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Ax-throwing venue cutting a swath through downtown Buffalo

Canada has given us a lot of strange stuff. Poutine. Canada geese. And beers and bands, too many to count.

Now, the land of the Yukon and the lumberjack is heaving something new in our direction - indoor ax-throwing.

On Sept. 23, a pair of enterprising Western New Yorkers are opening Hatchets & Hops, a place where people will be able to hurl a few axes and, in time, down a few beers. The 2,000-square-foot venue is at 505 Main St., across from the Hyatt Regency Buffalo and a couple of doors from the French restaurant Raclettes.

Ax throwing took off in Canada 10 years ago with a group called Backyard Axe Throwing League, still thriving today. And it continues to grow. Montreal’s Rage Academy, which opened earlier this year, invites patrons to burn off aggression harmlessly through this ancient Viking means.

When it comes to indoor ax-throwing in America, Buffalo is cutting edge.

"We would have been the first, had we opened when we planned to," said Dustin Snyder, who is opening Hatchets and Hops with Andrew Piechowicz.

Sure enough, a search for other American ax-throwing venues turned up just two. Both opened almost simultaneously about a week ago. One is Philadelphia's Urban Axes, whose website describes the sport as "like darts ... only bigger and more satisfying!" The other is Bad Axe Throwing, a Canadian franchise in Chicago. Meanwhile the Atlantic Monthly, not the kind of magazine to bury the hatchet, features a story about ax throwing in its current issue.

"It's a sport that my business partner and I have been into for some time," said Snyder. "We wanted to bring it to Buffalo. It's a great time, a great chance for people in Buffalo to truly do things together."

Snyder said he hopes that in a few months Hatchets & Hops will truly live up to its name, and players will be able to toast their triumphs after the game with a brew or two. For now, the menu is limited to small plates and non-alcoholic drinks.

"We plan to incorporate beer, wine and cider later this year," Snyder said.

Aside from the absence of ale, though, Beowulf would like the place. All the other amenities are there.

There is a series of lanes, as at a bowling alley. A wooden target sits at the end of each lane, about 15 feet from where you make your throw. The lanes are separated by counter-height walls, as well as metal fencing that reaches to the ceiling. And should anyone worry about injury, Snyder emphasized that safety comes first.

"It's safe and controlled," he said. "It's not a free-for all. When it comes to game play, it's structured. Your instructors coach you on technique."

Tempting though it may be to say "Bring your ax," the way jazz musicians do, axes are provided on site. Snyder calls them "very safe."

"People assume axes are sharp. They're not," he said. "They don't need to be."

After all, these axes, which are American-made and hewed from hickory wood, aren't going to be used for killing wildebeests.

"They're dull upon shipment, and we don't sharpen them," Snyder said. "You can run your finger along the edge and not hurt yourself."

Each lane accommodates up to six people at one time. The cost, Snyder said, is $40 per person, for two hours -- an amount that seems close to the going rate at ax-throwing venues worldwide. Reservations may be made online.

"We raise a lot of eyebrows when we talk about throwing axes," Snyder said. "But once people have a conversation about how it works, they walk away satisfied that this is something that's thought out."

Michael T. Schmand, executive director for Buffalo Place, welcomes Hatchets and Hops. Before saying so, he broke for a long laugh.

"Downtown's always a little different. That's why it's downtown," he said. "It attracts all different types of people. A private investor wouldn't be investing money into a program like this without thinking, there has to be an audience. I just imagine that they're going to have a lot of rules," he added. "We operate an outside skating rink, and we have a lot of rules, a lot of sharp objects. You have to pay attention.

"I personally think it's great. I think it'll be great and draw people downtown. You've got Chippewa Street, Canalside, so much going on."

Schmand pointed out that the recreational ax-thrower might follow up his or her triumphs with a stop at Jerk's, the ice cream parlor, or the glitzy neighboring Starbucks.

"I don't know if I have ever thrown an ax," he mused. "But I think it might be interested in trying."

Nick Giammusso, Hatchets and Hops' landlord, already has tried throwing an ax, and nailed it.

"I tossed one today, for the first time," he said when The News reached him on Monday. "It was empty, no one was around, and I thought that would be the perfect time to try it. It went great. The bull's eye was five, and the outer ring was one. I got a four."

So he's happy with his hatchet job?

"At first, when Dustin and Andrew approached me, I thought, the idea's so crazy and far-fetched," he confessed. "But when you sit down and meet them, you realize they know what they're doing, they have all their ducks in a row. At first I thought, I don't want a hatchet place in my building. Then I thought, it would be a fun place for downtown. They're going to attract people after 5 o'clock and on weekends, which is what downtown needs."

"I believe in Dustin and Andrew. I think the business really helped me to get a New York State grant." The state gave him $39,000 toward renovating the building.

Ax wielders say that their rugged pursuit, though it sounds aggressive on paper, in practice promotes team spirit. It builds bonds of brotherhood, they claim, not to mention sisterhood. (Glance at any ax-throwing venue's Facebook page, and you'll see that the pursuit is more popular among the ladies than one might expect.)

"It's kind of a hybrid between bowling and darts," Snyder explained. "People do it socially in groups. They have leagues, like bowling leagues. A friend invited me along a few years ago. The rest is history."

He was hooked right away, Snyder confided.

"It was exciting, a little bit of a thrill. It was outside my comfort zone a little bit," he reflected. "It's not a strength sport. It's more about technique, paying attention to the instructor. It's a thrill, incredibly satisfying, when you hit the target."

 

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