The countdown clock for the start of the World Junior Championships is under two months, and the 2017-18 version of the tournament that starts the day after Christmas is going to look quite a bit different than the 2010-11 event that played to strong reviews here seven years ago.
On the ice, one big difference is that lesser-profile games in pool play as well as contests in the relegation rounds will be played at HarborCenter and not at Niagara University's Dwyer Arena. HarborCenter, of course, was a surface parking lot in 2011.
Canalside was also a non-factor the first time around. This year, it will become a festival gathering place, with curling and ice skating available on the outdoor rink at the site of Memorial Auditorium and a "Championship Village" that will sprout at Canalside. Among the featured attractions there will be a 75-foot Snowzilla slide.
"This is going to be a multiple-week event entirely downtown," said Sabres vice president Michael Gilbert, the general manager of HarborCenter. "We don't need buses to take people to Niagara. All the players, officials and media will be housed downtown, which is going to be super for the city. And so let's take advantage of Canalside and the waterfront."
Teams will start arriving in mid-December with the Team USA roster likely to include University of Minnesota freshman Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres' first-round pick in June, and Team Canada likely to have 2016 Buffalo draft pick Cliff Pu in a key role. Play in the 10-nation event begins with four games on Dec. 26 and runs through the gold medal game at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5.
USA Hockey and the Sabres aren't yet providing any concrete estimates on ticket sales for the tournament but nothing is sold out yet. There are tickets in all price ranges available for all games at BuffaloWorldJuniors.com
While individual-game sales are under way, the medal rounds Jan. 2-5 have yet to be made available. They are still part of ongoing package sales.
No one has any design on the USA-Canada game outdoors Dec. 29 at New Era Field approaching the crowd of 71,000-plus that attended the Sabres-Penguins Winter Classic game 10 years ago. Nonetheless, tickets are clearly selling for that game as the Sabres have heavily pushed it on television, social media and billboards.
A check of the Ticketmaster site on Monday showed large portions of the seats on the sidelines of the 100 and 300 levels of the stadium are marked as sold. Tickets for the game are currently priced at $45-$137.
"They are definitely starting to move," Gilbert said. "The event is coming and people know it. When the calendar goes to November, it's going to start get a lot more real."
The stadium will be turned over to a rink construction team at 6 p.m. on Dec. 17. The Sabres are considering other games on the rink prior to the actual game on the 29th but there will not be time to hold events after, as the stadium has to be returned to the Bills and the NFL by 5 p.m. on Jan. 2.
The big issues surrounding the game is the weather. Officials from the tournament, USA Hockey and Sabres will meet the day before to make a final decision whether to play the game if the weather is threatening in terms of rain, heavy snow or extreme cold.
The game is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Dec. 29 and can be pushed back a few hours. But unlike the Winter Classic, it cannot be moved to another day. So the decision to move forward must be made the day before, or the contest will be canceled outdoors and sent back to KeyBank Center.
For several months, the only tickets on sale were 24- and 31-game packages priced from $690 to $1,550 per seat. Now on sale are eight- and 12-game packages priced from $400-$800. Gilbert admits the packages have been tough sells.
"The ticketing dynamic is much different this time," he said. "People are willing to pay a premium for the game they want rather than an entire strip. We have a much more mature ticket market to this event now. People know what it is."
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have moved the World Juniors model to more expensive tickets in NHL arenas in recent years with various levels of success. Most Team Canada and Team USA games were sold out or close to it in Buffalo in 2011. There were varying degrees of success on tickets in Toronto and Montreal in 2015 and last year. Montreal, in particular, had thousands of empty seats for many games due to a discerning public clearly pushing back against high prices.
The Sabres staff has been working with USA Hockey to fully staff the tournament, both in the arenas and downtown with interpretors for the teams. And it's also making easy travel over the international bridges a priority, with plenty of talks with customs officials on both sides of the border
"Six years ago, we as a staff didn't really know what we were getting into. Now we know," Gilbert said. "We're going to turn the building three times on the 26th for three games. We've worked with the border for the bridges. The experience really helps us.
"We have experience in running major events in this building and now we're adding HarborCenter to the mix and having it all centralized. That's going to make it even better. This is an event that gains a lot of momentum as it gets closer and we're ready now to make the push."