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Canadian hockey fans right at home ; Flock of supporters migrates to arena to eat, drink and cheer

Team Canada took over downtown Buffalo on Sunday as a throng of hockey fans draped in red and white from toque to toe crossed the border to cheer on their home country.

The Canadian invasion came on the first day of the 11-day World Junior Hockey Championship, with three games held in Buffalo and one in Lewiston.

Fans in town for Sunday's marquee Canada-Russia contest filled the parking lots around HSBC Arena, drank a lot of beer and ate plenty of chicken wings.

"I think we're going to see a major sea of red -- red and white," said Keith Houston, a Hamilton, Ont., resident who wore a Team Canada jersey as he waited just inside HSBC Arena two hours before the opening faceoff for Canada-Russia.

Tournament attendees said they didn't have a lot of trouble crossing the border, nabbing a parking spot or finding a place to grab a bite and a drink.

In one first-day wrinkle, fans going to see Canada-Russia got stuck in long lines outside HSBC Arena because the building had to be cleared after the early game before ticket-holders for the second contest were allowed inside.

But the city has hosted the NCAA men's basketball tournament four times, and the experience handling the needs of those crowds seemed to produce smooth skating this time for fans and organizers.

"Everything's been great," said Buffalo Sabres spokesman Mike Gilbert, adding he recognizes it's "just Day One."

Those who were smart left early from Toronto, Hamilton and St. Catharines, and took the Rainbow Bridge instead of the Peace Bridge to get here.

Restaurants near the arena put on extra staff for Sunday's slate of games, and managers said they were looking forward to a boost in business through the Jan. 5 end of the tournament.

"It should be the best week in our company's history," said William Casale, general manager of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, which put on 150 staff Sunday when a typical Bills-game Sunday would see a dozen.

The World Junior Hockey Championship features a high level of play from under-20 players who soon may be wearing NHL jerseys.

For hockey-obsessed Canadians, the junior tournament is just a step below the Olympics in prestige, and Ontario residents say they're glad it's come to a convenient location.

The Sabres, the official hosts, say 63 percent of the more than 310,000 tickets sold for the tourney as of Saturday were purchased by Canadians.

"For our family, the big thing is the Canadian juniors. When it's on, that's all we watch for that week," said Jeff Steckley, 45, of Ridgeway, Ont.

"It's intense -- we know all the players," said his daughter, Brooke, 14, who was dressed in a Canadian hat, a homemade "Canada for Gold" shirt and pants flecked with maple leaves.

A few lonely Team USA jerseys were spotted on downtown streets, as well as a couple of German-flag capes flying from the necks of two young men walking on Scott Street.

Breanna Hines, 20, a Queens University student from St. Catharines, said her mom bought her tickets to the full tournament for Christmas. She's sharing the tickets and going to seven games herself.

"When my friends found out, they were like, 'You're the luckiest girl in the world,' " said Hines, who wore an outfit of Team Canada cape, mittens and jersey and black tights.

The fans were part of a flotilla of traffic that streamed across the border Sunday, drawn by the tournament, a Bills game and Boxing Day sales.

Drivers who took the Rainbow Bridge had waits of 15 or 20 minutes, while those like Hines who took the Peace Bridge had a wait of 90 minutes at about 12:30 p.m.

By 7:45 p.m. there were 50-minute delays on the Peace Bridge and Lewiston-Queenston Bridge traveling from the U.S. to Canada, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission reported.

Restaurants had a steady, but not overwhelming, crowd in the hours before Canada-Russia began just after 4 p.m.

Business has been more spread out over the course of Sunday and less compressed than during the NCAA Tournament, Pearl Street's Casale said.

Casale said he opened the deli in the restaurant's basement at 7 a.m. Sunday, and hockey fans started arriving at 8.

"We would have sold a lot [of beer] between 8 and noon, if we were allowed to," Casale said.

Over at Benchwarmers, some fans started an impromptu chant of "Go, Canada, Go" at one point Sunday afternoon as fans filled every table and every available spot at the bar.

Chris Hall, the manager at the Mississippi Street sports bar, said he boosted his regular staffing level by about 50 percent for Sunday.

The Sabres set up a tent in the plaza outside the arena where vendors served Labatt Blue, wraps and baked chips.

Shortly after 2 p.m., an announcer asked, "Got any Team Canada fans in here?" eliciting a loud roar in response.

"How 'bout any Russian fans?" the announcer added, producing silence followed by boos.

The day's biggest hiccup came when a throng of ticket-holders for the Canada-Russia game was left in long lines waiting to get into HSBC Arena.

Gilbert, the team spokesman, said this was the shortest turnaround period of the tournament and it was the first time arena staff would be attempting to clear the building.

"We knew going into it that our big challenge was going to be [after] Game One," he said.

The team will add more people to scan tickets, and Gilbert said clearing the arena should be easier in the future.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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