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Sabres' home renamed First Niagara Center

John Koelmel, president and CEO of First Niagara Bank, came to an obvious conclusion Thursday. Standing in the atrium of newly named First Niagara Center near a Buffalo Sabres jersey bearing his name, Koelmel looked around and decided it has been a good month for his corporation.

There's no denying that.

First Niagara, which took over 195 HSBC Bank branches Aug. 1, took the next step in increasing its regional presence Thursday by acquiring the naming rights to the Sabres' arena. The building at the foot of Washington Street is now known as First Niagara Center, with the team and bank agreeing on a 15-year deal to replace the moniker HSBC Arena.

"August has been a good month for us," Koelmel said. "The first of the month we proudly announced our transaction with HSBC, and I'm thrilled that we're relatively able to close the month with the second piece of the puzzle. It's a wonderful opportunity to partner with an organization that has been at the heart and soul of this community for the last 40-plus years."

The partnership pairs two organizations that have been aggressive this summer. The Sabres have rebuilt their roster, locker room and fan base, while First Niagara has expanded its banking operations throughout Western New York and Connecticut.

"We're going to have a group of people on both sides that are used to doing things pretty quickly, pretty aggressively, without a lot of red tape, so we're going to probably be able to do a lot of marketing things together that are maybe outside of the box," Sabres President Ted Black said.

Added Koelmel: "It's two teams very much on the rise, two organizations committed to winning with a determination to ensure we mutually work together to provide leadership across this organization to make Buffalo and Western New York a better place to work and live."

The name change is the fourth for the downtown arena. It was called Crossroads Arena during its construction and became Marine Midland Arena prior to opening in September 1996. The HSBC Arena name came in 2000 when the bank, which owned Marine Midland, rebranded itself.

First Niagara initiated naming rights discussions late in the negotiations to acquire HSBC's branches. HSBC's deal with the Sabres was amended to allow the company to assign the lease to First Niagara, and the sides then terminated the contract. The new 15-year deal will run until 2026, which is also when the Sabres' lease for the arena expires with Erie County.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal brings the Sabres significantly more cash than their previous contract. HSBC was set to pay $24 million during the course of a 20-year deal that began in 1995.

"This is the most significant sponsorship agreement in the history of Western New York sports, both financially and the fact that it joins two of the hottest brands in our region," Black said. "It's revenue that we hadn't anticipated. It's not plugged into our budget, so we're just taking advantage of a great opportunity."

First Niagara, previously Lockport Savings Bank, obtained exclusive exterior naming rights and category exclusivity inside the arena bowl as part of the deal. The Sabres' goal is to have all signage changed by the team's home opener Oct. 14.

"We're incredibly proud that the First Niagara banner will be flying over the home ice for many years to come," said Koelmel, whose bank has its name on a concert facility near Pittsburgh and has sponsored professional tennis tournaments and the Empire State Games.

Koelmel knew the Sabres' founders, Seymour and Northrup Knox, and remembers watching the team play in Memorial Auditorium. He said his bank and the Sabres examined honoring the team's tradition by going back to the Aud name.

"We talked about Auditorium. It's a little bit of a mouthful," Koelmel said. "First Niagara Center -- everyone felt it rolled off the tongue pretty well and resonated well."

Paul Cronin, executive vice president of HSBC Bank USA, said the latest transaction should not be taken as a sign his corporation is abandoning Western New York. He said the bank has signed a new lease for a suite in the arena and is preparing to refurbish HSBC Atrium, which is across the street from the arena.

"The naming rights here are a natural progression from the transaction that we announced earlier in the month with First Niagara," Cronin said. "We will continue to have a strong presence here in Buffalo and in Western New York with our commercial banking business, our global banking businesses, our private banking business."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com