Canisius reaps the benefits of its new home at Buffalo’s HarborCenter

Canisius’ home at HarborCenter holds 1,800 fans (photo: Omar Phillips).

Hockey players of a certain age have probably played at dozens of rinks, from open-air facilities to the “old barns” that dot the landscape of North America, each with its own charm and some shortcomings. You’re thankful for what you have, but probably wish for a little more.

The Canisius Golden Griffins couldn’t ask for anything more.

It was with great expectation, and even greater appreciation that Canisius christened one of two facilities new to Division I men’s college hockey this season. The Rinks at HarborCenter officially opened in the fall, one part of a three-tiered, $172 million project that includes a hotel and restaurants, an effort to enhance the Buffalo waterfront.

Although pictures and descriptions of the new facility dribbled out on social media, the Canisius players were astounded when they arrived for their first day of practice at their new home, one of two NHL-sized rinks built kitty-corner on the sixth floor of the 20-story facility built directly across from and connected to the First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres.

“It’s incredible,” said sophomore Shane Conacher. “Right when we walked in, everyone was in awe. We expected it to be nice and it exceeded all expectations.”

The Golden Griffins have their own locker room facility, complete with a lounge. The dressing room is backlit by blue LED lights and the walls are lined with enhanced images of Canisius hockey history. The wall that greets the players upon entering the room has the on-ice trophy celebration when Canisius won the Atlantic Hockey title in 2013.

The coaches’ suite is located near the players’ lounge, making it easy for interaction between the staff and the team, something that was not possible at the Golden Griffins’ old home at Buffalo State.

“It has brought the whole team together,” coach Dave Smith said.

One conversation piece is invariably the design of the rink itself. The truss ceiling of the facility is constructed of exceptionally strong wood imported from tall, narrow trees from Quebec. The lighting is first-rate, and there is ample seating for 1,800 — the adjacent rink has minimal seating of 150. The players have said it feels like the crowd is right on top of them when they play.

“It’s outstanding. It’s classy. It’s professional,” Smith said. “It’s appropriate in terms of size, and it was really, really well done, top to bottom.”

The players are appreciative of the new amenities. There are leather seats, nine television sets and an Xbox available to the team, which makes the lounge a prime destination for the players to hang out and spend extra time together, ideal for building team relationships.

“It’s a nice place to hang out, which we didn’t have before,” senior co-captain Doug Jessey said.

Smith said there had been discussions between Canisius and the Buffalo Sabres for as long as 10 years about combining efforts for a rink. For a while, there was talk about building a rink on campus grounds.

Smith admitted he was disappointed when he first heard about the project shifting to a downtown location, as proposed by Sabres owner Terry Pegula, but he certainly isn’t complaining now. Ground was broken in April 2013.

“Terry Pegula said we could change the face of Buffalo,” Smith said. “Once we heard the scope and magnitude of the entire project, with the Marriott connected to the rinks and the other development going down there at Canalside and the facility and relationship with the Buffalo Sabres, there was nothing but support on our end.”

Canisius and Ohio State played to a 3-3 tie on opening night for HarborCenter on Oct. 31 (photo: Omar Phillips).

The Sabres use HarborCenter as their training rink, and Canisius shares the main rink with the Buffalo Junior Sabres. The NHL will hold its 2015 and 2016 scouting combines at the facility, and the 2016 NHL Entry Draft will be hosted by Buffalo.

Smith said the new facility is a big selling point in his recruiting.

“We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from kids, from young players that have simply said, ‘I want to play for Canisius in this building,'” Smith said. “The high-profile talent we have been targeting have been impressed with our facilities, compared to other places in the country. It’s hard to pull a specific quote from a recruit but it is tangible when they step in our building.”

Canisius made its HarborCenter debut on Halloween night, playing to a 3-3 tie with Ohio State. Shane Conacher lit the lamp for the first time, just 22 seconds after the opening draw. The first loss (4-1) came a night later to the Buckeyes. The first win had to wait until Black Friday, Nov. 28, when visiting Air Force went down 3-1.

Shane Conacher has long ties to the Canisius program; his older brother, Cory, played for the Golden Griffins before launching a pro career. Shane made sure to brag about Canisius’ new digs.

“He’s jealous,” Shane said. “I remember sending him pictures right away. He said, ‘You’re so lucky.’ He wishes he had a place like that.”

Canisius wrapped up its first regular season at HarborCenter with a satisfying 3-1 win over rival Mercyhurst on Feb. 21. The Golden Griffins were 7-4-5 in the new rink during the regular season and will host an Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series March 13-15.

Canisius had used the Buffalo State Ice Arena for many years and the school was thankful for the opportunity. Only now, the Canisius players won’t hear the chirps about playing on someone else’s rink, adorned with the orange-and-black Bengal tiger logo at center ice.

The blue-and-gold Golden Griffins logo proudly adorns the HarborCenter ice.

“Buffalo State is a nice rink,” Jessey said. “Now we have our own place to call a home. It feels like Canisius’ rink, so that’s cool.”