By Jourdon LaBarber
Let the countdown begin toward the final days of black and orange surrounding the Canisius College hockey program. The reigning Atlantic Hockey champions will finally have their own ice, leaving behind the Bengals décor at Buffalo State’s arena for a brand new home downtown.
The college made its long-awaited partnership with the Buffalo Sabres official at a Tuesday-morning press conference on a deck outside in the First Niagara Center when the announcement was made that the Griffs hockey program would begin playing its home games at the upcoming HARBORcenter beginning in the fall of 2014.
“We’re incredibly proud to announce that, beginning next year in the fall of ’14, the team that less than six months ago won their first Atlantic Hockey Conference Championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history … will now have a real home-ice advantage where the blue and gold will fly proudly and upwards of 2,000 people will be able to rock the house at the HARBORcenter,” HARBORcenter president John Koelmel said.
The college has been in talks with the Buffalo Sabres to build a new arena since Terry Pegula bought the franchise in 2011, a dream that will come to fruition when the state-of-art complex opens in September of next year. In addition to two NHL-sized ice rinks, the HARBORcenter will feature a full-service Marriott Hotel as well as a sports-themed restaurant.
The development will serve as a full-time home for a Griffs hockey program that is currently on the upswing; not only does its blue and gold color scheme match perfectly with that of the Sabres’, but the Canisius logo will also be branded on the ice while its banners will hang from the rafters. The hockey team will also have its own locker room and dedicated practice time at the HARBORcenter.
“It’s going to really move our program forward in a really positive direction,” Canisius athletic director Bill Maher said. “This is going to be a world-class hockey development facility and our program will really be able to take advantage of all those assets.”
“We’re the only college team that has partnered with an NHL club, so when the on-campus rink may be what some people have, I don’t know that this might not be better. To be able to utilize the resources of the Buffalo Sabres, the city of Buffalo – the Canalside recruits drive by here to go to every campus East of here, to Ontario, so they’re going to see our rink,” Canisius head coach Dave Smith said. “There hasn’t been a day gone by where we haven’t thought to our have our own facility as one of the best in the world.”
The move comes at a convenient time for the program, which took a leap forward last year with its entry into the NCAA Tournament and the success of recent graduate Cory Conacher at the NHL level. Gaining a state-of-the-art facility while on-ice success is at an all-time high should bode well for Canisius in its recruiting attempts.
“Sometimes you have to be fortunate, you have to have some luck, and I think there’s been some luck that’s played into it from a timing standpoint but I also think what happens is when you build a solid foundation you begin to start to see the benefits of it,” Maher said. “The timing of this opportunity is just a natural fit for us.”
All this stems from what Canisius president John Hurley calls a “strategic investment” into its hockey program, a product of the school’s decision that the sport could serve as a prime area to spread the Canisius name nationally. There are only 59 Division I teams in hockey, meaning a quick rise to the top could be in order given the proper utilities accommodations.
With a brand new facility coming soon and NHL resources at its fingertips, Canisius is looking up.