The date is November 4, 1994. The city of Buffalo breaks ground on the new Buffalo Sabres arena, which is being constructed as a replacement to the good old Memorial Auditorium.
Twenty three years and change later, the Sabres have been playing in the now-called KeyBank Center for, well, a while. The arena is one of the older ones in the NHL now; in fact, more than half the league plays in rinks that are newer than Buffalo’s. In addition, several teams have seen their “old” arenas significantly updated, such as the Rangers’ Madison Square Garden, and the Islanders’ Nassau Coliseum, which underwent significant renovations in preparation for its reopening.
Let me start off by saying this: unfortunately, I never got to see a game in Memorial Auditorium. My introduction to hockey happened just as KeyBank Center was being built; I remember weekly trips downtown as a kid to see the construction of this massive arena.
I’ve built a lot of fond memories at KeyBank Center, from the 1998 NHL Entry Draft when seven-year-old me got to meet Vincent Lecavalier and other top prospects the day before they became NHLers, to the Derek Plante OT goal in 1997 that I was fortunate enough to be in the house for.
That being said: many Sabres fans, myself included, acknowledge that KeyBank Center is quite dated, and could use some upgrades, not only structurally, but to make it more visually appealing, too.
The question is: what would you like to see happen? What would you change? And realistically, where does the money come from to make these things happen, and when? (I don’t have answers to those last two questions...)
Renovations of the Past
Before we dive into the arena as it is today, let me acknowledge that the building has, in its history, undergone several renovations.
After the building hosted its first hockey game on September 21, 1996, an additional 95 seats were added several seasons later, slightly increasing the arena’s capacity - but nothing too major.
Several years later, in 2002-03, the Sabres put up the LED ribbon board around the 200-level of the rink’s interior. Clear plastic stanchions replaced the seamless glass boards around the ice surface.
New LED ribbon boards and a new HD scoreboard were put in for the 2007-08 season. There were also cosmetic additions to the pavilion, with two Sabres logos installed near the “Sports Headlines” bar. This year also saw the installation of the Winter Classic mural in the lower pavilion of the arena; over the years, this mural has been switched out several times.
In 2011, a $6 million locker room project expanded the Sabres’ room to 15,220 square feet and also improved the visiting team’s locker room.
That year also saw the ‘blue and gold’ take over the arena bowl; updated Sabres logos were installed in the scoreboard as well. HD televisions replaced the original ones in the halls, and new signage and food choices were added. The team also added cup holders & TVs to restrooms.
The Zambonis were replaced and upgraded, and a new dehumidifier system and cooling tower were installed. The team also added an LED ribbon board to the exterior of the building along Perry Street, but this was removed in 2014.
Alumni Plaza, the area outside the arena, was renovated in 2012, with player/fan bricks, plaques and the French Connection statue added.
Once HARBORCENTER opened, KeyBank Center was slightly altered to construct the elevated walkway leading from one building to the other. The Sabres also added 380 seats in the 200 level in 2012. Between 2013 and 2016, the team renovated its suites.
The most recent renovations were in summer 2016, partly to reflect the arena’s rebranding to KeyBank Center, with new exterior signage and replaced canopies. A new LED lighting system was also installed inside.
What About Now?
Even with all these renovations over the years, parts of the rink are still very dated. Fans have taken to social media time and time again to complain about broken and damaged seats. The concrete in the 100 and 300 levels is visibly cracked in several places. Cupholders are broken and go unreplaced.
Seats are dirty and, in some cases, rusted. Fans and media have also complained that the rink is extremely cold, colder than most other NHL arenas.
Then there’s the bathrooms, which are not only dated, but seem to lack hot water. I can only speak for the women’s restrooms, but it seems like one faucet will spew out freezing cold water, while the one next to it might put out water that is so scalding hot it feels like your skin is burning off. (To be fair, this also seems to be an issue at HARBORCENTER.)
