Buffalo, NY: First Niagara Center, November 28 2014 (6 of 30)

We weren’t even supposed to go to Buffalo this year. We had our eyes set on Philadelphia as the Habs were visiting in October, on a rare Saturday night away game. It also happened to be a 3 day weekend, which would give us time to visit the city without taking days off from work. But as I was exploring the options, and researching the various cities we still have to visit, I happened upon a killer deal on plane tickets for the November 28th game in Buffalo, so we switched gears and planned for this trip. Buffalo would be the 6th stop in our trek around the NHL.

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But that plan started to look like a nightmare when the week before, Buffalo was hit by record breaking snow falls that reached 7 feet in some areas! For a few days, the area looked unreachable, and two Sabres games were postponed. And then temperatures went up above freezing, and the issue became flood warnings as the massive snowfall started to melt. It was starting to look like I’d have to waste the prepaid plane tickets and the game tickets.

But flooding never came to pass, and as more details emerged, it became obvious that downtown Buffalo had not been hit, a fact that was confirmed by emailing the Buffalo tourist center. And the weather forecast looked great, so it looked like we’d be set!

This was planned to be one of our shortest hockey trips yet. Fly in on Friday afternoon, fly out Saturday. The flight in went off without a hitch; I’d heard bad things about Delta Airlines, but I was really impressed by the service. The funny thing about this flight is that even though it cost me a little over one third of what I paid in March to go to Detroit, this flight had a connection in… Detroit. The airlines’ approach to pricing can be quite frustrating.

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After a short cab ride with a very nice driver (that would be a constant in our short stay as everyone was smiling, polite and nice everywhere), we checked in at our hotel, a brand new Courtyard Maryott that’s a block away from the First Niagara Center. We dropped our bags, it grabbed my camera and we went scouting the arena.

The First Niagara Center is located on the Canalside area, a sector that’s being rejuvenated with new constructions. Already the transformation was obvious, as from my research on Google Maps, I expected to have an unobstructed view of the arena, but instead got this. Looks like a few buildings went up since the Google car went by!

The view according to Google

The view according to Google

The actual view

The actual view

We went to the First Niagara Center to check out the place, and I used the opportunity to take some photos while there was no one around, and while there still was sunlight. We visited the Alumni Plaza, that was inaugurated in 2012. Five columns  represent the 5 decades of the franchise, with bricks representing every player who’s ever played in a Sabres jersey. Fans can also purchase commemorative bricks and be placed above or below the players. The Bell Centre in Montreal used to have something similar, until they tore it down to make room for freaking condos!

The centrepiece of the Plaza is a fantastic bronze statue of the French Connection, the trio of French Canadian players that dominated the NHL in the 70’s, made up of Gilbert Perreault, Richard “Rick” Martin and René Robert. It’s a very nice tribute to the team’s history.

We also used the opportunity to hit the Sabres Store while there weren’t a lot of people. It’s always fun to see the kind of items offered by every team. You get the standard souvenirs, but there’s always a few unique items that are interesting. We bought the usual logo shot glass, a plush of Sabretooth, the Sabres mascot for our son (who loves it), a bracelet (my wife thinks she jinxed the Habs by wearing it) and the most awesome item I’ve ever seen (in a “so kitsch that it’s awesome way”): a bottle opener that plays the Sabres goal horn when you open a bottle! Perfect to celebrate with a beer during the game at home. (Except if the Habs are in Buffalo of course). It goes on and on a little too long for my taste, but still, I think it’s pretty cool. (I’m easily amused). I was pleasantly surprised to get 30% off my purchase, and then I remembered it was Black Friday! Talk about timing.

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I had found many restaurants on TripAdvisor, but it seemed like a lot of them just weren’t there anymore. We weren’t terribly excited by the prospects, but one of them, Milo’s had great reviews and we went looking for it. It was a small, scruffy looking building (almost a shack really), and it seemed closed, so we retreated back to the Marriott and decided to try the 716 sports bar (716 is the Buffalo area code) across the street, only to be told there was a 2 hour waiting list! A quick Google search turned up the nearby Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, and the desk clerk vouched for it, so we headed out in that direction. The pub is located in an old building, and when I saw the giant tap on the front of the building, I realized this was the place my colleague Daniel Corsi had recommended to me before! Incidentally, his dad, Jim Corsi, used to work for the Sabres (he’s now in St-Louis), and unknowingly provided the name for the Corsi rating stat! (you can read that story here)

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The waiting was only 30 minutes, so we settled at the bar with a couple of house beers. The “Don Cherry Cherry Wheat” was a real winner. I walked around the place a little, and judging by the numbers of Habs jerseys, we weren’t the only ones who’d made the trip! You’d have thought we were in Montreal.

