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WNY passion for hockey is rewarded

You have a question about the world junior championships? Ask Craig Hartsburg. He coached Canada to the last two gold medals. He played with Wayne Gretzky on the bronze medal team in 1978. His work with the under-20 team contributed to the Ottawa Senators hiring him as their new boss of the bench.

For all the suits butchering one another's last names Monday when officially announcing the world juniors were coming to Buffalo in two years, only a few people understood the impact it would have on the community more than the Senators coach. Heck, he lives it every day with Ottawa hosting the tournament this year.

"Besides the Olympics, it's the best tournament in hockey," Hartsburg said Monday. "You've got young men that play the game with such emotion and intensity that it really is a unique event. It should be very exciting for the area and the City of Buffalo. It's a great event. The emotions involved are second to none."

That's what this tourney is all about, passion and hockey. You can't appreciate the latter without the former. Buffalo has always been a strong hockey town, but there's a sense the enthusiasm for the game has intensified exponentially in the past decade, if not the past three years. The gap between hockey and our beloved football has narrowed.

USA Hockey was impressed by more than our proximity to Canada. Executive Director Dave Ogrean predicted the world juniors here would be the best ever in the United States. Youth hockey has exploded. This area now more than ever sends kids to play college hockey. Niagara has built a successful program.

The Sabres did their part on the ice in the first two years after the lockout, and now they're doing their part off the ice.

No matter how many shameless politicians attempt to convince people that their influence helped, the Sabres did virtually all the legwork on this one. Owner Tom Golisano put up the money, his troops put together the proposals, the organization put the region first and sold a terrific package. They should make a profit, but the gains are significantly greater for Buffalo.

This is a major coup, not just an under-20 hockey tournament. Fans take off work in Canada so they can watch on television. Without going overboard, it's a rare opportunity for this region to improve its image. This event is certain to gain momentum, like many others.

Sen. Charles Schumer was quick to jump on board with the world juniors last week, evidenced by his office releasing a statement that broke a confidentiality agreement with USA Hockey and the Sabres about the announcement. Neither organization was too pleased, but he has time to make amends.

You want to jump on board, Chuck? Start using your influence to pool resources that can spruce up the downtown area in the next two years. Find a solution to the skeletal remains of a casino deal gone wrong. Help get money in here for the waterfront. Fix a few broken windows. Buy some paint and plant some bushes. That way, visitors don't leave thinking New York in general and Buffalo in particular is a dump.

The Sabres stuck out their necks and guaranteed USA Hockey some $5 million. The 10-day tournament will pump an estimated $20 million, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, into the local economy. The organizing committee in Ottawa was given $2 million by the provincial government. Canada's federal government is coughing up $750,000 for three such events in the next four years.

For all the criticism in the recent past, the Sabres should be applauded for their work in landing this one without asking for a penny. In some ways, their work reflects hockey's effect on Buffalo and Buffalo's effect on hockey. It confirms what we've known for years. This is a true, blue hockey town. And it's exciting.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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