When it comes to Buffalo Sabres fans, its unlikely that the United States Hockey League is something that's often on their minds. However, many fans have likely heard of the league that stands as the top tier American junior league. The USHL had ten players taken in the first four rounds of this years draft, and the year before the Sabres used one of their own first round picks to take Zemgus Girgensons, a USHL alumnus. It's a league that certainly is on the NHL's radar, and one the Sabres organization should be looking into getting involved in.
When the Sabres first announced that they would be building their own practice facility, my mind quickly jumped to other uses for the new HARBORCenter. It could be used for the local collegiate teams like Canisius, for high school games, or even a new higher level junior squad.
The Sabres already dabble in junior hockey, and have since all the way back in 1975. That team's current form is the Buffalo Junior Sabres, who compete in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Despite also being at the same Junior A level that the USHL has, it doesn't have nearly the same NHL pedigree.
So, why should the Sabres consider switching leagues for their junior team? First of all, who wouldn't want to have the best junior program you could possibly field? The Sabres now have their own facility to house the team that fits a bit better than playing in the First Niagara Center. They could be looking for more events to have in the new building, to help boost sales with both ticket costs and by getting more people in the sports bar that many speculate will be announced soon.
But the number one reason the Sabres should consider landing a USHL franchise can be summed up in one word: scouting. What a great opportunity to see some of the best American prospects right on your doorstep? It would save the team a great deal of money and would allow them to do further scouting that they possibly wouldn't do otherwise. The Sabres think highly enough of the quality of play to take four different USHL players in the last two drafts, and Sabres coach Ron Rolston has even seen the level of competition first hand while in charge of the US Development Program.
I guess the real question is does it make sense? The size of the building isn't perfect at a estimated 1,800 capacity, but it wouldn't be the smallest in the league. The previously mentioned US Development Program team, who plays in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has a facility that only holds about 1,000 people. USHL barns have a wide range when it comes to capacity, with some arenas reaching 12,000 seats. However, average attendance is only about 3,000.
It wouldn't be out of the question to think the Sabres would travel down this road simply because they have been in control of a junior program for so long. This isn't a shot out of left field, especially since Terry Pegula has been so adamant about creating a "Sabres University" type of feel. This started with his purchase of the Americans, but what if he wanted to add to his arsenal?
However, even if the facility is big enough the USHL would also need to okay with the Sabres being involved. First of all, its not the best geographic fit. A majority of the teams are located in the mid-west, with the furthest eastern team being in Youngstown, Ohio. That would increase travel prices for the other teams to travel here as well as cost more than the Sabres have likely been paying to have their current team travel around Ontario.
Another factor is whether or not the league would see it as tampering from a Sabres standpoint. Currently none of the USHL teams have any involvement with NHL teams, but it may be hard for the league to turn away from the funds Pegula and the Sabres would be able to offer, and the Sabres wouldn't need to be officially affiliated with a USHL squad to let them play in HARBORCenter.
It isn't a perfect fit, but its a possibility that the Sabres likely could and should be looking into. It would be another solid tenant for the HARBORCenter, it would allow the Sabres to have top notch prospects coming though that not only could be seen by Sabres scouts but expose them to the city, and it would further the "Sabres University" brand. This is a hockey town, and as always, the more hockey the better.