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HIGH SCHOOL HOCKEY FINDS A HOME IN PEPSI CENTER

The gypsies of high school sports have finally found a home.

For the first time in its nine-year history, the Western New York Federation, the only varsity hockey league in Western New York, has a central location to host most of its games.

On Thursdays and Saturdays, you can find between 300 and 400 fans at the new Amherst Pepsi Center watching eight of the Federation's nine teams play in quadruple-headers: two games at 7 p.m. and two games at 9 p.m.

The league consists of Williamsville North, Williamsville South, Williamsville East, Amherst, Sweet Home, St. Joe's, St. Francis, Canisius and Timon/St. Jude. Sweet Home is new to the league this season.

The most impressive aspect of the Pepsi Center, a 182,000-square foot complex built by the Town of Amherst with a pricetag of $18.3 million, is that it houses four ice rinks.

That allows enough scheduling flexibility among the Federation and the facility's other primary tenants, the Amherst Youth Hockey Association and Amherst Skating Club, to share access during busy periods.

There is what is called the feature rink, which has seating for 1,200, and the Olympic rink, which accommodates 600 fans. The two other rinks seat about 200 each. The Olympic rink's ice surface is 200 feet long by 100 feet wide while the other three surfaces are the regulation 200 by 85. Reportedly, the action really opens up when the teams are on the wider rink.

To hear the parties involved tell it, the relationship between the rink's management and tenants is a marriage made in heaven.

"Having the Pepsi Center as our central location means everything," said Dr. Jim Rusin, director of athletics for the Williamsville schools and a board member of the Amherst Youth Hockey Association. "It's the place to be. Our schools' hockey crowds are bigger than our basketball crowds and the excitement is growing.

"All of Western New York is a big hockey town," Rusin added. "People are excited about the hockey programs at Niagara University and Canisius and the University at Buffalo has a club team, so the future is bright and I feel we're a part of it.

"When we put this league together nine years ago, we could never have imagined playing in a facility like this."

Hitting the road in search of ice time for games and practices had always been an agonizing aspect of high school hockey.

With the exception of Dann Memorial Rink at Nichols, schools don't have their own on-campus rinks, so the players and coaches go anywhere they can find an hour or two of available ice time.

"We've been all over the place in recent years," said St. Joe's coach John Mickler, the league secretary/statistician and high school section director for the New York State Amateur Hockey Association and USA Hockey in New York State.

"We've played at Sabreland, Cazenovia, Audubon, Holiday, Niagara University, and the Buffalo State (Sports) Arena. Buffalo State has been great to us, so we've maintained our relationship with them by playing two games there each Sunday."

Mickler says the league's quadruple-headers are quite a bargain for hockey fans.

"For a $3 ticket, you can go back and forth between the rinks and watch parts of all four games during an evening," he said. "Attendance has been very good and as we move into the second half of the season, it's going to create a lot more interest."

According to Timon/St. Jude coach and Federation president Frank Panek, the Pepsi Center is a coach's dream.

"The place and people are first-class from the minute you walk in the door," Panek said. "They have TV monitors to tell you which locker room you're in that night, the rooms are spacious and the place is nice and warm and clean; it's a great family atmosphere.

"It's a great facility and something that's been needed for a long time."

The Center, located at 1615 Amherst Manor Drive, off Maple Road, has a staff of about 75 people and is managed by Delaware North. Brian Burke is its general manager.

Federation officers call Burke a magician for being able to keep all the facility's tenants happy when it comes to scheduling ice time. The scheduling process for next winter will begin next month.

The facility opened Sept. 3 and offers all the amenities you can imagine.

There is Jake's Coffeehouse, a full-service restaurant, which also offers internet access for those 18 and older; a large snack bar; SuperSports, a well-stocked pro shop that also sells hockey memorabilia; the Performance Center, a state-of-the-art training facility; and 18 locker rooms and four meeting rooms.

"We have a great relationship with the Federation," said Mary DelSignore, the Center's arena programming manager. "It has been a great league to work with and having them play here has given the facility a great deal of exposure to people from across Western New York.

"The biggest misconception people have is that the Pepsi Center is just for the use of Amherst residents, but that's not the case. We rent the ice rinks out to all kinds of groups."

Even ones in search of a home.

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