There was one thing I wanted to do while in Buffalo, and that was to have real Buffalo Wings, so we ordered a plate. Now I’m not an expert on chicken wings, as I hate eating with my hands, but I dove in and they were delicious! The rest of the food was OK at best, but I’d go there anytime for beer and wings.

We headed over to the arena to take in the ambiance and watch the warm up from both teams. The building was inaugurated in 1996, but has undergone multiple renovations since. As a result, it is very clean, modern, and looks almost brand new. A first escalator ride gets you to the first level where the concessions are located along with the Blue Light Zone, Blue Light being the Sabres’ official beer. (it’s funny for a Quebecois to see Blue Light being called “imported beer” as it is a very common beer in Quebec). A small area with tables allows fans to sit down to eat while being surrounded by vintage pictures of past players and coaches done in the style of old school hockey cards.The concessions also sell ice cream (among other things of course), including a delicious flavour of Perry’s Ice Cream called Buffalo Sabres Top Shelf Sundae!

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Another escalator takes you to the top level where our seats were located. We were in the next to last row, but visibility was excellent; you can truly say there’s not a bad seat in the house. While waiting for warmup to start, I walked the length of the ice to look at the banners up in the rafters. The French Connection was of course on display as numbers 7-11-14 are prominently displayed, along with Danny Gare’s 18, Pat Lafontaine’s 16 (I wonder why Lafontaine’s banner is away from the others?) and the legendary Tim Horton’s 2.

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Now Horton is well known in Canada, mostly as the namesake of restaurant chain Tim Horton’s, but also as an All Star defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. So I was surprised to see how revered he is in Buffalo, despite only playing the last two years of his long career there (he signed with them in 1972 at age 42 and played until his accidental death in 1974). There is a statue of him on the corner where the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium used to stand, and across the street there is a Tim Horton’s with a huge display devoted to him, and well as a corner dedicated to the old Auditorium. In his two years with the Sabres, Horton definitely did not put up numbers worthy of such honours, but he clearly made an impact on the people of Buffalo. His strong, physical style of playing earned him a reputation as one of the toughest defence man to play against, and his contribution to busy coffee drinkers in Canada (and northeastern US it seems) is legendary (But he cannot claim credit for Timbits which were introduced two years after his death).

The scoreboard at Fist Niagara Centre is one of the best I’ve seen in the league. Not only does it have ultra sharp HD screens, but its design is really slick too,with 2 circular strips at top and bottom that can display information. And as you can see below, the Fonz was in the house! (Henry Winkler was in town for the “21st World’s Largest Disco” the day after)

The Fonz was in the house!

The Fonz was in the house!

As the game was starting, we wondered how our Habs would play. They hadn’t played since the last Sunday, and inactivity has a tendency to lead to counter performances. Coupled with the fact the Montreal has been been playing horribly in the first period all season long, we weren’t confident our unbeaten streak on these trips would extend. And the Sabres, despite being near the bottom of the rankings, were on a roll.

The Sabres scored early in the first period, with Tyler Ennis banking on a highlight reel effort, possibly even a candidate for goal of the year. And I got to say that as much as I want the Habs to win on these trips, I don’t mind a loss when you get to see something like that. What a goal!

The game quickly settled down, with both teams struggling to control the puck. There were quite a few power plays, especially in the first period. Whenever the home team gets a man advantage, 4 flag bearers come out at each corner and wave a Sabres flag until play starts. That was pretty cool.

Habs evened it out early in the third and started to take control, but as it was starting to look like we’d be heading to overtime, a freak bounce on the boards caught net minder Carey Price unaware and sealed the deal for the Sabres who took the game 2-1. Our unbeaten streak was over.

Since our hotel was just a block away, we slowly made our exit. If there is one problem with the First Niagara Center, it is getting out of the balcony sections. Only two escalators lead downstairs, which makes it quite difficult for everyone to exit. But everyone was polite and respectful and we eventually made our way into the cold evening air. Along the way I heard someone “It must suck for these people to come all this way and see their team lose. Can you imagine?” Well, yeah, it does a little, but we had fun at the game, and enjoyed our short stay in Buffalo.

On the Saturday morning, we walked a little around the area, but it was completely deserted. We went up to City Hall and took some pictures, then came back to the hotel and headed out to the airport. We chilled at the Anchor Bar, whose Main Street restaurant is the purported originator of the famed Buffalo Wings! They were delicious, and we even bought a bottle of their sauce to bring home a little taste of Buffalo!

You can read the game’s boxscore on nhl.com.

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