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Local players magnify Canisius-Niagara hockey rivalry

When Nolan Sheeran’s older brother, Sean, was a student at Niagara, he would find himself in Dwyer Arena as a spectator when the Purple Eagles played rival Canisius.

The East Amherst native is well acquainted with the atmosphere that comes when the rival schools clash in hockey.

But this will be his first time experiencing it as a player. For Canisius, that is.

Western New York players have always been a key component of the rosters for both Niagara and the Griffs but the trend is getting stronger. There’s more depth in the region and more reasons for players to stay home.

One of those selling points? The Canisius-Niagara rivalry, which renews with games Thursday and Sunday in Lewiston.

“When I was getting recruited I talked to Canisius and Niagara,” said Sheeran, a freshman forward for Canisius. “With both sides they always talked how heated the rivalry is between Canisius and Niagara. That was always a point of emphasis – how cool it is to play in this game.”

“I think it’s very special being from Niagara Falls,” said Purple Eagles sophomore Vince Muto. “I’ve grown up watching this rivalry and to be a part of Niagara hockey is very special to me. To play against Canisius is literally a dream come true.”

Canisius has four local players on its roster this year and all are alumni of the Buffalo Junior Sabres – Sheeran, Ryan Schmelzer (Buffalo), Josh Kielich (Orchard Park) and Matthew Grazen (Clarence).

Grazen has watched his former junior team improve not only in competition in the Ontario Junior Hockey League but in helping players develop to take advantage of college opportunities.

“I think it’s growing and getting better,” Grazen, a senior, said of the Junior Sabres program. “A couple years after I left they were making deep runs into the playoffs. It’s definitely become a better program and a better steppingstone to come to D-I hockey. You see commitments on the team. I think guys playing there are also seeing Canisius, seeing the attractiveness of it and staying local.”

The current Junior Sabres roster has four D-I commitments, with three of them staying local – Joshua Gabriel and Daniel Lafontaine to Canisius and Ryan Kuhn to Niagara.

“We love the Western New York talent,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “We want them to grow up saying, ‘I want to play for Canisius. I want to play at the HarborCenter.’ That strategy in our recruitment is never going to change. We want the top Western New York talent. … Our goal is to have this be their destination.”

It may have become a tad easier to sell players on the viability of staying local over the last few years. Not only have both Niagara and Canisius advanced to the NCAA Tournament, but they are now in the 18th year of their head-to-head rivalry. That brings to the table the first generation of players who grew up watching the Griffs and Purps clash on the ice. That familiarity breeds even more intensity.

“I grew up watching some of the games. Canisius-Niagara games were always huge,” Kielich said. “I know a couple guys on Niagara – Vince Muto, Pat Conte – and that definitely makes it a little more intense.”

The Western New Yorkers on Niagara’s roster left the area to play junior hockey before returning for their collegiate career on Monteagle Ridge – including Niagara Falls natives Conte (Youngstown, USHL) and Muto (Sioux Fall, USHL), Grand Island native Lawrence Smith (Carleton Place, CCHL) and Buffalo native Sam Alfieri (Lincoln Stars, USHL).

With the maturity of a senior, Alfieri can appreciate the bigger picture of how the rivalry has helped elevate college hockey in Western New York.

“Being from Buffalo it’s great to see the relative success of both schools,” Alfieri said. “Obviously I hope Niagara enjoys a little more success than Canisius right now, but it’s great. It’s fun. It’s exciting. I’m going to be able to look back on these games when I’m older and really say that it was a cool experience to play college hockey games in my hometown.”