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City braces for hockey world; Prestigious 11-day tournament expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors, mostly from Canada

Many more visitors, nearly 8 million, showed up for the Pan-American Exposition in North Buffalo for six months in 1901. But no one alive now can remember anything about that.

More athletes, an estimated 6,000 from 136 nations, came to scattered spots around Western New York for the World University Games in 1993.

But no one -- not the oldest centenarian nor the most rabid local historian -- can remember an event that brought more visitors to downtown Buffalo for a concentrated period than the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championship.

Just like the NCAA basketball tournament and the NCAA Frozen Four that between them have come to Buffalo five times since 2000, young college-age athletes will lure mostly packed houses -- including thousands of out-of-towners -- to HSBC Arena downtown.

But the NCAA basketball and hockey tournaments were two-day events, played out over three days.

The World Junior Hockey Championship will run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, with only one off day, New Year's Day. The tournament, showcasing the world's best 18- and 19-year-old hockey players, will bring 21 games to HSBC Arena and another 10 to Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.

"It's the NCAAs, for 11 days, with beer," Buffalo Sabres public relations director Michael M. Gilbert quipped.

Sabres officials, serving as host for the 10-team tournament, won't hazard a guess on the number of visitors expected here for what's considered the second most prestigious international hockey tournament, behind only the Olympics.

All they'll say is that they expect tens of thousands of fans.

More than 50,000 visitors, mostly from Canada, are expected.

The tournament's already had its first whiff of controversy, after Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, questioned whether the Sabres and the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau were doing enough to prepare the area for the event.

"I think downtown is ready for it," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We just don't have a sense of how many folks it's going to be. There are a lot of questions, because it's never been here before and no one really knows what to expect."

As of Friday, the Sabres had sold roughly 300,000 tickets to the event, including about 12,100 all-session passes for the 21 games in HSBC Arena.

The Sabres had expected to sell more than 400,000 tickets total -- just under capacity for the 31 games -- but that might not be a reachable goal now. Team officials, though, say the number of tickets sold is about to surpass the 301,944 attendance for last year's tournament in Saskatchewan.

"With a week to go, to sell [about] 300,000 tickets is phenomenal," Gilbert said. "USA Hockey couldn't be happier with the ticket sales. We still think we're going to sell a lot more tickets."

The advance ticket sales, combined with a few projections, provide some hint about how big an invasion of hockey lovers this will be:

The Sabres could sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 tickets for the tournament.

Think of it as half a Sabres home season -- over 11 days, not six months.

Nobody's claiming, though, that 350,000 different people are coming to Buffalo.

If the average seat among the 18,690 seats in HSBC Arena is occupied by five different people during the 21 games in Buffalo, then close to 100,000 different fans are expected for at least one game.

This event, although on American soil, figures to be more of a "home game" for the Canadians, should the two teams meet in the medal round.

Americans may not understand the fan interest in Canada for the World Junior Hockey Championship. Think a top BCS bowl game, in the most rabid college football towns.

About 63 percent of the tickets already sold for the tournament have been bought by people from Canada. And others presumably have been bought by Americans outside the area.

So it's safe to say that more than 50,000 out-of-towners are expected to visit downtown Buffalo for the holidays -- many of them for multiple days.

That's a lot of folks, and the influx of visiting hockey fans, mostly from Canada, will have an effect on Peace Bridge traffic, local hotels and restaurants, police, New Year's Eve revelers and suppliers who fill the beer and food concessions inside HSBC Arena.

There are so many imponderables for the coming invasion from mostly Canadian hockey fans.

Take the Peace Bridge and other local border crossings, for example.

Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, will see Canadians flocking here for a Buffalo Bills game, Boxing Day and the Canada-Russia hockey game at 4 p.m.

The Sabres have worked closely with local bridge officials. Warnings about possible delays have been sent to ticket-holders. Bridge officials pledge to have as many lanes open as possible.

But no one knows how bad the delays will be.

