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For young skaters, HarborCenter offers glimpse of hockey heaven

The tournament being played today at HarborCenter may be the first for this newly minted Hockey Heaven.

But it’s just a glimpse of what’s in store for youth and amateur hockey in Buffalo.

Each week, for roughly the next 20 weeks, as many as 200 youth hockey teams from around the region and beyond will make their way downtown to play in tournaments hosted by HarborCenter.

And that’s only on weekends.

The rest of the week you can stop by and find promising young players honing their skills with top-notch coaches, or local youth teams practicing on one of two NHL-sized ice surfaces.

Maybe there will be a college hockey game going on, or a late-night men’s league in action.

And, public skating will be offered there prior to every Buffalo Sabres home game.

Now do you understand why this is billed as Hockey Heaven?

It’s a year-round, seven-day-a-week, first-class facility where the focus is hockey from the time doors open at 5 a.m. until they close at 1 a.m.

“The whole concept of this building is to become a destination,” said Kevyn Adams, director of HarborCenter’s Academy of Hockey.

This week’s opening has certainly generated a buzz.

“It puts Western New York on the hockey map – nationally and internationally,” said Tom Barnett, president of the Buffalo Shamrocks Hockey Club. “It will become a USA Hockey hotbed.”

“It raises the bar,” said Robert Schell, director of development for Amherst Youth Hockey. “It improves the image of Buffalo as a hockey town.”

But part of that buzz includes a healthy dose of curiosity over what exactly this facility means for youth hockey.

Is it only for elite players?

Can my kid play there?

What does this mean for the local and municipal rinks?

“It’s a little unknown,” said Mark Grundtisch, co-owner of Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga and Leisure Rinks in West Seneca.

It does create more competition in the market, particularly during the off season when there are fewer people playing hockey, Grundtisch said.

But during the season, there tends to be enough business to go around because so many teams are clamoring for prime ice time.

If anything, HarborCenter might help free up more ice time elsewhere, said Martin Denecke, director of recreation for the Town of Hamburg, which operates Hamburg Town Arena.

“In the beginning, I think they’re going to get a lot of people down there just for curiosity,” Denecke said.

But HarborCenter is a different type of venue than your average rink, said Nik Fattey, the facility’s director of hockey.

“Kids can still skate and play at their Northtown Centers, their Nike bases, their Caz rinks, but they can also come here and learn,” Fattey said. “The goal is to raise the level of players and coaches in the hockey world with the focus on Western New York.”

A key component of HarborCenter is its Academy of Hockey.

The program provides players with more personalized attention from a staff of 10 experts, including former Buffalo Sabres Martin Biron and Adam Mair.

While the academy offers a variety of programming for youth of all ages, it’s geared more toward the serious hockey players trying to take their games to the highest levels.

It begins next week with as many as 400 players taking part throughout November.

“Your big vision would be to have this become a place where people around the world will say, ‘I need to go to the Academy of Hockey. I need to go to Buffalo, N.Y. and the HarborCenter to become a better hockey player,’ ” Adams said.

“You have to start somewhere and I think we need to make sure that we’re doing a great job out of the gates working with Western New York, the Niagara region, southern Ontario – that group of players,” Adams said. “And then, as we grow over time, people start to learn about us.”

One way players and coaches will learn about the academy is through a series of new HarborCenter tournaments.

This weekend, for example, HarborCenter is hosting two tournaments featuring 16 teams – half of which are coming from outside the area.

The players’ families are visiting Buffalo, staying in downtown hotels and eating at local restaurants.

“The first year we’re running 20 youth tournaments – basically in 20 weeks,” Fattey said. “There’s a tournament every week. Those are brand new, organic tournaments that we’ve grown and are still growing.

“We’re going to have spring ones we haven’t announced yet. We’re going to have summer tournaments. There’s more to come.” Fattey said. “Next year, we’re probably going to have 30 different tournaments.”

The shiny, new facility has the potential to draw camps or tournaments away from a place like the Northtown Center at Amherst, which has four ice pads and a long history of hosting youth hockey events.

But Amherst is hoping for just the opposite.

“The HarborCenter is going to be a different class of facility,” said Mary-Diana Pouli, executive director of Amherst’s Youth & Recreation Department.

“I’m thrilled they’re bringing in these events, because it’s great for the rest of us,” she said. “I hope we’ll be able to work together. I think we will on some things.”

Meanwhile, HarborCenter has forged a partnership with 18 of the area’s youth hockey associations.

Each week, the youth hockey clubs will send a team to the downtown facility for a two-hour practice.

That alone has the potential to bring as many as 6,000 local kids onto the HarborCenter ice by April, Fattey said.

Amherst Youth Hockey is among the participants.

“The guys at the HarborCenter have been more than accommodating for youth hockey associations,” Schell said.

Besides those ventures, HarborCenter is piloting a men’s league of 30 teams – 110 teams applied.

Open skate will be held two hours before every Sabres home game. That’s expected to start this month.

HarborCenter is also the new home for the Canisius College and Erie Community College hockey teams, as well as the Junior Sabres.

In fact, there’s a sense that the landscape of youth hockey is shifting in the region now that Sabres owner Terry Pegula has built HarborCenter and staked a claim in the local hockey scene.

Barnett of the Shamrocks said that leadership from the Sabres has been a long time coming.

“It was something I felt was lacking between the leader in the field and those who are in the ditches everyday moving hockey forward,” Barnett said. “There was always kind of a disconnect between youth hockey and the team. They never tended to reach out to youth hockey.

“Obviously,” Barnett said, “that’s come to pass.”