. “It’s not just the facility. It’s not just a group of good players. It’s also a community around Canisius. It’s the hockey community. Who made this happen? Terry and Kim Pegula absolutely, but I think more importantly the hockey players of Western New York. In nine of the 10 years of my recruiting we’ve had Western New York players. We want to continue to that. This makes it a little bit easier. … But also players from outside Western New York will look at this and say, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ ”
HarborCenter gets something in return as well. Bringing in Canisius and Division I hockey to the new facility helps in their efforts to promote their brand and programming.
It also gives the center an anchor to potentially pitch for big-name amateur events including the IIHF World Junior Championships and the NCAA Frozen Four, though nothing specific or imminent was discussed on Tuesday.
“It’s a big benefit to us. It’s the highest level of amateur hockey that really exists and we have one of 59 teams coming down,” said Nik Fattey, director of hockey operations for HarborCenter.
“The rink will benefit from Canisius playing Western Michigan and Army and Holy Cross. All those folks will come to Buffalo and learn more about our programming and learn more about the HarborCenter. We believe what we show them will help change hockey and how people look at Buffalo.”