A whole segment of Sabres fans still talk about how the team is playing at "the new arena," a step up from the much-beloved Memorial Auditorium. But KeyBank Center, the fourth name of a building that opened in 1996, is hardly new anymore.
Approaching 22 years old, it's in middle age in arena years and has fallen behind the other facilities constructed during the NHL's building boom in the 1990s. Virtually all 17 of those venues have undergone major renovation projects in recent years or are about to. Just last month, a $250 million renovation was announced for Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The home of the NHL's Flyers and NBA's 76ers opened in August 1996 – one month before KeyBank Center.
Sabres officials know their arena needs work, both in cosmetics and in major renovations that some estimates figure could cost roughly $50 million or more. When it opened in 1996, then-Marine Midland Arena was built for $127 million.
Officials from Pegula Sports and Entertainment, led by Sabres and Bills president Russ Brandon, have made several trips around the NHL the last couple of seasons, visiting other arenas to collect data and help brainstorm ideas. They're needed to spruce up a building that is showing the wear and tear of hosting 21 seasons of NHL hockey and thousands of other sporting events and concerts.
The Sabres close the home regular season Wednesday night against the Ottawa Senators. The team is last overall in the league; their 11 home wins are tied for the fewest in franchise history; and officials have endured season-long complaints about the arena and the product on the ice.
"Our arena was very well done when it was built," Brandon said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "The sightlines certainly are a plus. We've got nice club areas as far as proximity to ingress and egress, and our suites are nicely positioned. But I can assure you we've had a lot of internal discussion knowing where the building is age-wise and having seen what other facilities across the country are doing that are in the same age bracket.
"On the business side, we want to control the controllables – and that's to provide the fan with the best experience possible. That means maneuvering the building, concessions, merchandise, technology options. How people consume the product is far different than when we started out. We want to take a holistic approach in looking at the positives of other areas and implement what we think is right for our fan base."
Brandon isn't talking specifics just yet, but the Sabres have already met with prominent architects in the sports design field to solicit ideas for what can be done as a renovation in Buffalo.
Upkeep has become an issue
When the arena was built, the giant atrium entrance and the Sabres Store souvenir shop were first-of-their-kind features in the NHL and they continue to stand the test of time as signature elements. The walkway connecting the upper atrium to HarborCenter and the Marriott hotel that was added in 2014 also has proved popular, although the construction of the $172 million HarborCenter project cut off much of the view of the arena from cars and pedestrians heading south on Washington Street.
What fans have grown increasingly disturbed by is the condition of the building as it has passed the 20-year mark. Cracked concrete is visible in the 100 and 300 levels. Although better in recent weeks, the temperature in the building has made it among the coldest in the NHL for fans. NHL.com writer Amalie Benjamin, formerly of the Boston Globe, infamously tweeted a couple of years ago that her scale of comfort zones in NHL press boxes runs "from 1 to First Niagara Center."
Fans are regularly seen wearing hats and winter coats while sitting in the seating bowl, something uncommon in NHL arenas, even in acute cold-weather places such as the Canadian markets.
A burgeoning narrative is that the arena is dirty and unkempt. Hot water is hard to find in restrooms. Brandon acknowledges he hasn't gone far in recent weeks without hearing about these issues.
"In my three years with the Sabres, it seems to be a growing sentiment," Brandon said. "We're looking into it and have addressed some situations that were unacceptable. It's part and parcel of going through the whole grand view to see where we may not have met our expectations as well.
"There's no reason at any point where the building should not be maintained at an exemplary level of what we can control. We listen, we want to respond. The advent of social media can be negative at times, but it's positive to us with the customers because it gives you the chance to get immediate feedback that we need and can act on."
Speaking briefly to The News during a break in the recent NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Sabres owner Terry Pegula acknowledged those concerns and said the Sabres plan to take the cleaning services back in-house after using an external company this season. Fans have noticed cleaning crews walking the concourse during games in recent weeks, something that had not been seen the last couple of seasons.
"We just attached a hotel and a hockey rink to that arena," Pegula said, referring to HarborCenter. "So we're obviously very concerned about how it looks."
Fans say the Sabres are in desperate need of ripping out the arena's 19,070 seats and replacing them with newer padded models. The backs of most seats, especially in the 100 level, show years of dirt and grime. So do their accompanying cup holders, many of which are rusted.
Dire lack of history
Alumni Plaza outside the arena is a success story. Impressive elements to document the team's history include the French Connection statue, giant photos of Sabres greats adorning the enclosed walkway from the parking garage and plaques on the walkway pillars that honor the NHL debut of every player in franchise annals.
The Sabres famously had thousands of people on the plaza during their runs to the 2006 and 2007 Eastern Conference finals, but the area has gone mostly underused since then. Brandon attended the NHL business summit last month in Las Vegas and was floored by the way the Vegas Golden Knights used the plaza outside T-Mobile Arena.
"We have to take more advantage of our plaza," Brandon said. "We had success during playoff games and there's obviously weather issues during much of the season, but during the beginning of the season, we can be more active in that space as well. Just seeing how Vegas activated things from the time you get out of your car or out of public transit all the way into the building is something we need to look at."
The Sabres also need to look at how they present the history of their franchise throughout the entire arena. Giant banners of current players such as Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Kyle Okposo hang in the atrium but there are virtually no other photos anywhere of the current team. There are many portraits of Hall of Famers on the 100 level, albeit mostly from the '70s, and not a single picture of any Sabre on the 300 level.
