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A new day dawns for Canisus hockey at HarborCenter

There was no winning tradition. No NCAA Tournament run. Not even a rink to call its own.

The Canisius College program was a pile of potential when Matthew Grazen was growing up in Clarence. College hockey appeared only sporadically on the Western New York sports scene and Grazen didn’t know much about the Golden Griffins until they started recruiting him.

When he committed to Canisius, Grazen knew he was signing up for a vision with the hopes of turning it into a tradition.

But even in the best light, the vision never quite gleamed like this.

The Griffs begin a new era of college hockey in downtown Buffalo tonight, opening the HarborCenter against Ohio State.

“I thought it was a good up-and-coming program that had a lot of potential and I saw a good community in the program,” Grazen said as he described his high school impressions of Canisius. “The coaches were building a good atmosphere and I think that’s just continued and kept growing to today. It’s everything I hoped it would be and now moving into the HarborCenter … it’s unbelievable and better than anything I expected.”

Now a senior, Grazen has been part of the evolution of Canisius hockey, which is enjoying its most successful run in the Division I era. The program won its first Atlantic Hockey championship in 2013 and returned to the title game last year.

“Winning the championship, getting to the championship the next year, that in itself is something that, before watching and following the program, nothing like that had happened,” Grazen said. “No runs that deep into the playoffs had happened. So just getting there and winning the championship is huge in itself. And now having our own rink, I think everything is more than I expected.”

The locker room and rink have exceeded expectations around Canisius hockey. The $172 million facility features two NHL-sized rinks, one with 1,800 seats which now serves as home ice for the Griffs. The move into HarborCenter had not only the team buzzing, but the entire Canisius community.

Consider this – the Griffs distributed more than 700 student tickets for tonight’s game. Canisius averaged 733 fans over 16 home dates at the Buffalo State Ice Arena last season.

“It’s exciting for college hockey and I know it’s exciting for their program,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “Obviously for us to be part of that is pretty special. Our guys are well aware that when we step in there, we better be ready with our best game or it’s going to be a long night for us. You have one first game, only one opening night in your new building.”

Rather than try to divert the glare of the intense spotlight the moment is bringing, the Griffs see it an opportunity to utilize the enthusiasm.

“For me, I’m just brutally honest with them,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “I say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a sold-out crowd, let’s feed off the energy but let’s be Griffs. Let’s be us.’ We can’t be something that we’re not but let’s not pretend that this moment isn’t happening.”

“I think it almost helps having the excitement from the building because everybody’s ready for practice, everybody’s ready to go every day,” Grazen said. “I think all the energy, the new passion for the new building everyone has will be a great thing.”

email: amoritz@buffnews.com