Photos by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86
KeyBank Center One Seymour H Knox III Plaza Buffalo, NY 14203
Year Opened: 1996
Building Back in Buffalo
It has been a tough couple years for the Buffalo Sabres. Mediocrity on the ice, a very public squabble with their captain, border closures that alienated the vital Canadian fans and wreaked havoc on attendance, follwed up with bust-after-bust signings of players in futile attempts to right the ship.
At last, it seems the bottom has been reached and the Sabres are building back with some optimism. A new cadre of young players are coming of age with promise, the players in blue and gold appear happy to be there, the border is reopened, and attendance is slowly but surely ticking back up. Cautious optimism, but signs of a club back on track.
KeyBank Center has been home to the Sabres since it opened in 1996, and though it is not an outstanding arena today, it's a comfortable arena with solid amenities and a welcoming fan experience. Even if the Sabres have a way to go before they return to any kind of glory days, KeyBank Center is a great place to catch some hockey and Buffalo is one of the best places in America to do so.
Food & Beverage 4
KeyBank Center does an excellent job of showcasing the Buffalo cuisine with a variety of local franchises and generic concessions featuring local items.
When in Buffalo, the thing to try is surely Buffalo Wings, which can be had at Fryer or La Nova. Fryer also serves the Buffalo staple sandwich ‘Beef on Weck.’ Rachel’s Mediterranean Grill offers fresh wraps on both the 100 and 300-levels. Another neat spot is the Perry Market, on the 100-level concourse, featuring a rotating menu of fusion cuisine. On a given night, the items on offer might include Hawaiian Beef Dogs or Korean Chicken Quesadillas. An affordable option is Red Hots, where Sahlen’s hot dogs go for $6. Another neat concept is the grab-and-go market style vendors in the 100-level atrium, where you can grab a beer and snack item off the shelf and take it to go. Another neat item is Perry’s Ice Cream, with special Sabres-themed ice creams on offer starting at $6.25
There are also ‘Walking Taco’ stands for the trendy item now seen throughout American venues. From over the much-closer border comes Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous Canadian café chain. The eponymous Tim Horton, an NHL legend, spent time on the Sabres and has his number 2 retired and hanging from the rafters at KeyBank Center.
Offerings from over the northern border are highlights of the beer selection as well. Labatt Blue is the showcase beer offering here, with a marquee Blue Zone bar area overlooking the atrium on the 100-level, and with Blue, Blue Light, and Blue Seltzer widely available throughout the arena. Something that Canadian fans will find a pleasant surprise is the availability of Molson Canadian as well; you always get one or the other of these arch rivals in Canadian venues. Big American brands are available too; Bud, Coors, Miller, and the rest. There is also a large variety of craft beer, including next-door brewery Southern Tier. Regional brand Genesee rounds out the offerings.
The Sabres do a great job of enlivening what might be an unremarkable ‘90s building with a focused and friendly presentation that keeps it about the hockey. Entering the arena through the main doors brings fans through the Alumni Plaza, with its statue of the famed ‘French Connection’ line of the 1970s. Check out the statue of the three Québecois players who brought a decade of excitement to Buffalo. Inside is the expansive atrium with the Blue Zone above. Rising up escalators past the team store brings you into the largely nondescript concourse and seating bowl decked out in Sabres blue.
Arriving before the game, fans are treated to a live concert held in the seating bowl. Many NHL clubs in the US have employed this practice, though it is all but nonexistent in Canada where such a tradition could be seen as gimmickry. Here, it creates a welcoming atmosphere as you kick back in the wide seats before puckdrop. Once the game begins, there are blissfully few distractions on the crisp and modern videoboard; the Sabres resist the temptation to employ gimmicks and keep their presentation to the hockey.
At one end, an LED ribbon displays out-of-town scores in the NHL and other sports like NFL and NBA. Another good use of the LED ribbons is closed captioning of announcements, which is considerate. Hanging above the ice is a pair of crossed sabres which drop to the ice as the players emerge and shoot smoke after goals. Interestingly, the Sabres use a different goal song after each horn, as opposed to sticking with one track each time. Music-wise, there is a good mix of traditional organ and various genres.
KeyBank Center is very near the heart of Buffalo, on the edge of the downtown district. The area has seen a good deal of revitalization in recent years and has grown as a destination for entertainment. Immediately surrounding the arena is the Historic Cobblestone District, with a number of bars and restaurants catering to event goers at the arena and nearby Sahlen Field.
The craft beer trend that has taken over many American downtowns is in full force here, with popular Southern Tier Brewery and The Draft Room popular craft sports bars steps from the entrances. The Draft Room, just across from the arena’s main parking garage on Illinois Street, is within the Labatt Brew House. Labatt, though a Canadian beer brand, enjoys immense popularity in Buffalo and has become something of a cultural touchstone for Western New York.
