When 40 of the best American hockey prospects arrive in town this week, the Sabres hope they see Buffalo as more than a place to play hockey. They want the kids to see Buffalo as the place to play hockey.
The Sabres' goal is to make downtown a hockey destination. It's why they're purchasing the Webster Block and connecting two ice rinks to First Niagara Center. It's why they are embracing the inaugural All-American Prospects Game, a USA Hockey production that will take place Saturday in the arena.
"Kim and Terry [Pegula, the Sabres' owners] both use the word destination," team President Ted Black said Friday. "We want Buffalo to always be in the conversation when you're talking about hockey and top hockey events. That's really what this is all about."
The prospects game has the potential to grow into an attraction. USA Hockey has gathered the best American-born players who are eligible for the 2013 NHL draft and will showcase their skills for scouts and fans. The players have been assigned to two teams — one coached by former Sabres defenseman Phil Housley, the other led by former Buffalo forward and 1980 U.S. Olympian Rob McClanahan — and they will face off at 7 p.m. Saturday.
"This opportunity came to us before we pursued the HARBORcenter project, but it certainly is completely fitting in the Pegula philosophy on growing hockey in the region and promoting the Sabres and the City of Buffalo as a wonderful hockey destination," Black said. "We are really going to put a lot of effort into making sure, first and foremost, these kids and their families have a first-rate time."
Ticket sales have been extremely slow. They range from $15 to $20 at the arena box office, but the password "Sabres" at Tickets.com drops the prices to $5 and $10.
"We're not doing it for monetary reasons," Black said. "For me personally and for the organization, success is going to be defined in perception and with the perception perhaps of a lot of these kids who are coming to Buffalo for the first time.
"It's the inaugural prospects game, so we take a lot of pride that they've entrusted us to launch that new event for them. We want it to be as successful as we can possibly make it and something that the city looks back on and the organization looks back on and USA Hockey looks back on as something to be proud of."
The players have been selected from 13 states. Four are from New York, including three from Western New York. Justin Bailey of Williamsville and Matt Lane of Rochester will play for McClanahan's team, while Sean Malone of West Seneca will skate for Housley's squad.
Most of the players are legitimate NHL draft prospects, with 34 of the 40 earning a spot on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary watch list. Seven have been tabbed "A-list" hopefuls, including Bailey. The forward plays for Kitchener of the OHL.
The prize prospect in the group is defenseman Seth Jones, who plays for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. Canadian sports network TSN, in conjunction with NHL scouts, have tabbed the 6-3, 210-pound Jones as the No. 2 overall draft prospect in junior hockey.
"Seth has the rare combination of skill, size and power which allows him to impact the game in multiple ways and in just about any conceivable situation," Craig Button, a broadcaster and former NHL general manager, wrote on TSN.ca. "He takes charge on the ice in some way, and the word that comes to mind when you watch him is ‘unique.'"
Of the 40 prospects, 31 have played in the United States Hockey League. Six USHL players were taken in the first round of the NHL draft this year, including forward Zemgus Girgensons by the Sabres with the 14th pick. Another 18 went on the second day.
The 16-team USHL is trying to grow in stature to rival the Canadian junior leagues. The Sabres have been approached about placing a team in the league once their Webster Block project is complete.
"We as an organization are interested in the development of the USHL," Black said. "The reality right now is there just aren't enough teams in the Eastern part of the country. Unless or until you get more teams closer to this area, it wouldn't fit with our philosophy, which would be making sure it's a positive experience for kids."
The closest team to Buffalo plays in Youngstown, Ohio. The rest of the teams are in the Midwest.
"A kid still in high school that's playing in Buffalo has got to get on a bus and play every other weekend in Sioux City and elsewhere," Black said. "That would be something that we wouldn't be eager to pursue.
"That said, if and when they do get that critical mass to the East, we'd be very interested in having those conversations. That could include whether we would own a team or facilitate the ownership of a team or be the landlord in either a combination of our new facility or existing facility. I'm a big fan of bringing more things to Buffalo that are hockey-centric, and that's a premier league."