The '98 Eastern Conference finalists and '99 Stanley Cup finalists are nowhere to be found. Same for the '06 and '07 teams or the 2010 Northeast Division champions. A large display of memorabilia cases in the bar area on the 100 level of the atrium has disappeared, replaced by largely blank, painted walls.
There are no interactive displays anywhere in the building such as you see in places like Pittsburgh. No collections of hats to celebrate hat tricks that are prominent in places like Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus. And forget about displays of franchise icons similar to those you see in places like Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton, or salutes to area high school hockey teams like you see in Minnesota, New Jersey or Pittsburgh.
The press box in Buffalo is full of old photos from the team's past, many of which appeared during its 40th anniversary display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, but they are not accessible to the public. The team's Hall of Fame display is outside the dressing room, seen only by a few fans each night who are chosen to stand by the gold carpet and watch the team take the ice at the start of a period. It would be a huge attraction to fans.
Fans love the Pour Man's Aud Club on the 100 level, a wonderful gathering spot featuring fixtures from the Aud and the original, hand-lettered stat boards from the concourse, frozen in time with the names and numbers from the 1995-96 farewell season. They are some of the few touches of team history in the building.
Most NHL arenas as a matter of course have displays about the best players and teams in the franchise's past. The Sabres do not. In the $867 million Little Caesars Arena in Detroit that opened this season, statues of greats such as Gordie Howe adorn the concourse. So do giant posters of Howe and former captain Steve Yzerman, the latter hoisting the Stanley Cup.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 17, 2017
"I can tell you that PSE is taking a look at new arenas like Detroit and how they present their teams," Brandon said. "They really did an amazing job there capturing the great history of the Red Wings and it certainly stood out to us when we visited. We need to capture ours in the next phase of KeyBank Center."
The Sabres are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the franchise in 2019-20 and know their history will be an overriding theme for that year. Still, they know they have to do a better job of honoring it at all times.
"We certainly will have some exciting programming when it comes to the 50th anniversary but that's a one-time celebration for that one year," Brandon said. "While that's great, we have to treat it like year 42. We have to continue to improve but that said, I'm hoping people will be jazzed up with what they see when that year comes."
The Sabres aren't just going to make major renovations of KeyBank Center on their own. While the Pegulas are anticipated to contribute – as they're doing in privately funding an $18 million renovation of the club areas of New Era Field – it's likely going to have to be a partnership among the state, county and city with the owners. But dollars are always tight. The Pegulas are working on upgrading Blue Cross Arena in Rochester and Syracuse University is pursuing state money to renovate the iconic Carrier Dome, which turns 38 in September.
Erie County owns the building, and County Attorney Michael Sirigusa said this week that he is unaware of any serious conversations from Sabres leadership about the need for arena upgrades. The existing agreement says the public entities are not responsible for the operations, management, repair or improvements to the arena.
County officials say they expect their good working relationship with the Pegula leadership team to continue.
"We're open to a reasonable discussion on a number of issues related to the current conditions of KeyBank Center," said Daniel Meyer, a county spokesman.
The arena lease is the original document signed when the building was built and expires Sept. 30, 2025. The lease at New Era Field does not expire until July 30, 2023.
"Everything is in play," Brandon said. "It's a never-ending wheel of facility management. But as we move forward in year five of the lease at New Era Field and where we stand at the arena, there will be key decisions made in the next few years for the long-term objectives of all of our facilities."
How does Pegula Sports prioritize the renovations of the stadium with any work needed on the arena?
"They're both individual projects," Terry Pegula said at the NFL meetings. "They're both Priority One."
The Sabres can pursue many renovation options. While the 100 level's soaring concourses are impressive and the club and suite levels look good, the 300 level needs a complete makeover. Its narrow concourses are dark and soulless. Concession stands in all levels could use new frontage (and fans have been quick to point out the high prices this season with $5 bottles of water, $11 beers and $6.75 slices of pizza).
Gathering places are becoming much more common at stadiums and arenas, and facilities such as Amalie Arena in Tampa, Scottrade Center in St. Louis and Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa have all taken out seats to create new club areas where groups of fans can congregate by drink rails or large couches and benches to watch games.
The Sabres have an outdoor plaza on the Canalside view of the building that's hardly used that perhaps could be enclosed to become part of the arena. There's chatter they may relocate their team offices across the street to the new John Labatt House building being renovated at the corner of Perry and Illinois streets, and use the current offices inside the arena as a new premium seating option.
"We feel pretty good about the location of our building and some of our master planning thoughts internally on how we continue to activate and enhance the guest experience," Brandon said. "We think about and live it every day, thinking how we can improve. Jason Botterill and Phil Housley worry about what the actual product is going to look like on the ice. From the business standpoint, we have to control what the guest experience is. And we're not satisfied if one guest is unhappy."
But there have been a lot of unhappy guests this year, both because of the often abysmal play and the numerous issues of a 22-year-old arena. The Sabres have sold an average of 17,958 tickets per game, a decrease from 18,141 last season. However, the arena has been half-empty on many nights and tickets on the secondary market have sold for as little as $6.
Season ticket-holders have been active on social media saying they plan to drop their tickets. The Sabres hope to stem that tide. Giving them hope of a substantial arena renovation could do that.
"We've built up such great equity with our fan base over the years and our season ticket-holders have been unbelievably patient," Brandon said. "We have to answer a lot of questions to our fans. We understand the disappointment that they've felt this year with where we are in the standings. Parallel to that, we have to make sure we improve and enhance their experience."