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Sabres agree that KeyBank Center needs an extreme makeover

No firm plans have been made, no dates established. But the Buffalo Sabres agree with the groundswell of complaints from fans that work is needed in KeyBank Center.

Complaints about the condition of the arena have exploded on social media this season as the prices of tickets, concessions and merchandise continue to rise. And while most observers agree fan discontent may grow when the team is playing poorly – at 9-18-4, the Sabres are on pace for their worst home record in a season since 1972 – the volume of discontent with the building itself has reached an all-time high.

Most fans sit in their seats with winter coats on and some sport toques, gloves or scarves because the seating bowl is so chilly. That is not the norm in NHL arenas. The seats themselves are the original ones from 1996 and many are dirty or damaged. Cup holders are broken and rusted. Floors are dirty and sticky. Some fans say many bathrooms, particularly on the 300 level, have not had hot water for many years.

The Sabres are in the midst of their budgeting process so their offseason plans remain uncertain. Rumblings continue that the Sabres may be targeting some renovations for the 2019-20 season, which is expected to be the celebration of the club's 50th anniversary. That, however, would be after the next major event in the building: The NCAA Frozen Four championships in April 2019.

The building opened in 1996 as Marine Midland Arena. It is controlled and operated by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, but it's owned by Erie County and sits on City of Buffalo land. The Sabres' lease runs through 2022.

Pegula Sports and Entertainment's views are contained in a statement released to the media that says it is studying what to do with the arena.

"While winning championships is our primary focus, our most important business goal is creating enjoyable fan experiences," the company said. "Ensuring our venues provide all the modern amenities commonplace in other professional sports venues around the country is a key element in creating our home field and home ice advantage.

"We are currently renovating the premium clubs at New Era Field using private dollars, while working closely with the city of Rochester to make improvements at Blue Cross Arena using both public and private funds.

"We are aware KeyBank Center is in need of significant upgrades. We will be working diligently to find the right solution to bring the arena up to modern professional sports standards as we begin to approach the end of the current lease."

Peter Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, said the county has not been approached for any renovation funding. He added that the county would work with the Sabres if they indicated renovations were needed.

KeyBank Center is one of 18 NHL arenas constructed during the league's building boom from 1993-1999. Virtually all of those have undergone major renovation projects in recent years, and New York's fabled Madison Square Garden (which opened in 1968) underwent a $1 billion transformation over three summers, from 2011-2013, that made it virtually a new venue.

Rogers Place in Edmonton opened last year and two other facilities, Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena and Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, opened this season. All three have played to rave reviews for their massive technological and amenity upgrades that leave the '90s buildings far behind. Of course, those come with a price. Little Caesars cost $863 million to build and Rogers Place and its surrounding district checked in at $613.7 million (Canadian) while T-Mobile was done on a much smaller footprint and cost just under $400 million.

When it opened in September, 1996, KeyBank Center was built for $127.5 million.

Sabres President Russ Brandon has visited several NHL arenas, in part on a fact-finding mission to see what has been done to upgrade those facilities, and Pegula Sports is known to have had input from architects and contractors about what can be done with their arena.

There has been speculation that the team may eventually relocate its office space from the arena to nearby 79 Perry St. as part of the ongoing Labatt Brewhouse project in the building PSE bought last year. The team offices inside the arena would then be renovated into a new gathering place for club- and suite-level ticket-holders.

Kim Pegula also traveled extensively shortly after her husband bought the Sabres in 2011 to study player amenities. That led to the $6 million locker room expansion project for the team in the summer of 2011. That project transformed 30,000 square feet of space on the building's service level for use by the Sabres, shrinking the previous rooms used by the visiting team and media.

News Staff Reporter Sandy Tan contributed to this story.

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