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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Canisius College is on the move. After years of their varsity hockey program playing at the home of Division III Buffalo State Sports Arena, the Golden Griffins have moved to a sparkling new arena in the heart of Buffalo.
The Golden Griffins hockey program was established at the club level in 1971 and moved to Division III in 1980. By 1997 the Golden Griffins were ready to make the big jump to Division I. They currently play in the Atlantic Hockey Conference and recently achieved their greatest success winning the 2013 Atlantic Hockey tournament for a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Playing at Buffalo State offered a myriad of issues, some of which have been alleviated with the move downtown. The 2014 season saw the Griffs move to the brand new HarborCenter which is located between the highway and the First Niagara Center. Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula is the owner of the new complex and has linked it to both the community and the Sabres. As a permanent home where the Griffins are the primary tenant, HarborCenter is a boon to the Canisius hockey program. Although still not on campus, the new Griffin's nest is bringing big changes to hockey in Buffalo.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The biggest change in the Golden Griffins hockey experience is in the concessions. HarborCenter concessions are not only amongst the best in NCAA hockey, but in all sport. The key to HarborCenter concessions is the association with 716 Food and Sport. There are two main concession stands in HarborCenter, one at the top level of the seating bowl and one at ice level. There are also 716 Rinkside concession stands which are much smaller.
At the larger 716 concession stands you will find a surprising menu with high-quality items with a local flare. The usual hot dogs, fries, and soda are available, but there is also so much more. Local favorites that can be found at the 716 include Chicken Finger Sub, Chicken Wings & Tenders, Poutine, Soup, Chili, Onion Rings and the Buffalo staple Beef on Weck.
Tim Horton's coffee and special hot beverages are also available. There is also a surprisingly wide beer selection for a college event available. You can find Labatt Blue and Blue Light, Budweiser, Bud Light, Yeungling, Shocktop, Founders IPA and Brooklyn Seasonal. With the selection and quality comes prices that are a little more than your standard snack bar, but they are well worth it.
When the Griffs played at Buffalo State, they endured one of the worst atmospheres imaginable. Playing in the building of another university was embarrassing enough, but what made it worse was that it was a building for a Division III team. Imagine an MLB team playing in the ballpark of one of their minor league affiliates. Moving to HarborCenter gives the Griffs a home of their own that both their fans and alumni deserve.
One of the most unique features of HarborCenter is that the rink is on the 7th floor. Around the outside of the rink, you can look out to a fairly decent look at downtown Buffalo. The ceiling above the rink is a classic arched structure with hardwood, giving the arena that classic barn-like look. The arena is very well lit and bright. The open concourse travels 360 degrees around the top of rink offering a great view of the game at any time. The seating bowl features approximately six rows of wooden benches. Although benches are not ideal, at least they are not aluminium, which tends to get very cold.
When attending a Canisius game, make sure you bundle up as the temperature is more akin to your local hockey arena where your kids would play as opposed to an NHL rink, which can be quite warm. On the west side wall, behind the goal, there is a small, simple scoreboard with an advanced dot-matrix board for advertising. To the left of the scoreboard, you will find two banners honoring the 2013 team and their Atlantic Hockey Championship and berth in the NCAA tournament.
During the game a small pep band plays during the breaks in the game. They sit in the southwest corner and offer a little more to the game. When the Golden Griffins score you will hear the traditional Sabres-type fog horn followed by the band's rendition of Rock and Roll Part 2.
Before the game, the Canisius ROTC branch brings in the colors and the playing of the National Anthems is performed, including the Canadian National Anthem, presumably because 90% of the Golden Griffins team are Canadian.
Possibly the biggest improvement for the Griffs in their move has been the neighborhood, getting off of the campus of Buffalo State and moving to downtown Buffalo. There are a host of places to eat and drink before or after the game. Some of the best spots to eat include Washington Square, Liberty Hound, Cobblestone Bar & Grill, Iron Works, Lagerhaus 95 and a personal favourite, Pearl Street Grill.
Although HarborCenter still has a few things that need to be completed, the restaurants in HarborCenter are open for business. Across from the bronze statue of Tim Horton himself, you will of course find a large Tim Horton's coffee shop. However, the big buzz is for (716) Food and Sport. This is a very popular spot and is being compared to the Real Sports Bar and Grill which has become so popular outside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
HarborCenter is located right across the street from the First Niagara Center, which is home to the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL and the Buffalo Bandits of the NLL. Up the road is Coca-Cola Field, which is home to the Buffalo Bisons. The Golden Griffins play their basketball games on campus at Koessler Athletic Center which is about four miles away. Other options if you are in the city would include Buffalo Bills football at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park or Buffalo Bulls football or basketball in Amherst.
If you are looking for something else to do in the immediate neighbourhood of HarborCenter, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is just up the street.
With a new arena comes the buzz and a significant bump in attendance. At the end of the 2014 calendar year, Canisius was averaging over 1,200 fans per game. This ranks around 50th in the NCAA, but 5th in Atlantic Hockey. This is a significant improvement over the previous season where Canisius averaged 730 fans per game.
It will be interesting to see if the bump in attendance can be maintained. The Golden Griffins remain off-campus and a four mile trip for students is not necessarily easy. Of the fans in attendance, it is clear that the majority of Canisius fans are die hards who don't miss a game. For the most part, the fans are fairly quiet but supportive of their team and very knowledgeable.
Getting to HarborCenter is pretty easy. HarborCenter is located just across Perry Street from First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo. It is located near major highways, south of I-190 and east of the Buffalo Skyway. The Metro Rail Special Events Station is just east of HarborCenter and is free to ride "above ground."
Although the washroom facilities are not huge, they are more than adequate for a crowd of around 1,000. There is also ample room in the concourse for travelling around. With more fans in the stands, washroom facilities could be a bit of an issue.
A ticket for the Golden Griffins is just $12. Parking at HarborCenter is free for Canisius hockey and although concession prices are a little high, you are definitely getting your money's worth. The investment is pretty minimal and a great night of family entertainment is available. A perfect score would be attained if there was a more consistent attendance providing a better overall game atmosphere. However, compared to the Buffalo State days, HarborCenter is much better.
An extra mark for the Griffs getting off the campus of Buffalo State and into this beautiful new facility.
An extra mark for the fans crowding around the penalty box to see the video monitors along with the refs when they use video replay.
An extra mark for the Battle of the Bridge for the Canal Cup. This local rivalry is fought against the Niagara Purple Eagles and awarded to the winner of the head to head matches in 14 different sports.
The move downtown for the Canisius Golden Griffins hockey program has the potential to be a significant boost to the program. The new Griffins' Nest at HarborCenter has caught the interest of the people of Buffalo. How long the interest will remain, only time will tell, but for now HarborCenter remains a great spot to watch some great hockey and should considered when spending a weekend in Buffalo.
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