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Sabres’ Black thinking big on HarborCenter’s future

When the Sabres decided to invest in downtown, they figured a hockey-centric building would thrive. A glimpse of the 600 people wandering through and past HarborCenter this week for the NHL Scouting Combine shows they were on to something.

While hoping the Combine becomes an annual event in Buffalo, the team is looking to bring the prospects back for games, too.

The Sabres are not returning to the Detroit Red Wings’ prospect tournament this summer in Traverse City, Mich., and they’re searching for a short-term replacement. The long-term idea is to host their own.

“When you have a facility like this, when you have the ability to open up three rinks, I think you can think big down the road,” Sabres President Ted Black said Thursday. “That will be something that we’ll certainly consider in 2016 and beyond.”

Eight NHL teams send their top prospects to Traverse City for a week every year. The Sabres attended the previous three tournaments but opted out of this summer’s event.

“We’re planning something just to take the place of Traverse City short term,” Black said, “something that provides a substitute so that we have some opportunities for competition. We just haven’t finalized that yet.”

Wherever the team plays, prospects drafted this year will take part. The Sabres and the other 29 teams are getting a close look at the draft-eligible players at the Combine. Prospects arrived early this week for interviews, and they’ll take part in fitness testing Friday and Saturday.

Black said early reviews of Buffalo’s inaugural year as host have been glowing.

“The feedback that we’ve received from the league, from the prospects, from the teams has been all very, very positive, especially the veterans of this event, the ones who’ve seen it before and see how different this is,” Black said in HarborCenter. “The fact that everything is in such a wonderful location – in Canalside and HarborCenter – has really made this a spectacular event, certainly through the first half of it.”

Every team received a suite in First Niagara Center to conduct interviews, a welcome change from the previous setup of hotels near the Toronto airport. The fitness testing will take place in HarborCenter rather than a conference hall, and prospects bused to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for physicals.

“It’s much easier,” said Greg Royce, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting who previously attended Combines while working for Ottawa and Nashville. “It was cramped quarters, and you’re crammed into a hotel room trying to meet the players and the air is stale. Now it’s fresher air, a little cooler. Everything’s wide-open at the HarborCenter for the testing. Before they’d have it down in the hotel lobby basically, and you’re craning your neck to see what the players are doing. Here, the sightlines are fantastic.”

The event is closed to the public, so the good views will be reserved for the scouts, general managers and media. Buffalo is hosting the Combine and the NHL Draft next June, so this year is a testing ground to see how the public can be involved next time. Though the Sabres have just a two-year deal to be hosts, Black hopes the NHL Combine becomes as synonymous with Buffalo as the NFL Combine is with Indianapolis.

“That would be wonderful, but first and foremost I hope it’s an event that the league is very proud of and we play a part in growing it into something very special,” Black said. “We’re very anxious to hear from other teams, from Central Scouting what can we do better. That’s an advantage to having something like this over multiyears because you can improve it.”

The Sabres have also reportedly talked about bringing half of the Rochester Americans’ home schedule to Buffalo. The Sabres want more of a say regarding their minor-league arena and improvements that should be made to it. One negotiating tactic was threatening to move half of the Amerks’ games down the Thruway.

It won’t happen next season, Black said, but he made no comment on future years.

“The Amerks will play all of their home games at the Blue Cross War Memorial next year, save the annual game that we bring here,” Black said. “Beyond that, we issued a statement and we don’t have anything further to add.”

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported Wednesday that the Sabres met with Rochester officials in February to discuss the arena. While most of the talk was about upgrading the building – including adding suites and boxes – the team made it clear that moving games out of Rochester was an option. A consultant’s report on potential upgrades to the arena is expected next month.

Terry Pegula owns both franchises. The Sabres have brought one or two Amerks games to First Niagara Center annually.

“The Buffalo Sabres have engaged in several lease discussions with the City of Rochester to secure a suitable, long-term lease for the Rochester Americans to play at Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester War Memorial,” Black said in his statement. “It’s important for hockey fans in Rochester and the Amerks organization to have a suitable building to play their home games for many years to come.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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