- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Amid the maze of scaffolding and the diesel-engine rumble of construction taking place immediately outside the Buffalo Sabres’ downtown arena, Dave Ogrean didn’t need to see the finished product to envision HarborCenter’s transformational potential for the city and hockey.

To Ogrean, USA Hockey’s executive director, the Sabres-backed facility represents the future of the sport he oversees.

“This is going to become a mecca of sorts,” Ogrean said during a recent visit to Buffalo. “I don’t even think they know yet everything that they might do. But the potential is enormous.”

In a rustbelt city renowned for chicken wings and harsh winters, Buffalo is poised to add something more substantial to its reputation by branding itself as a hockey destination.

HarborCenter, named so because of its proximity to Buffalo’s redeveloping harbor front overlooking Lake Erie, is a $172 million hockey and entertainment complex being privately funded by Sabres owner Terry Pegula.

It is the Pennsylvania natural gas magnate’s gift to the city he adopted since purchasing the Sabres three years ago, and it’s a project that falls in line with Pegula’s objective of raising hockey’s profile across America.

Once completed in the spring of 2015, HarborCenter will feature two rinks taking up much of the sixth and seventh floors of the building, 11 locker rooms, a state-of-the-art 3,200-square-foot training facility, a hockey academy that will include classroom and meeting spaces, plus a 200-room hotel - all of which will be connected to the Sabres’ home, First Niagara Center.

Having three NHL-sized rinks linked together, along with a training center, leads Ogrean to call HarborCenter a first-of-its-kind U.S. hockey facility, and has prompted him to strengthen USA Hockey’s ties with the Sabres.

“This is going to be a complex unlike any other,” Ogrean said. “I think this is a city where we are going to be coming back more and more frequently.”

USA Hockey has already pegged Buffalo to host its annual All-American Prospects game in each of the next two years. Ogrean also indicated Buffalo will be a prime contender to host numerous other events, including the 2018 World Junior Championships.

The city had already been on USA Hockey’s radar after the 2011 world juniors in Buffalo drew more than 330,000 fans, the tournament’s largest turnout on U.S. soil.

The NHL has also taken notice.

Last month, Commissioner Gary Bettman told The Associated Press that, because of HarborCenter, the league is seriously considering the Sabres’ pitch to relocate the NHL’s annual pre-draft scouting combine from Toronto to Buffalo.

“Listen, it’s an extraordinary investment in both Buffalo and hockey,” said Bettman. “We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have Terry Pegula come in because, not only is he investing in the Sabres, he’s investing in hockey, and he’s investing in the community with HarborCenter.”

Though Detroit bills itself as “Hockeytown,” Buffalo continues to hold firm as one of America’s stronger hockey hotbeds.

Buffalo has traditionally ranked as one of the nation’s top-five TV viewing markets.

The city’s proximity to hockey-enamored Canada, also serves as an ideal bridge to hockey. That was particularly evident three years ago, when tens of thousands of Canadians flocked to Buffalo to attend the 11-day world junior tournament.

HarborCenter has the potential to further capitalize on that connection by luring teams from across the border to come and play, something not lost on Buffalo’s business community.

“We really are hitching our wagon to the powerhouse economy that is the Canadian market in Toronto, and hockey is one of these commonalities,” Buffalo-Niagara Partnership President and CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen said. “Other than beer, one of the big things that joins us is hockey. So anything that positions Buffalo as America’s hockey capital reinforces the relationship we want to build with Canada. … I believe the Pegula project is just more glue that will help connect those things.”

That is certainly the intention of HarborCenter President John Koelmel.

Aside from HarborCenter serving as the new home of Canisius College’s Division I hockey program, Koelmel anticipates the facility will host events - tournaments, seminars and clinics - on a year-round basis.

“We talk about destination, development and impact. The destination itself will have a tremendous impact,” Koelmel said. “We haven’t been able to get people to come and stay, spend their money and spend their time. We’re building this so they’ll do more than drive by.”

HarborCenter’s construction comes at a time when Buffalo is showing signs of a turnaround. The city is turning into a medical hub with a large research campus being built at the north end of downtown. And HarborCenter is going up around an area where work is already being done to restore parts of Erie Canal as a tourist attraction.

And now comes hockey.

“I don’t have a catchphrase for it yet, but that’s where I use ‘All hockey paths will lead through Buffalo,’” Koelmel said. “I really think we have a chance to establish ourselves as a real hub in the hub-and-spokes world of hockey.”

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