By MICHAEL MROZIAK
Niagara Gazette — At this time last year, I was serving as the media relations director for the Buffalo Junior Sabres. I’ll readily admit it was a fun gig, promoting a Junior-A (college prep level) team run by members of the Sabres Alumni.
In the weeks that followed, I came to learn that there are really two kinds of people in Western New York who call themselves “hockey fans.”
In one camp were those who really enjoy the game and, with the National Hockey League shut down for months by a labor lockout, decided to get their hockey fix by coming out to the Northtown Center at Amherst. Many walked away pleasantly surprised by the high-caliber level of hockey that is played at the Junior-A (college prep age) level. Many of them kept coming back.
In the other camp were those who called themselves fans but continued to whine “there’s no hockey” for the duration of the lockout. If it wasn’t the Buffalo Sabres, it simply didn’t count. I call them not hockey fans but rather “Sabres watchers.”
It wasn’t just the fan base. Shortly before Christmas the Jr. Sabres received a call from a local television station wanting to do an “off the wall” angle featuring the team as a holiday story. Apparently the fact that the Jr. Sabres, who compete in an Ontario-based league, were then among the top ten ranked Junior-A teams in all of Canada wasn’t newsworthy. Meanwhile, on-air personalities continued with the complaint “there’s no hockey.”
The Jr. Sabres weren’t alone. Up on Monteagle Ridge, Niagara University was playing some pretty good puck as well. Nationally ranked, regular-season conference champions.
Still, when explaining that to many local “Sabres watchers,” it was the same complaint: “but there’s no hockey.”
One year later, as the Sabres were about to open their season against the Detroit Red Wings, there was a sentiment among many that Buffalo has a better claim to being “Hockeytown USA” than the Motor City. No offense intended, but I think Buffalo hasn’t quite proven that yet. The hockey institutions have stated their cases but not necessarily the greater fan base.
Niagara hockey has shown its respect for the game in Western New York, opening its doors to several local players including current Purple Eagles Kevin Ryan and Mike Benedict (Eden), Vincent Muto and Pat Conte (Niagara Falls), Sam Alfieri (Buffalo), Chris Paulin (Lockport) and Mike Conderman and Rocky Gruttadauria (Rochester). Having so many Western New Yorkers on the roster is evidence the Purple Eagles coaching staff recognizes the depth of talent in its own region.
The Sabres organization, which of course is the linchpin of local hockey, has certainly done its part to grow the game beyond its arena. They’ve demonstrated this by their involvement in projects including bringing the World Junior Championships to Buffalo back in December 2010. For the second straight year, they are sponsoring a 12-Under team that will compete in the prestigious Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament. Their HARBORcenter project, when finished, will be home to Canisius College hockey and, although the t’s are not all crossed yet nor all the i’s dotted, a more centralized youth program designed to develop the region’s best young players under the Jr. Sabres name.
When the term “Hockey Heaven” was first uttered by Ted Black on the day Terry Pegula was introduced as the Sabres’ new owner in 2011, I was left with the impression that they fully grasped that local hockey goes well beyond what was being played within First Niagara Center (let’s not forget, Pegula has also put millions of his own dollars into boosting the hockey program at his alma mater, Penn State).
This is not to put down Sabres fans. To the contrary, I respect them as some of the most passionate fans among the U.S-based teams in the NHL. If you want to continue being a “Sabres watcher,” by all means enjoy it.
If you like to call yourself a “hockey fan,” however, do yourself a favor and take a good look at what else is happening on the ice throughout Western New York, at the collegiate, junior, midget and other levels, beyond the FNC or your TV screen.
In other words, if you like to believe you’re truly a “hockey fan,” go out there and prove it.
Follow Niagara Gazette Sports Editor Michael Mroziak on Twitter at @MrozGazetteFollow Niagara Gazette Sports Editor Michael Mroziak on Twitter at @MrozGazette