Sabres and Canisius ready to make partnership official

After two years of on-and-off discussions, the Buffalo Sabres and Canisius College are finally ready to announce a partnership that will give the Canisius hockey team a new home rink.

sabres canish

Canisius released details today for a Tuesday morning press conference at the First Niagara Center. The Griffs are expected to play their home games across the street at the HarborCenter when the rink opens in 2014.

UPDATE: As expected, it was made official at the press conference that Canisius will play games at the HarborCenter. The Griffs will have their own 1,300-square foot, state-of-the-art locker room and a separate athletic training area.

The Sabres and Canisius have been considering a partnership since at least the summer of 2011, when the sides discussed the possibility of building a two-rink complex on the Canisius campus that would double as a Sabres practice facility.

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Sabres bid for rink that would house Canisius

The Buffalo Sabres have officially bid on land downtown that they would use for a multi-rink hockey complex that would serve as the future home of the Canisius hockey program.

The Webster Block is highlighted in orange. It’s currently a parking lot across from the FN Center.

The Sabres were in talks with Canisius last summer about the possibility of building a rink on the Main Street campus that would double as a Sabres practice facility. Those talks stalled last fall and didn’t pick back up.

According to a report from Buffalo Business First, the Sabres are one of three groups to bid on the Webster Block, a piece of land across from the First Niagara Center nearly two acres large. The report says the property would be “used as a practice facility for the team as well as the home base for some of the area’s collegiate hockey teams.”

Canisius officials said today the school is still working with the Sabres and the college team mentioned is “definitely still us.”

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Sabres/Canisius rink update: No progress on talks this semester

It has been nearly five months since The Griffin first reported in July that the Canisius athletic department was having discussions with the Buffalo Sabres about potentially partnering to build an ice rink on campus. As a full semester goes by with no new developments in the talks, The Griffin looks for answers.

Athletic Director Bill Maher sits at a table in his office. He’s slightly on edge, but well within reasonable expectations of someone discussing a potential project he previously said would cost over $20 million.

“There’s not much to report there,” he says. “The Sabres continue to look at a number of options. We’ve continued to have discussions with them, but at this time, there’s really been no change and no meetings with the Sabres organization.”

The sides last met early in the fall and haven’t talked since. There have been several meetings since last spring but discussions seem to be cooling off.

“I’d love to be able to make an announcement and tell you [things have changed], but they really haven’t,” Maher said.

“I don’t think we’re any closer, I don’t think we’re any further apart.”

Though Sabres owner Terry Pegula has not been involved in any negotiations, he caused quite a stir last week when he and his wife Kim donated $12 million for athletic facilities to Houghton College (Kim’s alma mater). Maher thought it was a generous gift but said he isn’t concerned the owner of a business he is working with just gave eight figures to a different college for a similar project.

“I don’t look at it that way,” he said.

The discussions are yet to reach a point where the sides are hammering out individual issues — right now, they’re still talking “opportunities.” Maher remains optimistic that Canisius College will someday house its own rink, but right now, it’s a waiting game.

“When there’s the next opportunity to talk, they’ll come to us and we’ll certainly have that dialogue,” Maher said. “I don’t think there’s anything more we can do at this point in time. We can continue to make ourselves available … and from there, we’ll see.”

The ball may be in the Sabres’ court, but they aren’t talking. A team spokesperson declined to give any additional information this week. There have been discussions, but nothing new has happened. A practice facility is something the Sabres would like to have, but it’s just another item on the laundry list of improvements the team would like to make.

Without a partnership with the Sabres, it’s unlikely the school would get a rink in the near future, Maher said, a reminder that Science Hall is the school’s top priority.

C-Block Vice President James Millard was excited when he first read about the possibility of Canisius getting its own rink, but he isn’t upset that nothing has developed over the course of the semester. However, he hopes talks don’t die out completely.

“I think it would be good for the school to have our own rink on campus for two reasons,” Millard said. “One, fan attendance would skyrocket. Driving 5-10 minutes to Buff State may not seem like a big deal, [but] people would walk over just for the fun.”

Secondly, and more importantly: “You would attract a much larger audience when scouting. I ate lunch with head coach Dave Smith a couple weeks ago and he said that’s one of the main reasons people turn Canisius down when they’re looking at schools, because we don’t have our own rink.”

Until the ice freezes inside a new arena, the Griffs will continue to use Buffalo State for every practice and every home game, and administration will continue handing out money from its athletic budget to another college. Someday, local schools and youth organizations may dream of playing in the city’s only Division I facility, but until then, Canisius will travel to play its home games at D-III Buff State, home of the Bengals.

Getting a rink on campus was thought to be something Canisius had to achieve if it were to change conferences. The Griffs may not have left Atlantic Hockey even with a rink, but without one, the team will not move conferences.

“Not right now, for sure,” Maher said. “Atlantic Hockey has always been a good option for us … in the end [moving] wasn’t a better option that what Atlantic Hockey provides us right now.

“There were discussions in the summer; those discussions have closed. We’re a member of Atlantic Hockey and that’s where things stand.”

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.”