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World Juniors hockey tournament returning to Buffalo in 2018

There’s a world of difference downtown since Buffalo hosted the 2011 World Junior Championship, the premier tournament for hockey players under age 20.

Terry and Kim Pegula had not yet purchased the Buffalo Sabres. There was no HarborCenter, no 716 Food and Sport, four fewer downtown hotels and current Sabre Marcus Foligno played for Team Canada.

The return of the World Juniors, running from Dec. 26, 2017 through early January 2018, will mark the first time an American city has hosted the tourney twice.

“An event of that size and scope fills up downtown hotels and flows out to the rest,” said David P. Hart, president and chief executive officer of Hart Hotels. “The hotel association has been going after athletic business for a long time since the early 1990s when we hosted the University Games. “

It may also provide the Queen City a chance to make hockey history.

A major twist in Buffalo’s bid offered up Ralph Wilson Stadium as a tournament venue, perhaps for the showcase New Year’s Eve match that is the highlight of pool play.

A strong hint that an outdoor game could be part of the tournament came with word that the announcement of Buffalo’s winning bid is set for Friday afternoon on the 18-yard-line of the stadium rather than at First Niagara Center. The press conference will feature representatives of the Sabres and USA Hockey, who selected Buffalo over bids from Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

During the tournament, delegations from Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and more are expected to occupy 400 hotel rooms, said Missy Byrne, director of sales for Embassy Suites by Hilton in the Avant on Delaware Avenue.

In 2011, the Embassy Suites hosted teams from Canada, Germany and Slovakia.

“It was just so electrifying in the lobby, especially with Canada, but the best part is what it did for our banquet employees who served team meals,” Byrne said. “We know what a great hockey city we have, but that really put us on the map in the eyes of the world.”

Occupancy rates at that time of year usually hover at just 50 percent, Byrne said.

“Obviously the World Juniors sold us out,” she said. “All the banquet space was used for team meetings and meals.”

By 2018, the room count in city hotels will increase significantly with the additions of Westin Buffalo on Delaware Avenue at Chippewa Street, Curtiss Hotel on Franklin Street, Hotel Henry at the H.H. Richardson complex and a hotel planned at the Trico Building at Goodell and Washington streets.

Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to attend the 30 estimated games played at First Niagara Center and HarborCenter. In 2011, overflow games were played at Niagara University.

For the 2011 World Juniors, a “temporary” heated structure was built in the plaza of First Niagara Center, primarily to serve as a between-game watering hole for spectators.

Pete Harvey, director of sport development for Visit Buffalo Niagara, said the Sabres organization is the driving force behind the championships.

The Pegulas have openly stumped for Buffalo as the site for the 2018 NHL Winter Classic to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Sabres’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins outdoors in the snow of Orchard Park on Jan. 1, 2008.

The NHL has not yet awarded the 2017 Winter Classic, although it’s expected to be hosted by Toronto at BMO Field as part of the Maple Leafs’ 100th anniversary celebration.

The 2016 World Juniors will be in Finland while the 2017 event will be co-hosted by Montreal and Toronto.

The last two game-winning goals in the gold-medal contest in the World Juniors have been scored by Sabres, with Rasmus Ristolainen tallying for Finland in overtime in 2014 in Malmo, Sweden, and Sam Reinhart notching the eventual winner for Team Canada in January over Russia in Toronto.

When the World Juniors were played here in 2011, Russia crushed Canada in the gold-medal game.