While the blue and gold are away, the NCAA has made itself comfortable inside First Niagara Center.
Spectators who walk into the bowl area of the arena today will find scant evidence that this is the home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, aside from some title banners and retired jerseys hanging from the rafters.
Gone is the ice surface with the familiar buffalo and crossed swords, replaced by a 116-foot-long maple floor emblazoned with the NCAA logo.
Arena stores that stocked pucks and Tyler Myers jerseys now carry Syracuse and Ohio State T-shirts and mini-basketballs. A young guy named Tyler Ennis still will be playing here – but he’ll be dribbling and bounce passing for the Orange, not stick-handling and forechecking for the Sabres.
In less than 48 hours, First Niagara Center morphed from hockey home into a hoops haven.
The Sabres left town on a 10-day road swing, allowing NCAA basketball to take top billing in Buffalo.
And it all begins today inside the arena with team practices, which are free and open to the public.
The 40-minute shoot-around sessions for each team begin at noon, with the University of Dayton Flyers taking the court first, followed by the Western Michigan University Broncos at 12:45; the Ohio State University Buckeyes at 1:30; the Syracuse University Orange at 2:15; the University of Connecticut Huskies at 4:25; the Villanova University Wildcats at 5:10; the Saint Joseph’s Hawks at 5:55; and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers at 6:40.
Four games will be played Thursday and another two Saturday. The games are a certain sellout, which means fans interested in obtaining tickets will have to go to the secondary market, where demand for Thursday afternoon’s double bill including Syracuse, for example, has pushed prices from $107 on Monday to $178 on Tuesday evening.
Arena crews have been working nearly around-the-clock since Sunday night, after the Sabres-Montreal game, to get the venue ready.
The NCAA has exacting standards when it comes to the look of the host sites for basketball tournaments. Advertising in the bowl area of the arena, for example, is a definite no-no.
So the Sabres rented out plenty of black bunting to cover up corporate signs. It drapes the boards of the ice rink, hiding any evidence that companies such as Verizon, Toyota, Labatt Blue and Toshiba advertise here. Screens block out digital advertising boards that ring the arena just under the 300 Level.
“It becomes an NCAA event, as opposed to another event in another building,” said John Wooding, a spokesman for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which manages the Buffalo games in the tournament. “The goal of this is to turn it into a memorable experience for the student-athletes.”
The transformation for March Madness is greater than for any other event held in the arena, including concerts, said Michael Gilbert, spokesman for the Sabres. “This is one event where we have to do a lot of changeover work,” he said.
But the Sabres planned for it well in advance, letting the NHL know that this particular week would be a good time for the league to schedule a lengthy road trip for the team.
The Sabres, of course, have been through this before, as this is the fifth time since 2000 that Buffalo has hosted the NCAA basketball tournament.
This is the first tournament under owner Terry Pegula, who bought the Sabres in 2011. Gilbert said Pegula is highly supportive of the event being held at the arena.
“It’s good for Buffalo,” said Gilbert. “It’s a multipurpose facility. It’s part of what First Niagara Center does, and as an extension, we hope to do more of this with HarborCenter” – the facility under construction adjacent to the arena that will house two ice rinks, a hotel, training facilities and a restaurant.
Preparations inside the arena for the tournament began months ago.
A large storage area where the Sabres keep items such as extra risers, stairs and other athletic and event equipment had to be emptied to make room for a gathering space that can accommodate what is expected to be more than 200 media in town to conduct interviews with participating players and coaches.
The Sabres rented out 10 large trucks, loaded them with the items from the storage area and sent them away until the tournament is over.
The basketball court was shipped in from Connor Sports Flooring in Salt Lake City along with a host of other items provided by the NCAA.
“We spent this past week and a half getting shipment after shipment from the NCAA,” said Beth Guiliani Gatto, director of arena operations for the Sabres. “They send everything – water coolers, drink bottles, NCAA towels for the benches.”
One thing the Sabres did not have to do this year was take down its divisional and conference title banners and retired jerseys – something the NCAA had demanded in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2010.
“All the previous years, we had to take them down,” said Guiliani Gatto. “It’s a little bit labor-intensive, so we were very glad we didn’t have to take those down.”
Tuesday, another shipment arrived – more than 8,000 T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the names of the teams playing in Buffalo.
Most of the shirts were printed in Kansas City on Sunday and Monday following the bracket announcements, then shipped later Monday.
The main Sabres store on the ground level of First Niagara Center won’t be selling NCAA merchandise, but six satellite stores on other levels of the arena were emptied of all Sabres gear and replaced with shirts, baseball caps, basketballs, pins and other items bearing the 2014 NCAA tournament logo.