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Downtown ice lights generational fires

On a recent weekend, a top Buffalo Sabres official fielded two phone calls reporting that hockey legend Mario Lemieux had been noticed inside the (716) Food and Sport restaurant in HarborCenter.

It turns out that Lemieux, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been here twice. The first time, he was checking out elite youth hockey talent. The next time was more personal.

“He was just doing what a lot of dads do,” said Michael M. Gilbert, vice president of public and community relations for the Sabres. “He was watching his kid play hockey.”

Lemieux is not alone. Lots of grandparents, mothers and fathers – including several former National Hockey League stars – are heading here to watch their kids and grandkids play in weekend hockey tournaments.

The HarborCenter complex, with two NHL regulation-size ice rinks, has become the hot new thing in youth hockey circles across the Northeast, Midwest and nearby Ontario.

For about 20 straight weekends, from Halloween through early March, the two-rink complex at the foot of Washington Street will be buzzing, with each weekend bringing an average of about 180 youth hockey players downtown, according to HarborCenter officials.

This weekend brings the medal round of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Women’s Under-18 World Championship, which features teams from eight countries. The weeklong competition got off to a strong start Monday with a sold-out rink for the United States’ 2-1 shootout victory over Canada in the preliminary round.

When you add in the coaches, parents, siblings and grandparents, that number could reach 700 per weekend. Or up to 14,000 players and supporters.

With several other larger events, HarborCenter is expected to pump more than $10 million into the local economy this winter and spring, center administrators say.

During winter months, when downtown Buffalo has been a fairly slow attraction with chilly winds whipping across Canalside and the kayaks and paddle boats put away until spring, that’s a huge boost to traffic along the Lake Erie shoreline.

And last week’s opening of the Ice at Canalside only adds to the allure.

It’s all part of the plan to turn downtown Buffalo into the new magnet for the hockey world, drawn here by the twin rinks attached to the First Niagara Center and innovative touches found in the building’s Academy of Hockey and its IMPACT Sports Performance facility.

“Minnesota, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, those people have real passion for their local hockey culture,” said Nik Fattey, HarborCenter’s vice president and director of hockey. “We want people to have that same passion here.”

The beauty of winter hockey tournaments is that they don’t go on vacation when most people do.

So on a recent weekend when most people were scrambling to finish their last-minute Christmas plans, HarborCenter was hosting a 24-team Jamboree for 7- and 8-year-olds and a 12-team tourney for U9 (under 9 year olds). That meant 36 teams of young kids toting their hockey bags into HarborCenter.

“We start every Friday morning, and we go to 3 or 4 p.m. Sunday,” Fattey said of the crowded weekend schedule.

Fifty-four percent of this season’s visitors will be from out of town.

“We’re going to grow that,” Fattey said. “Our goal is to get to 60 percent. We just want to spread the gospel.”

That gospel has been spreading for a while.

“I think years ago, two or three decades ago, we thought of Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan as the meccas of hockey in this country,” said Dave Fischer, spokesman for USA Hockey. “Now New York is in that conversation, and Buffalo has come an awfully long way.”

Among the out-of-towners here on a recent weekend were Dr. Kevin Kozara and his wife, Kelly, of Penfield, who spent both nights at the new Hilton Garden Inn with their three children. Matthew Kozara, 8, plays for the Rochester Grizzlies AA Mite team.

The Kozaras did the whole downtown scene all weekend, attending the Sabres game Saturday night, watching the Syracuse University basketball game at (716), skating at the Ice at Canalside and riding the Metro Rail aboveground train back and forth.

“You kind of felt like you were in a mini-version of Chicago or New York, with the vibrant atmosphere,” said Kevin Kozara, an East Amherst native.

That atmosphere included lots of people walking around, others skating outside and more action than he had remembered seeing in downtown Buffalo, other than for a Sabres game.

With their Buffalo roots, the Kozaras drew a total of 13 family members to at least one weekend event downtown. After the weekend, Grizzlies family members were asking their team manager when they could return.

“It was a great weekend,” Kozara said.

HarborCenter officials like to say the two new rinks, each 200-by-85 feet, have become a downtown “game-changer.”

Tournament officials are careful to make sure each youth team has at least one night free, even during the typical crammed schedule of playing three preliminary-round games in 36 hours.

Here, for example, are some of the things that young hockey players, and their loved ones, can do downtown, whether they’re visiting from Cleveland, Clarence or Cornwall, Ont.:

• Only a long slap shot from HarborCenter, the new Ice at Canalside provides visitors with a chance to skate on a canal outside, on the same site where the Sabres once played. Anyone who thinks that’s too much skating for these kids doesn’t know youth hockey players.

• If the Sabres are playing home on Friday or Saturday night, some young players either see them play or watch their game-day morning skate next door at First Niagara Center. Even if the Sabres aren’t home, the youths can watch some top-level hockey inside HarborCenter, at Canisius College, Buffalo Junior Sabres or Erie Community College games.

• And the youngsters can do their pregame warm-up inside the IMPACT Sports Performance facility on HarborCenter’s sixth floor, a 5,000-square-foot facility. Coaches can put their players through calisthenics and stretching for about 15 minutes, roughly an hour before game time.

• Kids who idolize NHL stars can be on the lookout for former pro players, including HarborCenter employees Martin Biron, Adam Mair and Kevyn Adams. Then there are numerous hockey dads who either have been spotted or are expected to be seen this tournament season, including Lemieux, Mark Recchi, Bill Guerin, Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau. Some do double duty, as fathers and coaches.

Youth team coaches, along with parents and grandparents who can’t make the trip to Buffalo, also can benefit from the multiple cameras in each rink, allowing each game to be streamed live on video and allowing coaches to watch games later from different angles, for teaching purposes.

The new facility also offers parents a “one-stop shopping” experience, permitting them to park their cars at HarborCenter and leave them there for about 48 hours.

HarborCenter officials seem a bit defensive on one point, that the new twin-rink facility could cut into other local rinks’ ice times and revenue. They strongly dispute that point.

“The idea in building the facility was not to take anything away from any current facility or program, but rather to create the type of place that would attract events and teams that normally wouldn’t be coming to Buffalo,” said Don Heins, the facility’s communications manager.

One fairly subtle point seems to back that concept. The facility’s sixth-floor IceLab store has skate sharpeners and riveters to fix broken skate blades, but no skates, helmets or gloves for sale. It does, though, carry players’ emergency needs, including replacement sticks, tape and laces.

“We don’t want to do anything to hurt local businesses,” Fattey explained.

Some people scoff at Chamber of Commerce-type economic-impact figures, which are tricky to compute.

HarborCenter officials cite estimates from the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, claiming that the 20 weekend tournaments will bring about $3.5 million in economic impact downtown, including hotel, restaurant and bar revenue. Several other key championships – including the World Sled Hockey Championship in April and May and the NHL Scouting Combine in late May – are expected to bring in another $8.3 million.

That’s close to a $12 million total. No matter how inflated that might be, it’s still a decent chunk of change.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com