Buffalo police say they're ready for the throng of visitors. At a recent Citistat meeting, Mayor Byron W. Brown, noting that the global spotlight will be on Buffalo, asked Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda about his department's preparations.

Derenda said his department anticipates anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people downtown because of the event, with police planning for at least 250,000.

"You'll see a huge police presence downtown," he said.

He said the department's strategy includes more cops on the street, mobile patrols, police at fixed locations and a lot of park-and-walk details.

Local officials are well aware of past criticisms about the lack of a plan for feeding fans between or after games inside the downtown arena.

That's a hard lesson Buffalo learned the first time it hosted the NCAA basketball tournament in 2000.

Out-of-town fans walked out of HSBC Arena unsure where to find food and drinks, and were greeted with long waits at nearby restaurants.

"We learned a lesson the hard way, and put a plan into place," Gallagher-Cohen said. "I think the more recent events have shown it's getting much better."

The Convention and Visitors Bureau is working with downtown hotels and restaurants to ensure they're prepared to handle thousands of new patrons during what is typically a quiet time of year for business.

The Sabres also are taking a huge step to make sure fans won't have to go far to find food and drinks. They're putting up a heated tent in the plaza area, before and after games, selling hot dogs, hamburgers, beer and soft drinks and offering live entertainment. The tent is expected to house up to 2,500 people.

Nearby, Pearl Street Grill & Brewery has hired 25 new employees, brought back former workers to help out and will add buffets on the top three floors of the restaurant so patrons can pay at the door, eat and run.

"It's all hands on deck," said Bill Casale, general manager. "It should be our biggest week in the history of the company."

Volunteers, will help distribute visitor information and brochures with a map of downtown restaurants, which should help disperse the crowds.

The Metro Rail will run with more capacity and frequency throughout the tournament. Visitors also can pay $1.75 to ride buses from HSBC Arena to establishments along the downtown entertainment district on Chippewa Street and Delaware Avenue, as well as the Elmwood strip, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman.

"We're geared up and ready to go," said Mark Croce, who owns several restaurants, including D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub, which he plans to turn into "Canadian Headquarters."

"We actually have a couple spots where we'll have limited menus, so we get folks in and out and they leave with a good image of Buffalo," he said.

In addition, Western New York Hockey Magazine coordinated Hockey Towne USA, a huge three-day event at the convention center for hockey fans looking for something to do while not watching the action on the ice.

The event -- which runs Dec. 27-29 and costs $5 for those 12 and over -- should have a little something for everyone -- food, a bar, live music, interactive games, even a and bubble hockey tournament.

"The world is coming to Buffalo," said Frank Calieri, a local promoter organizing the event. "And we're throwing a party."

News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report.

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>Tournament essentials

What is it? The International Ice Hockey Federation Under-20 Championships, better known as the World Junior Hockey Championship.

When is it? Dec. 26-Jan. 5. Games will be played every day except Jan. 1.

Who's playing? The best 18- and 19-year-old hockey players from 10 nations.

Which countries? Defending champion U.S.A., Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland.

How many games, and where are they? 31 games, 21 in HSBC Arena, the other 10 in Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.

Who's sponsoring the tourney? The host Buffalo Sabres, who hope to make a tidy profit, perhaps a few million dollars.

How many fans are expected? The Sabres have sold about 300,000 tickets so far, roughly three-quarters of capacity.

How many out-of-towners are expected? More than 50,000.

How much are tickets? Prices for individual games range from $25 to as much as $250 depending on the game and seating.

Where are tickets available? HSBC Arena box office, or (888) 467-2273.

How many hotel rooms? The Sabres already have reserved 6,000 room-nights, for the teams, their families, hockey officials from each nation and the media.

Will fans see NHL prospects? Twelve of the 23 current Buffalo Sabres have played in this tournament.

How many volunteers have signed up? About 300, including two team hosts for each squad, and a bilingual host for most.

Who's coming? A who's who of top NHL officials, plus possibly a prime minister or king or two.

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