Sabres, Canisius discussing partnership to build twin rink on campus

Between the rich wood of the conference table and the leather upholstery of the 14 large chairs that surround it, the President’s Boardroom even has the scent of somewhere important meetings should take place, as if the name alone didn’t do it justice.

This room, sitting next to President John Hurley’s office, is surely the place Canisius would bring guests it wants to impress. As of late, those guests have included members of the Buffalo Sabres front office.

Talks continue to develop between Canisius College and the Buffalo Sabres regarding the possibility of building an ice rink on campus that would double as a Sabres practice facility. Athletic Director Bill Maher expects discussions — which have included members of Sabres management as high up as team president Ted Black — to pick up speed as the team opens training camp this weekend.

“I think we’re closer to having a solid discussion,” Maher said, choosing his words carefully. “[Front office personnel] left for the summer, during the draft there was some activity because a lot of folks were in town, and then it’s kind of shut down for a little while.

“With them opening training camp here shortly, I would expect that the discussion will again pick up a little bit of steam and hopefully come to some level of getting the right parties around the table to determine what everybody can do in making this project work.”

The project is nowhere near finalized, but Maher expects the price tag to be “north of $20 million.” Canisius and the Sabres are yet to discuss what percentage of the cost each side would contribute. “Everybody speculates, but [discussions] haven’t gotten to that point.”

One thing a decision has been made on is where the rink would go. Maher said the school plans to put the rink where the Upper Koessler Lot currently is, on the corner of Main Street and East Delavan Avenue. The location is somewhat cramped and the project would cut into the space where the turf field sits, but Maher said Canisius has spoken to some architects about the project and there is enough room for a double-pad ice rink.

There is water running underground below the Demske Sports Complex that was previously thought to inhibit rink construction over that area, but Maher said the spot where the rink would go “doesn’t touch it.”

“Where we would be, the facility itself would not go that far. There would be parking lots, and obviously the Demske would continue to be over [the water], but the facility itself wouldn’t be on it.”

A rink in that location and the parking around it would force the athletic fields to be relocated back to the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Florida Street, where the Spillman Lot is now, Maher said. The athletic department currently has no plans to demolish the old Health Science building that is in need of restoration.

The addition of a rink on campus, or even having something in the works, would go a long way toward the well-being of the Canisius hockey program as the landscape of college hockey changes drastically over the next few years. With new leagues forming and schools switching conferences, those who wait risk being left behind.

True, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association has come to Canisius to gauge interest in a potential league jump, but should that move fall through, not having a rink on campus presents a red flag to other perspective suitors. Canisius has until June 30, 2012 to notify Atlantic Hockey it will be switching conferences, but giving the hockey program a $20 million vote of confidence long before that deadline projects a sense of commitment to the rest of the NCAA.

Canisius would clearly benefit from a rink, yet it was the Sabres who originally approached the college about the project.

“They initially came to us,” Maher said. “They were looking for some different solutions to some of their issues and they came to us about a ‘what-if’ scenario. By no means were they saying ‘Hey, we want to build something with you,’ but it was a, ‘Hey, if you’re talking about building a facility in the future at some point and we’re talking about building a facility in the future at some point, why don’t we talk about what we can do together.’ And that’s really where we are.”

Maher wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if the deal came sooner rather than later, but he understands where the sides are in the discussions. It’s significant to be talking with the Sabres about actually making this a reality, but there is still a lot of work to be done before any agreement will be made.

“We have had multiple discussions with the Sabres about partnering on a facility. The discussions are continuing. We’re hopeful it can be something that will be mutually beneficial for both groups and that can really help us in our hockey program — and, we think, hockey in Western New York — but anything we do like that is subject to a partnership and we need to make sure it’s right for them as well.

“I’d love to say we’re going to have a deal next month, but no, I think we’re preliminary.”

Having a rink on campus has been a desire of the Canisius community for longer than anyone can remember. Though Sabres owner Terry Pegula has not yet been personally involved in these negotiations, this shared facility would be the mark of not one, but two new leaders leaving their imprint on the community and setting their organizations up for future success: First-year owner Terry Pegula and his unending crusade to turn Buffalo into Hockey Heaven, and second-year college president John Hurley’s unwavering stance to move Canisius into the future and into the national spotlight.

All that’s left to do is sit down in those big leather chairs and hash out an agreement.

“I think we’ve organized ourselves and we’ve tried to put the best case forward for why partnering with Canisius would make sense,” Maher said. “Anytime there’s a deal it takes two parties to agree, and we have to get to that point.”

Canisius, Niagara to meet with CCHA tomorrow

Representatives from the Canisius College hockey team, as well as those from Niagara, Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, will meet tomorrow with Central Collegiate Hockey Association executives in Erie, Pa. to further discuss the possibility of joining the league.

Attending the meeting for Canisius will be Athletic Director Bill Maher and Associate Athletic Director John Maddock, the athletic department said today. No formal agreements are likely to be made, rather the schools are going to “explore opportunities” presented to them by the CCHA.

All four schools currently play in the 12-team Atlantic Hockey Association, with Niagara and RMU joining last season after their previous league, College Hockey America, folded.

The CCHA is likely looking to add member schools starting in the 2013-2014 season, when three of its current members (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) will leave to join the new Big Ten hockey conference and Miami (Ohio) University leaves for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The biggest selling point to joining the CCHA, aside from the prestige, is the increase in scholarships schools are allowed to award. Schools in Atlantic Hockey are limited to 12, while the CCHA allows 18 scholarship players.

Administrators from the four schools have been in contact with each other about the possibility of moving conferences. Canisius said it is still a ways off from announcing anything formal, but the prospect of playing in the CCHA is “very interesting to the college.”

As for the rumors regarding Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula funding a hockey arena on the Canisius campus, the athletic department said the Sabres have “had conversations” with the school, though discussions are still in the beginning phase.

There is still no plan at this point where the rink would be placed. Several sites on the Canisius campus, such as the Demske Sports Complex and the Health Science building and its surrounding lots, are off-limits for a hockey rink because water extending from Forest Lawn Cemetery flows beneath them.

The athletic department did not say whether it was Pegula personally who has been in contact with the school or just front office members, but offered this prepared statement from Maher:

“We have had discussions with the Buffalo Sabres front office concerning a practice site for the Sabres on the Canisius campus, and we are very excited about the possibility of developing a partnership. The partnership being discussed would not only benefit the Sabres and our NCAA Division I hockey program, it would also have a significant impact on amateur hockey in Western New York. Canisius College is carefully studying this opportunity with the goal of putting together a plan that benefits both organizations.”

The last CCHA school to win a national title was Michigan State in 2007. The conference’s 11 current members (in order of last season’s standings) are: Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Alaska, Lake Superior, Ohio State, Michigan State and Bowling Green.