The first annual All-American Prospects game has come and gone with some moderate success for those at USA Hockey. A reported attendance of 5,519 showed up to watch what ended up being a quality scrimmage game for guys who were trying to bump their draft profile for the 2013 NHL Draft.
The event though naturally brings up the discussion of junior hockey in Buffalo. The Buffalo area doesn't have a major presence when it comes to junior hockey. The two largest events the region has hosted is the IIHF Under 20 Tournament and this All-American Prospects Game. While the announced attendance was 5,519, the actual attendance in the seats appeared to be in the three to four thousand range. There were a bunch of factors that affected those numbers, the least of which being the lack of promotion with the Sabres currently locked out. On the other hand, the Sabres have had announced attendances of
10,000 5,000 for a development camp scrimmage. So, do hockey fans in Buffalo just care when the product on the ice are Sabres related or hockey related?
That question then lends to the larger, meta question of whether a junior team would survive in Buffalo. The success of a junior hockey franchise would depend on the type of junior team that was brought into the area. The Western New York region already has two Division I college hockey teams and a possible third if the University of Buffalo ever gets around to getting a program together. Those teams probably average an attendance of 1,000 people a game and there are a couple of factors that affect those numbers. First, the maximum capacities for both Canisius and Niagara top out at 2,000 people. Second, there isn't much of a buzz around either team even when one is contending to make the NCAA tournament.
College sports aren't a major draw in this town. There is only one major college football team and they have only been relevant once in their short existence. College basketball is only relevant when the teams make it to the tournament and only then do they make it into the lexicon of the Buffalo sports landscape. Junior hockey could be considered a step above college hockey as most of the players that are playing in those leagues are almost ready for the NHL. Even with the improving quality of play, it is still a lower level product compared to the NHL.
The only two leagues that could be considered to bring into the area are the USHL and the OHL. According to the Buffalo News' John Vogl, the Sabres organization was approached by the USHL in their interest in fielding a team when the HarborCenter opens:
"We as an organization are interested in the development of the USHL," Black said. "The reality right now is there just aren't enough teams in the Eastern part of the country. Unless or until you get more teams closer to this area, it wouldn't fit with our philosophy, which would be making sure it's a positive experience for kids."
The OHL would be an interesting choice for a couple of reasons. First, the level of hockey would be a notch above that of the USHL. While the quality is increasing in the USHL, the OHL still consistently pumps out quality players that are drafted in the first round every year. Also, there are a couple of franchises that are relatively close that could provide natural rivals in the Erie Otters and the Niagara Ice Dogs.
Their close proximity could prove to be a challenge though as those franchises could put a hold on any new franchise that would infringe on their territory. The Niagara Ice Dogs are close enough that any fan could feasibly just cross the border and go check out a game in St. Catherines. Having a team right across the border might hurt their attendance, especially when bigger name prospects come through town for one night only. The fans that would travel to see them in St. Catherines would just wait until that same team made it to Buffalo.
The type of arena the franchise would play in could be the biggest determinant in the success of the franchise. The ideal size would top out at around five to six thousand people. The small crowd size would give the rink a cozy feel compared to playing in a three-quarter empty First Niagara Center. The new rinks at Harbor Center could be a good fit considering everything is close together. Besides those new rinks at Harbor Center, there really is no other place a junior team could play.
Ultimately, the Buffalo sports fan is also spoiled with two major league teams including an NHL hockey team. There aren't many NHL towns that have a minor league team playing within the city limits and if they do the minor league team is always second fiddle. Having the Sabres around could mean that whatever junior team comes to town would be second fiddle and always an afterthought. That wouldn't bode well for any new franchise trying to solidify itself
Ed. Note: There is one more junior team that is in the area that I forgot about. The Buffalo Jr. Sabres play in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, a Junior A league in Canada. They play out of the Northtown Center in Amherst which holds at most 2,000 people. This team runs into the same issues that Canisius and Niagara do in that they are too small to gain a proper foothold in the Buffalo sports landscape.