A couple blocks further east are Lockhouse Distillery and the Seneca Casino, with all the entertainment options that entails. Nearby there is the Hofbrauhaus, for German cuisine and of course beer. A word to the wise – the neighborhood deteriorates quickly beyond the casino and can be dangerous at night, but you should be fine up until the casino.
Heading toward downtown, there is Sahlen Field, home to the Buffalo Bisons baseball team. Though the walk is short, it can be somewhat desolate and windswept (past parking lots, under a freeway, and the like). In warm weather, nearby Niagara Square is home to the art deco landmark City Hall and further north up Main Road, you come to a more vibrant neighborhood. Between Huron and Tupper Streets are a number of dining and nightlife options. Especially in winter, the short cab ride or $4 Metro Rail ride are great options. And when in this part of Buffalo, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is worth a visit. Or go slightly further up Main Road (you’ll want a cab) to visit the iconic Anchor Bar, home of the Buffalo Wing.
Buffalo’s downtown is moving in the right direction and with a little preparation and a good map, visitors will find it a very welcoming place indeed.
There’s no denying that Buffalo is one of the best hockey cities in the United States. This is one of those rare regions where hockey ranks a close second to football, without baseball or basketball in between. That said, Buffalo fans have put up with a lot in recent years. Unfortunately, Sabres attendance this season is second-last in the league, ahead of only the perennially last Arizona Coyotes.
Those who’ve been around the NHL long enough know that despite the attendance woes, Sabres support is deep in Buffalo. Noticeably friendly, the Sabres fans can be roused into noise by strong performance on the ice. And those fans who do come out in these lean years are there to support their club through thick and (very) thin times, leading to a small but mighty crowd most nights.
For what it's worth, the Sabres have long relied on Canadian fans crossing the border from nearby Niagara Region and though the border is now reopened, the number of Canadians visiting the US remains far below pre-pandemic numbers. This is surely one part of the Sabres attendance story, and not really a mark against the culture of the fanbase.
The fans in Buffalo are reliably friendly and welcoming to out-of-towners, and they make for a fun atmosphere. Still, it would be very difficult to give full marks for fan support to the worst-attended team in a proper NHL arena this season. Things will no doubt turn around for Buffalo when things get better on the ice.
Getting to and around KeyBank Center is a piece of cake. The most popular mode of transportation is arriving by car, and it is easy to drive and park. There are ample surface and covered lots near the arena, and the abundance of parking means it doesn’t cost as much as it might otherwise. Lots adjacent to the arena tend to cost $25 on hockey nights, with a going rate of $12 if you’re willing to walk 8-10 minutes away. Vehicle access is helped by the immediate proximity of Interstate 190, which passes a block from the arena.
For the many fans coming from Canada, it shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes to reach the arena from the Peace Bridge border crossing; simply follow I-190 into the downtown. Crossing the border for just the evening is usually quite easy but remember your passport!
For those wishing to arrive by public transit, the NFTA Metro Rail system runs up Main Road and has a ‘Special Events Station’ open during Sabres games. It makes for a good option for getting from the arena to the busier parts of Downtown, a couple stops up the line.
Return on Investment 4
Sabres tickets are among the best deals in the league, starting in the high $40 range. Parking and concessions are similarly reasonably affordable. Prices are dynamic; meaning basically that they rise dramatically when the Maple Leafs come to town and return to normal the rest of the year. Aside from those Leafs dates, taking a family to a Sabres game can cost well under $200 altogether. That is a good deal these days, and the experience is sure to be an enjoyable one.
A handy note – KeyBank Center does accept Canadian currency at concessions and the team store. Though the exchange rate may not always be in Canadian fans’ favour, there’s no need to change money before coming to KeyBank Center.
Extra point for the use of closed captioning on all arena announcements. This is not just vital for hearing impaired people, but handy if you’ve missed a call on the ice.
Extra point for the frequent use of the organ, a hockey tradition that is no longer found at many NHL arenas.
The Sabres in-game presentation is excellent and hockey-focused. During the second intermission, a video interview with a Rochester Americans player highlights the connection between parent club and AHL affiliate. This is useful especially when the Americans play just up the highway.
An extra point to the Sabres who embrace their Canadian fans with extras like taking Canadian Dollars at concessions and playing the Canadian anthem alongside the American one before each game.
KeyBank Center is a solid place to catch a hockey game in one of the best American hockey markets. Sabres fans are welcoming and friendly, the arena is comfortable and has been updated pretty well over the years. Unfortunately, the attendance has followed the Sabres’ on-ice performance after being pummelled by border closures. The experience at KeyBank Center will surely rise a couple notches when the fans come back to a winning team.
In the meantime, Sabres hockey is affordable, enjoyable, and focused on the hockey as it should be. Visiting Buffalo around a hockey game is a solid choice, and any fan will go home happy for having done so.