Buffalo and the National Collegiate Athletic Association are developing a beautiful friendship.
The NCAA announced Tuesday it will bring the Division I national hockey championship – the Frozen Four – to Buffalo in 2019. It also will bring the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament back to Buffalo in 2022, marking the seventh time in a 23-year span the KeyBank Center will host March Madness.
The NCAA said the downtown development that has taken place in the past decade was a big plus in Buffalo’s bid. The Frozen Four came to Buffalo once before, in 2003. However, the redevelopment of the Canalside and Cobblestone districts and the building of HarborCenter make the arena area barely recognizable to anyone who has not been to Buffalo since the last Frozen Four.
“Buffalo did a tremendous job back in 2003 when it hosted the last time,” said Tom McGinnis, NCAA men’s hockey committee chairman. “I think when the committee reviewed the bids certainly that gave them a leg up.”
“Some of the things we really appreciated were the fact there has been a big revitalization and investment in the city around the arena, which is really exciting to us,” McGinnis said. “Certainly the professional franchise, the Sabres, has a strong commitment to hockey in Buffalo and college hockey in general.”
The Frozen Four is the latest event enhancing Buffalo’s reputation as a hockey mecca. The World Junior Championships came to Buffalo in 2011 and will return again in December. The NHL Scouting Combine will be held in Buffalo for a third straight year this spring. The NHL Draft was held here in 2016.
Buffalo’s bid wasn’t hurt by the fact Sabres owner Terry Pegula is a relative giant in the world of college hockey, having bankrolled Penn State’s hockey program starting in 2010 to the tune of about $102 million.
“Obviously, Mr. Pegula's investment in Penn State is well known,” said McGinnis, who is senior associate athletic director at the University of Minnesota. “I think knowing there was such excitement to bring the event back to Buffalo, the junior international tournament is coming as well. I think all those factors weighed in showing that Buffalo deserved the opportunity to host this event again and showcase college hockey on its biggest stage.”
Meanwhile, the NCAA awarded two other events to Buffalo. The Division III men’s hockey championship will be held at HarborCenter on March 27-28, 2020. And the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s cross country regional championship will be held at Amherst’s Audubon Golf Course in November 2018 and 2019.
“This is a very important day for Buffalo sports,” said Russ Brandon, managing partner and president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment. “It has been our mission, under the direction of Terry and Kim Pegula, to continually advance Buffalo’s standing as a destination for major sporting events that have a tremendous effect on our community. The Frozen Four, coming on the heels of the NHL Draft, NHL Combine and World Juniors, is another premier event that will showcase our city as the leading hockey market it has become."
The NCAA awarded championship-site bids for 2019 through 2022 in numerous sports en masse Tuesday.
The Frozen Four for 2018 previously had been awarded to St. Paul, Minn. After Buffalo, it will go to Detroit (2020), Pittsburgh (2021) and Boston (2022).
The Frozen Four schedule will include the two national semifinal games on Thursday evening April 11, 2019. The title game will be Saturday, April 13. The four teams conduct open practices on Wednesday of tournament week. On Friday night the NCAA holds its hockey awards ceremony. The winner of the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s top player, is handed out. The event also includes a free fan festival, usually held near the arena.
The event brings a lot of visitors. Only 2,400 tickets are reserved for the four schools that qualify for the Frozen Four. But roughly another 7,000 go to “preferred ticket buyers” from across the country who have been attending the event multiple years in a row, some for more than 20 years.
“We want to make sure we're going to communities that embrace that group as well,” McGinnis said. “Fans are always looking at what can we do that Friday, that off day? I think that investment into the downtown area will provide a great experience not only for the student-athletes but all the hockey fans who come to Buffalo.”
Buffalo certainly can accommodate the visitors. Erie County currently has 10,566 hotel rooms, an increase of about 25 percent since 2008, said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
“We've had 25 new restaurants that came on board in the downtown corridor just between the '14 and '17 men's basketball tournaments,” Kaler said. “Just think going back to the last time we had the Frozen Four in 2003, the changes we've had in hotel inventory, the new restaurants, all the other things taking place downtown. It's a completely different destination than it was the last time we held the Frozen Four.”
Kaler said a bit more than $8 million was spent in the region as a result of the NCAA basketball event last month.
“I believe when the Frozen Four was here in 2003, spending was just over $4 million,” Kaler said. “So you think about what it will mean in '19 with inflation and the new hotel inventory, it will be a really good return on investment.”
Canisius and Niagara serve as the host schools for the Frozen Four and the NCAA basketball event. The Buffalo bid was put forth by the schools and their league, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which worked closely on the bid specifications with Brandon and Mike Gilbert, Sabres vice president for administration. The MAAC also succeeded in bringing the NCAA basketball tournament to Albany in 2020.
Representatives of the NCAA visited Buffalo in the fall and in January. They were given a tour and received a presentation made at the offices of Phillips Lytle LLC, overlooking HarborCenter. Among those making the presentation were Mayor Byron Brown, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor, Brandon and Gilbert.