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Devoted hockey fans here for the long haul <br> Some Canadians staying entire 11 days

There are fans of the World Juniors Hockey Championship, and then there are fans.

Shelley and Darrin Johnson, and their kids, Adam and Connor, fit into the latter category. They are in town for the tournament's entire 11-day run, traveling all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, more than 1,800 miles.

The Johnsons love this brand of hockey, watching rising amateur stars compete for their country. Last year, their home province was the host.

"It's really good hockey," 15-year-old Adam said.

The Johnsons are here with a group of families, and their collective enthusiasm is good for the local economy.

In addition to attending a full slate of games, the Johnsons are getting out to do other things. They ate at Papaya and were going shopping at local malls.

Darrin and Adam were heading to Kissing Bridge to snowboard, and the family planned to attend the New Year's Eve ball drop at the Electric Tower.

They are also part of the reason the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites is essentially sold out for the length of the tournament.

While many fans from Canada may be crossing the border just to catch a game and then returning home -- making a muted economic splash -- some are having a much bigger effect. These devotees follow the tournament from city to city, staying in hotels for several days and generating the sort of spinoff spending that local officials and business owners crave.

Judy and Bill Sheffield, who split their time between Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, are here for the full tournament, as well. "We try to go to the World Juniors every year," said Judy Sheffield, who was wearing a red and white Canada sweater.

Judy said she and her husband, who are staying at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, would probably go to the movies, and perhaps a play, between games.

For locals who follow just the Buffalo Sabres and the National Hockey League, the appeal of the World Juniors tournament -- and the rabid following it engenders among some -- may be difficult to comprehend. At one game, a local fan met a family of four from Canada's Northwest Territories who had gone to the tournament in the Czech Republic and Sweden, and plans to go to Russia for the 2012-13 edition.

What makes the tournament special enough to spend a week and a half on the road with it?

Adam Johnson loves the passion the players show, making for exciting games every time. Darrin Johnson said for U.S. sports fans, a good comparison might be the fervent following that big-time college football teams have. Shelley Johnson thinks more visibility for the World Juniors on this side of the border would help.

"It's hard to find the U.S. games on TV," she said.

It's not clear how many fans are here for the entire 11 days, said Michael Gilbert, spokesman for the Buffalo Sabres, but he believes a few hundred.

The tournament's appeal is akin to college basketball playoffs.

"It's much like the Final Four or the NCAAs. You go each year no matter where it is," he said.

Gilbert thinks hockey fans are drawn to the World Juniors' high quality of players, many of whom are on the verge of joining NHL teams.

"Other than the Olympics, this is the next most watched, anticipated international ice hockey competition in the world," Gilbert said.

Another sign of Canada's attachment to the World Juniors: Prior to the tournament getting under way here, Canada hosted it three of the past five years, and it is set to host the next one, in Alberta.

The Hyatt has a number of guests staying eight or more nights for the tournament, said Jay Dellavecchia, the general manager. The longer the guests stay, the better the hotel can personalize its service, such as delivering their favorite drink or tailoring the restaurant menu.

Dellavecchia said longer-term guests are asking about places to see, from the familiar, such as malls, restaurants and museums, to the unexpected, such as whether the Attica Correctional Facility offers tours (it does not).

Shelley Johnson came to town with mixed expectations of Buffalo.

"I actually quite like it," she said.

She found the Metro Rail convenient and has enjoyed the places the family has gone to eat.

Judy Sheffield said Buffalo is doing well as host and that people at her hotel had been very helpful. But she also recalled how heavily the World Juniors was promoted in Saskatchewan last year. The tournament site there was teeming with volunteers, she said, and free shuttles carried people to and from a variety of points.

"It felt like the whole city was involved," Sheffield said.

The Sheffields' parking plan is part of their ticket package, so they were not affected by the sky-high prices some downtown lots were charging this week. But the rates -- as high as $60 -- did not sit well with her.

"That sets such a bad feeling for people visiting," she said.

Anyone who has spent time downtown in the past several days has seen the Canadian phenomenon of the tournament, with fans proudly decked out in red and white attire in hotels, restaurants and on the sidewalks. At the Hyatt, two youngsters who had just arrived raced to the giant globe in the lobby and spun it.

"Where's Canada?" one of them said. "Right here!" said the other.

Here's another thing Canadians are doing while in Buffalo: gobbling up chicken wings. Canadians apparently can't get enough of them, as restaurants report a run on the Buffalo delicacy.

One day earlier this week, W.J. Morrisey's Irish Pub on Mississippi Street sold 12 cases of chicken wings.

"On a Sabres game night, we go through about three," said Lindsay McKay, a restaurant manager. "So they're happy with them."

And, of course, Canadians are heading to the legendary Anchor Bar, where they're known to stop by while in town for Buffalo Bills games.

"We know the Canadians," said Ivano Toscani, operator of the renowned establishment. "They like their beer, they like their hockey and they like their wings."

Toscani has been a bit surprised he's not seeing more European families eating at the restaurant while in Buffalo watching the games. All he sees are Canadians.

"I'm not complaining," Toscani said Wednesday. "We are busy. We are very busy."

Even Canadians who are here for a short stint, perhaps just a night or two, are booking hotel rooms and having some economic impact.

"There's tons of Canadians in this hotel," said Trena Fellier of Barrie, Ont., who was staying at the Comfort Suites Downtown Buffalo. "They're everywhere. We were just in TGI Friday's, and I think the only Americans in there were the wait staff."

News staff reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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