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COMMENTARY

Battle of the Bridge just got more intense

LEWISTON – Dave Smith never said as much, but he must have envied his rivals on the far side of the bridges for all those years. There was Niagara’s hockey team enjoying the on-campus comforts of Dwyer Arena, a considerable upgrade over Canisius’ home on Buffalo State’s campus.

Smith never said as much, but it must have been difficult knowing he was battling a decided disadvantage when it came to recruiting, when it came to logistics, when it came to building a Division I program. To say Niagara had better facilities would be saying Niagara had facilities, period.

Oh, how times have changed.

Smith could sense his players were feeling better about themselves and excited about their season shortly after settling into HarborCenter, the downtown jewel and their new home. Sure enough, they’ve been riding their energy into contention in the Atlantic Hockey Association.

“It’s been great,” Smith said. “Our guys have really elevated their own thoughts about our program. We’re validated. We legitimized the program. Yeah, we had success with the guys on our team, but we have a first-class home. We have an A-plus facility inside and out, in our space and public space. It made a difference.”

It wouldn’t have mattered where Canisius and Niagara played Thursday night while adding another layer to the ongoing conflict known as the Battle of the Bridge. It doesn’t take much for either team to muster the passion and aggression needed for the most heated rivalry in local college sports.

Ralph Cuddemi scored two goals Thursday night to lead Canisius to a 4-1 victory in the latest installment between the two teams before a near-capacity crowd in Dwyer Arena. Shane Conacher set up both goals. Jeff Murray added a goal for the Griffs in the third period before Mitch McCrank found an empty net.

The result followed suit for both teams. Canisius drew within two points of the conference lead with its fifth win in a six-game unbeaten streak. Niagara kept the game close before eventually falling to 0-9-2 in its last 11 games. The gap between the two teams is narrower than the results indicate.

If you appreciate hockey no matter the level, or you need a break from the Sabres and McEichel, or you’re tired of Deflategate, you might consider taking a spin to Dwyer for the rematch Saturday. It may not be Yankees-Red Sox or Duke-North Carolina, but Canisius-Niagara is shaping into must-see hockey.

“I can tell you that it’s not just coach-talk, but honestly the points don’t matter,” Smith said. “To me, the motivation is the rivalry. We want to squash them, and they want to turn their season around. That’s a storyline by itself. That tells me it’s a real rivalry. It’s a fresh and open wound that should never heal.”

Canisius has had the upper hand over Niagara this season while putting itself in contention for the Atlantic Hockey crown. Niagara’s challenge will be turning around its season after a miserable start and losing streak that sent the Purple Eagles spiraling to the bottom.

In keeping with their series, the standings were tossed off the Grand Island Bridge before the game Thursday. The matchup was about bragging rights, where Niagara has held an advantage. Just beneath the surface, away from the game itself, both coaches were – shhh – united in their objective.

In a strange way, they depend on one another to build their programs.

“When the referees show up, there’s not a guy I dislike more than the guys on the other bench and their jerseys and everything else,” Niagara coach Dave Burkolder said. “But, when the lights go off, we’re in the entertainment business and should work together when we can.”

Canisius getting its own rink helped its program, but by extension it also benefited Niagara. Both teams gained more exposure. Niagara for years had a decided recruiting advantage with its on-campus amenities. Canisius can now show prospective players a beautiful arena in a city on the mend.

In the coming years, recruiting will come down to personal preferences and opportunities rather than just facilities. The rivalry becomes stronger every year, and it has intensified in four years since Niagara joined Atlantic Hockey. Both schools use the Battle of the Bridge as recruiting tools.

“Their first options should be Canisius or Niagara,” Smith said. “The big picture is that it takes time. It takes people. It takes butts in the seats. It takes more tournaments and championships, more fights, more bickering. All those things lead to more passion that we want Western New York kids to grow up with.”

“This is a hockey hotbed, and I don’t say that loosely,” Burkholder said. “It’s big time. I don’t know what the new number is, but at one time there were over 150,000 youth hockey players within an hour of our campuses. Those kids should want to grow up wanting to be on either team.”

And beating the other team.

While Canisius has cruised along, Niagara has spent two months trying to recover from a miserable start and a mountain of injuries. The Purple Eagles have been without seven players at various times this year, losing both their captain and co-captain, their top goal scorer and their No. 1 goaltender. Niagara has 17 underclassmen on the roster and a shortage of depth.

“We blinked and it was Christmas,” Burkholder said. “You can’t call a timeout on your season and try to make changes. We still believe in this team. We think our system, our culture, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis leads to winning. We’re going to stick with it.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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