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Hockey about to take center stage ; Many fans gave up Christmas at home to travel to Western New York

Are you ready for some hockey?

How about a lot of hockey?

The most prestigious amateur hockey tournament in the world begins today in Buffalo, bringing 21 games to HSBC Arena over the next week and a half and another 10 to Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.

The World Junior Hockey Championship, which runs until Jan. 5, will put the world's best 18- and 19-year-old hockey players on display -- and in a way, the City of Buffalo, too.

Downtown for weeks has been gearing up for the World Juniors, eager to leave a good impression on the tens of thousands of tournament fans -- mostly from Canada -- who are expected to make their way here, filling up restaurants, hotels and watering holes along the way.

Many of the rabid hockey fans arrived Saturday, giving up Christmas at home to travel to Western New York to root for one of the 10 tournament teams, which include defending champion U.S.A., Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Missing Christmas at home in Medicine Hat, a small city outside Calgary in Alberta, didn't bother Ken Longmore.

Longmore admits it was a little weird spending Christmas in a hotel, but this tournament will mark his fifth time at the World Juniors.

And his absence at home apparently didn't bother his wife and three grown sons, either.

"They're pretty jealous," Longmore said.

Ellis Salazar Sr. spent Christmas day traveling eight hours with his family from Montreal.

"It was the best time for me," said Salazar, who checked into the Millennium Hotel Buffalo in Cheektowaga on Saturday. "There was no traffic. There was no one at the bridge."

Salazar and his wife, Shirley, brought their 10-year-old son, Ellis, to play in the under-11 tournament put together by former Buffalo Sabre Michael Peca, but the family plans to catch at least one of the World Junior games while here over the next five days.

A trip to Niagara Falls may be on the agenda, as well as a stop next-door at Walden Galleria.

"That's on my list to do," Shirley Salazar chimed in.

The Sabres, the tourney's official hosts, have sold more than 310,000 tickets to the event, including about 12,100 all-session passes for the 21 games in HSBC Arena, surpassing the 301,944 attendance for last year's tournament in Saskatchewan.

About 63 percent of the tickets already sold for the tournament have been bought by people from Canada, so as many as 50,000 out-of-towners could visit downtown Buffalo for the holidays.

There are widely different estimates of the tournament's expected economic impact.

The Sabres claim that the 11-day tournament could pump close to $100 million into the local economy in tickets, hotel stays, food, drink and other purchases.

Economists, though, believe that payday will be closer to $20 million.

The difference is that the economists' model doesn't include purchases by Western New Yorkers. Economists say that the locals' spending would have gone for something else in the local economy, like dinner and a movie.

So the economists insist that the real impact comes from outsiders who spend money here. If they weren't coming to the tournament, they would have spent that money back home, whether it's in Fort Erie, Toronto or Stockholm, not in the Buffalo area.

Regardless, the influx of new business couldn't come too soon.

While most establishments were closed Saturday for Christmas, and the streets were just about empty, some local businesses stayed open in anticipation of the hordes.

The Anchor Bar was open, but nearly empty during the lunch hour, much to the disappointment of its staff who came to work expecting crowds -- and tips.

The Century Grill, directly across from the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, where several teams and fans are supposed to be staying, was empty at lunchtime.

The restaurant's owners sat at the end of their bar, quietly finishing their own lunches while watching "A Christmas Story" on TV. They decided to open their doors on Christmas, thinking their restaurant would be packed with hungry fans ecstatic to find an open restaurant.

"Where are they?" one asked while gesturing to the empty restaurant, glittering with Christmas lights.

"There's nobody here," the other owner said. "Once again, the City of Buffalo and its exaggerations."

Still, there was room for optimism.

Ali Mustafa, a Liberty Taxi driver, who was parked outside the Hyatt in his red cab, said that in the last couple of days he'd seen a big spike in the customers speaking foreign languages who were staying at downtown hotels wanting to go to either Niagara Falls or a mall. He believes they were all in town for the hockey tournament.

"It's good for us and the other businesses," Mustafa said. "We wish it would happen every month."

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