From a visual standpoint, there’s also the fact that the building is just incredibly dated. The color schemes in the interior concourses haven’t changed much over the years. The old diagrams of hockey plays on the floors are still there. Sometimes you’ll see a sponsor ad wrapped around a pole in the concourse (my first thought goes to a giant Walmart ad), which isn’t any more visually appealing than the plain old pole itself.
As was mentioned on Twitter earlier this week, what about the entire side of the arena that faces the Buffalo River/lakeside? It is very plain, and with Buffalo’s booming public art sector, could be spruced up significantly and be made less of an eyesore.
Suggestion for the day: Do something with this facade. Public art? @BuffaloSabres mural?— Jeremy White (@JeremyWGR) July 23, 2018
When it was built, no one really saw this side of @KeyBankCtr but now the river is an attraction! Could make it a little more beautiful down there.... pic.twitter.com/QR7Qa5TWpV
Hire a local artist - and please, for God’s sake, PAY THEM for their work - to establish a mural along that side of the building. Could be a Buffalo mural, Buffalo sports, just Sabres, historical, whatever - almost anything would be better than the plain look it has right now.
I’ll leave you to check out the replies on Jeremy’s Tweet, filled with Photoshopped ‘ideas’ for what that mural could be, but here’s one of the best ones in my opinion:
Speaking of murals, how about updating the one in Alumni Plaza as well? It’s now quite dated itself (though I realize saying this in the context of it being a history-focused mural might seem hypocritical), with players like Tyler Myers on it. In the past, before it was known as Alumni Plaza, that space held the Sabres’ annual team photo. Maybe that goes against the ‘Alumni’ idea, but at some point, I’d expect that mural to change.
Elsewhere, some ideas I’ve had: tech-y kiosks around the arena that allow fans to search through the team’s history - something like an electronic media guide, for fans; to showcase player history, team records, even an arena map for fans to locate specific concessions & the like would be cool.
The team also recently introduced a way to order concessions from your seat & have them ready for pickup at the concession stands. While I think this is a good idea, especially for tech-savvy folks, it’s not a perfect system and many food items aren’t available that way. The concourses themselves are also quite narrow in parts, which makes concession and bathroom lines tighter and makes it more challenging for folks to walk through.
Others have mentioned this elsewhere, but opening up the bowl to the concourse more would also do wonders for the place. It would let more light into the bowl and make things seem a lot bigger and more spacious. Things like adding more windows on the outside of the building (though this would require a lot more legwork than some other projects) or even adding balconies would also be awesome.
And what about opening up the outdoor space on the 100 level, that is so rarely used I think a lot of fans forget about it? I was recently able to hang out in this area, along Main Street, during a non-hockey event at the arena, and it was great. Sure, maybe not super awesome in the winter months, but having that space go unused so often just seems like such a shame.
Finally, I’d love to see some sort of children’s space in the concourse. There’s the Aud Club, which reflects back on the team’s history and is cool, but not for kids. There are a few small spots that were put in last year with sponsors where kids could get a photo in front of a backdrop or ‘be’ in a hockey card, and that’s awesome. But speaking from a family perspective, having a more kid-friendly space where young fans could try ball hockey, or take photos with Sabretooth (even if it was a cutout instead of the actual mascot), or draw their own hockey card, would be cool.
(And on a related note, bring back the Sabres carnivals of days past!)
It Will Happen - Someday
At some point, the arena will likely undergo a major renovation. The team is quite aware of the building’s issues, and have said that they’ll look for funding and such to get things going.
Of course, all of these things take time and money. But with the revitalization of Canalside, the building of beautiful HARBORCENTER, other projects in the area taking shape (see: the Labatt brewery)... it’s time to make sure KeyBank Center is up to par.
Share Your Ideas
Let’s keep this conversation going. What are your thoughts about KeyBank Center? What do you want to see improved or changed? What sort of ‘mural’ would you envision alongside the building?