For the next two weeks, Western New York will be the center of the female hockey universe.
A conglomerate of local hockey organizations is hosting the USA Hockey Nationals at the Amherst Pepsi Center in both the women's and girls divisions.
The women's division will host 30 teams in three divisions from Friday to Sunday. The Senior A division will feature six teams including the host Buffalo Saints. The Senior B division will feature 12 teams including the host Buffalo Regals, and the C Division will feature 12 teams including the host Wheatfield Blades.
Meanwhile the girls division, hosted by the North Buffalo Bison Hockey Association, begins play March 29 and finishes with championships April 2.
"These are memories the girls will have forever," Bisons Girls Hockey Coordinator Nick Beaver said. "It's a great experience to play with the best girls in the country. A lot of these girls will be going to play in college and some of these girls may be part of the Olympic team in four or five years. It's a very high level of competition. Now people in Western New York will get to see the high caliber of play, especially with the older girls."
Age levels are broken into 12-and-under, 14-under, 16-under and 19-under. Teams qualify for the national tournament by winning their district title. There are 11 districts in each age group with the host team getting an automatic bid into the tournament for a total of 12 teams.
Games will go on all day at the four rinks at the Pepsi Center with the championships played back-to-back April 2 beginning with the 12-unders at 10 a.m. and ending with the 19-unders at 4:30 p.m.
The local teams have some pretty tough competition and the Bisons' 16-under team is the one that could make some noise by advancing to the quarterfinals.
"About three-quarters of that team is also on the Nichols team, so they're on the ice every day," Beaver said. "They're a very strong team. They went to nationals last year in Colorado as a 14-and-under team so they have the experience. Now they're up an age bracket but still are pretty strong."
Expect to see many women's college hockey programs represented at the tournament. The USA Hockey nationals have become fertile ground for evaluating and recruiting top talent.
Women's tournament divisions are determined by skill levels with Senior A being the highest level of amateur hockey in the United States outside of the national team.
"The women that play come from all walks of life," women's tournament chairman Rick Zielezinski said. "We have women on the Saints who are lawyers, [another player] is 19 years old. There are nurses and doctors on the Regals' team. Some of the Minnesota area teams may even have some Olympians on their rosters."
For the women's tournament, admission is $8 for a day session or $15 for an all-session pass. Children 12-under are free.
For the girls' tournament, day passes are $10 for adults, $5 for 17-under and children under 5 are free. All-sessions passes are $25 for adults and $15 for 17-under.
Complete schedules can be found at www.usahockey.com under the link for 2006 nationals.