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Welcome to Western New York, where we love hockey and it loves us back

Jim Kelley was an award-winning Buffalo News sportswriter and columnist whose hockey work has resulted in his being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and on Jan. 1, the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. Jim died of cancer on Nov. 30 at the age of 61.

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We are a small city, but you'll quickly learn we have outstanding dining and an amazing collection of architectural and cultural components. If time allows, enjoy them all.

But that's not what this story is about. This story is about Buffalo as a world-class hockey destination.

I don't say that lightly. I've been involved in hockey, and specifically the reporting of hockey, going on 40 years. In that time I can tell you with much pride that my hometown is dedicated to the game on so many levels that it almost defies description.

You may know Buffalo as a football town, and there is merit to that designation. But we also support our Buffalo Sabres -- now in their 40th season -- with equal passion.

In the pre-Sabres era we supported the Buffalo Bisons and their iconic Pepsi bottle-capped sweaters as well or better than any franchise in the American Hockey League. Those AHL days are where our passion for hockey took root.

But perhaps more importantly, we send our kids off to play hockey.

We send them to hockey school, hockey camps, power skating camps, indoor rinks, outdoor rinks, ponds and, from time to time, to the National Hockey League and hockey-playing nations throughout the world.

We play hockey in all the above-mentioned places. We support youth hockey, junior hockey, high school hockey and college hockey. We throw our hearts, our heads and every piece of new and used equipment we find into our Explorer Hockey program. Our region has one of the largest hockey playing youth movements in the country involving some 1,400 families, and we are, by accounts from USA Hockey and others, the fastest growing region providing women and girls hockey programs in the nation. We even play hockey in the streets.

The list of talented Western New Yorkers who have played in the NHL is too long to list, but consider: South Buffalo's Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks along with his neighbor, Tim Kennedy, and Angola native Patrick Kaleta got their starts here. Brian Gionta, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, played his youth hockey in Rochester. Lee Stempniak, currently with the Phoenix Coyotes, and Brooks Orpik, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, also played youth hockey here. Todd Marchant with the Ducks did the same, as did Kevyn Adams, Aaron Miller and many more.

And the story doesn't end there. Football players come and go, but hockey players seem to stay.

It's different with them. They connect with us through the things we all hold dear: family, community and belief that success isn't tied simply to fortune, fame and ego. There's a bond that runs deep; deeper than any good season or great play. It's because our community realizes how hard hockey players work to succeed. In turn, they realize that we are essentially a blue-collar town battling in much the same way.

Former NHL defenseman Larry Playfair lives on nearby Grand Island. Playfair, who had no connection to Buffalo before he became a top-four defenseman for the Sabres, embraced the community in the same way it embraced him. Currently, Playfair and Grant Ledyard, a well-traveled hockey player who also came back to make this his home, are part of a group that owns and runs the Buffalo Junior Sabres, an organization that helps Western New York kids play hockey at a high level, and gives them the opportunity at both college and professional careers.

A legendary Sabres right winger from the 1970s, Rene Robert, makes his home here. And though work has taken him away from time to time, former Sabres all-star winger Danny Gare still calls this area home.

Fred Stanfield, Jim Lorentz, Mike Robitaille, all former NHLers who played for the Sabres, have also put down roots. Even NHL great Marcel Dionne (Los Angeles Kings) -- who never played for the Sabres -- settled his family here.

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who has his name on the Stanley Cup a record 10 times, still lives in one of our nearby suburbs. His son, Stanley, currently the general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, grew up here.

We don't just accept our connections, we celebrate them. We have a sense of oneness with a kind of athlete who sees us for what we are, just as we see and understand them for who and what they are.

Like the Bills, the Sabres have never won it all, but when the Stanley Cup does makes an appearance here we grab our kids and line up, sometimes for hours, just to be in its presence. The reverence for it is undeniable.

For us, well, it's just a hockey thing. It's what we do all winter long, it's what we send our kids out to do. And now the World Junior Hockey Championship is here and is what we'll all be doing while you're in town.

Hockey: It's Buffalo and it's ours. So watch the games, take in the sights, but don't forget to keep an eye on us. This is your tournament, but it's our party, and I can tell you from a lifetime of experience that we are primed to enjoy every moment of it. After all, hockey is not only who we are, it's how we live.

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