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Canisius Hockey at HarborCenter: “The excitement was off the charts”

It's a three way ceremonial puck drop to launch the hockey era at HarborCenter this past Friday

It’s a three way ceremonial puck drop to launch the hockey era at HarborCenter this past Friday

For those coming down to Canalside on the Metrorail on Friday, now running on two tracks downtown once again after a summer of construction disruption, that’s where the energy began. Blue and gold clad Canisius students, riding downtown to check out their spiffy new digs at HarborCenter, singing and chanting on the rail car, as Canisius College opened up their new era in NCAA division 1 men’s ice hockey with back to back games.

Fans gawked and craned their necks skyward, admiring the new structure which dominates the Inner Harbor skyline. “This is what a real city feels like!” exclaimed one Canisius alum as he carried his two youngsters clad in Griffs blue and gold into the Washington Street lobby.

And so it began. A pair of sold out Canisius games in the main rink, while the first weekend of tournament play went on throughout the weekend, many staged at the adjacent rink 2. It was a beehive of activity, fresh scrubbed faces wearing the logoed jumpsuits of their teams, parents and coaches trudging behind carrying duffel bags and sticks, excited fans eagerly snapping photos and touring the new facility, the arena a sea of Canisius blue and gold, busy HarborCenter staffers running about making sure that everything was going off as smoothly as possible, and taking notes for any glitches that need to be worked out.

Canisius College played the visiting Ohio State Buckeyes from the Big 10, and on opening night blew a very early 2-0 lead to settle for a 3-3 overtime tie. It was bad news for the Griffs the following night, dropping the decision 4-1, with only a late shorthanded goal breaking up the Buckeyes shutout.

Those who were in attendance on Friday weren’t disappointed. The student section was in full throated support, not an empty seat in the house or along the standing room rails in the end zones, and after short ceremonies and ceremonial puck drops, it only took 22 seconds for Canisius’ Shane Conacher to light the lamp and score the first ever Griffs goal at HarborCenter. “We’ve been waiting all year for this thing to start, and once we learned it was sold out that brought so much more energy to the building. The crowd was awesome tonight, we wanted to bring it for them, and getting the early 2-0 lead was something really special,” said Conacher.

In the excitement of the moment, Conacher wasn’t sure if the historic puck marking the first ever goal was retrieved. “The coach was yelling, ‘get the puck! get the puck!’ I hope somebody managed to grab it,” said Conacher.

Coach Dave Smith offered vague answers as to the location of that puck, but was pretty firm as he spoke about the buzz and energy that made the first game and the historic first weekend at their new facility so memorable. “The energy in the building was so noticeable that before the puck drop, the referee came and said, ‘there is so much energy in here, we don’t want to take it away. Let’s let ’em play.’ And they did. And it went back and forth. And that’s what made it special. The excitement was off the charts,” said Smith.

Canisius College Athletic Director Bill Maher spent much of his weekend at both games greeting students, alums, guests and fans while checking up on things throughout the building, and taking on many media requests for interviews. “You start out with a lot of excitement when it comes to a new facility, and then when it comes to the first day there’s a lot of concern, because you have a lot of things you need to pull off and make sure your customers have a good experience, but that transitions into when you start the game you have a lot of electricity and excitement in the building,” said Maher.

This was a long time coming for Canisius, whose hockey program once played at the Nichols rink, and then at Buffalo State College, both facilities many notches below the emerging and growing standards of a division 1 team. “It’s just the next step for the growth of our program. They feel very, very at home. They are very proud of it themselves. Our coaches can recruit to that (the HarborCenter), they can develop the young men here, they can train here. This will pay dividends on so many levels.”

Maher is optimistic that attendance for Canisius hockey will spike at HarborCenter, with the team having averaged just about 700 fans per game at the old facility. “Our first games are already sold out, our next two games on November 14 and 15 against RIT are selling very, very well, and those fans travel very well, so I anticipate those games will be sellouts as well.”

Traveling well. So what impact is HarborCenter already making on the downtown scene? HarborCenter president John Koelmel replies, “Our five hotel partners (Hyatt, Adams Mark, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn and Courtyard by Marriott) are fully booked this weekend. Our ice sheets are completely spoken for and in fact oversubscribed until past April 1.” Koelmel then added, “Visiting teams who are participating in the tournaments are not just asking for rooms. They want to be downtown, not out in the suburbs. They want to fully take in the ‘Buffalo Experience’ and all that our city has to offer. And yes, we are going to deliver just that, for them. And for us.”

The next big thing at HarborCenter will be this Friday’s public opening of 716 Food and Sport, the glitzy new sports restaurant fronting on the corner of Washington and Scott. Several of 716’s food offerings are on the menu at the HarborCenter rinks concession stands, ranging from beef on weck to chicken finger subs to caesar salad to fruit smoothies in a variety of flavors. Judging from the long lines the fare was a big hit with the patrons. “We’re taking downtown and Canalside to a whole new level,” promised Koelmel. “Who could possibly criticize this building? Who could possibly take issue with what we have accomplished here in such a short period of time? And get ready. There’s much more to come.”

HarborCenter miscellany…
-Entry to the building is via two lobbies: one fronting Washington Street and the other on Main Street. The Main Street entrance is masked by jersey barriers and fencing, still in place as construction on the hotel continues. The (not well marked) path is accessed right by the tunnel at Main and Perry Sts.

-Two full service concession stands in place to serve fans. The one in the end zone at ice level (level 6) is not easy to find, and best accessed via an obscure staircase in the north end zone. A merchandise shop selling HarborCenter logo apparel and other souvenirs is also tucked away on level 6.

-Seating bowl needs a scoreboard at both ends. And a working shots on goal clock.

-Parking at the HarborCenter ramp was free for opening weekend, and there will be a nominal $3 charge for future Canisius hockey events. Still to be sorted out is how the parking will work when both Canisius College and the Buffalo Sabres play games at the same time. There are three such dates on the schedule.

-Doing the public address announcing at Canisius hockey games is none other than Buffalo Bisons Public Relations director Brad Bisbing, who does a solid job on the mic. If you’re hoping for annoying and screeching, though, Bisbing will probably disappoint you. But worry not, for Buffalo Bandits season opens in two months.

-There are still pockets of HarborCenter that are a full fledged construction zone, and we’re not talking about the hotel tower. The Main Street lobby is still encased in drywall, ceiling tiles are missing at several of the parking levels, the Mercantile Exchange retail space on Main is a vacant shell, and we’re wondering if a full fledged ticket office and windows are in the cards anywhere in the building. Crews are racing by the day to place finishing touches on a whole punch list of uncompleted spaces both inside and outside.

-Download the 716 Food and Sport mobile app. Customers will be available to make table reservations on the app, although that feature was not functional as of today.

-“716 Poutine” is available and sold at the full service concession stand on the concourse level. You’re welcome.