A really American donut

January 5 / Martin Merk

BUFFALO – In Buffalo, fans could not only cheer for Team USA with the usual merchandise, but also by eating a Go USA donut at Tim Hortons, one of the event sponsors.

The donuts produced for the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship were proudly displayed at some of the stores, such as the one at Main Street, two tram stops away from HSBC Arena.

This delight had hundreds of stars on it, in all Stars and Stripes colours.

If you’re a hockey fan knowing the name Tim Horton from somewhere, you don’t have to look far. Tim Horton’s #2 is a retired number in Buffalo. Horton played 1,446 NHL games, mostly for the Toronto Maple Leafs, before he died in a car accident in 1974.

Ten years before his death he was a co-founder of Tim Hortons, which has grown from 40 to more than 3,000 locations since his death, making his name immortal.

Poland is back

January 5 / Szymon Szemberg

BUFFALO – On this medal day it’s good to know that Poland is back among the world’s hockey elite. Just look at the sign on this unofficial banner found downtown Buffalo and look at the flag, bottom row, far left. No question about it, it’s the Polish flag together with Canada, the U.S, Russia, Sweden and the other hockey powers at the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship in Buffalo.

For someone born in Warsaw, Poland, and who has lots of esses and zeds in his name, this couldn’t have come any sooner. The promotion to this event must be Poland’s biggest hockey achievement since the 1976 IIHF World Championship when Poland defeated the Soviet Union 6-4 in a classic upset.

Now, what is correct? When looking at the IIHF official tournament program, the Polish juniors played last month in the IIHF’s U20 Division II in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania where they defeated countries like Australia, China, Hungary and Romania to win the championship and gain promotion to next year’s Division I, still one tier below the top division.

And having watched most of the games in both Buffalo and Niagara, the Polish team was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it’s the vast Polish community here in Buffalo had something to do with the sign?

Same could be said about the Irish flag on the bottom row. While the Irish do have an U18 Division III team, they haven’t competed with a U20 national team yet.

Foster is the man

January 5 / Szymon Szemberg

BUFFALO – Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Foster. Foster is the shoeshine man at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, one of the official championship hotels. What a man! During the time it took for him to almost entirely revamp my blacks and browns, he delivered a lecture on topics ranging from – but not limited to – American politics, the perception of freedom, psychology (“listening is the most important quality”), education, and abortion.

The 20 minutes with Foster were thoroughly enjoyable and a learning and humbling experience. For all foreigners who want to get to know America a little better, see Foster in his office just behind the lobby, in the hallway that leads to the gym. Don’t forget to bring your shoes.

Mystical Niagara Falls

January 2 / Martin Merk

NIAGARA – The secondary venue of this event, where the World U20 Championship continues with the battle against relegation, is named Niagara after the county and the university that has its campus and rink in Lewiston, New York, but the name is, of course, mostly known for the famous waterfalls that annually brings millions of tourists to the area.

No wonder several fans and officials used their off day on New Year’s Day to visit this natural wonder.

Niagara Falls is not only the name for the waterfalls but also the twin cities on both sides of the falls. The Niagara River that connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario marks the border between New York and Ontario, between the United States and Canada.

Niagara Falls, New York, allows you direct access to the American Falls, the smaller of the waterfalls only 27 kilometres (17 miles) from Buffalo. Unfortunately, the weather was not so fine this January 1 – rain followed by snow later – but the view was good enough to see the American Falls.

Those who wanted more and had no visa issues continued the journey over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the river.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, does not only look like a mini-Las Vegas but also unveils the best view to the bigger of the waterfalls, the Horseshoe Falls, where water falls down 53 metres (173 feet) over a length of 790 metres (2,600 feet).

The view must be amazing considering the $18 parking fee (compared to $5 on the American side), but unfortunately the view didn’t get further than about 20 metres due to heavy fog, which at least gave the falls a mystical feel.

Alberta meets Buffalo

January 1 / Martin Merk

BUFFALO – While we’re approaching the final stage of this year’s IIHF World U20 Championship, the host organizing committee for next year is observing-- with a lot of praise--how everything is done in Buffalo.

Today Hockey Canada held a reception at one of the hotels used to accommodate teams and officials to present its 2012 event, an event nicely catered and highlighted by Alberta beef.

The 2012 edition in Edmonton and Calgary could well be a record-setting one.

“It’s the first time we go to two NHL buildings,” Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson said. Edmonton will host the Canadian preliminary-round group with ten games while Calgary gets the other group, the final round, and the relegation round for a total of 21 games.

The organizing committee made clear that their ambition is to fill the buildings for every game. They’re slogan is simple: “We are ready; all we need is you.”

The 2012 tournament is sure to set a new attendance record in the 19,289-seat Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary and the 16,839-seat Rexall Place in Edmonton.

“We’re like a little hockey team. We always want to become better in organizing this event,” Nicholson said, setting the bar high.

The demand for tickets is so great even a year in advance that a lottery will be held for all fans who want to buy ticket packages in Calgary or Edmonton. The draw will close on January 5th, the day of the gold medal game in Buffalo, at midnight MT.

The groups for 2012 will be posted on IIHF.com soon after the gold medal game.

For more information about the 2012 IIHF World U20 Championship and ticket packages, visit www.hockeycanada.ca/2012juniors

Buffalo deserves better

December 30 / Szymon Szemberg

BUFFALO – Enough already. This IIHF official is sick and tired of the constant bashing of this city by smug Euro bloggers or Twittering players. Hear this: Buffalo is a great hockey town with an excellent newspaper and TSN in your hotel. What more can one possibly want from a tournament?

No people to be found in the downtown area, no bars, no malls, they complain. So what? European reporters should be in their hotel room writing previews and features and at the HSBC Arena or at the Dwyer Arena in Lewiston to cover the games and talk to the players. There is no time to loiter in the streets.

Players? Shouldn’t they focus on practicing, playing, team meetings, answering media questions in mixed zones and checking out TSN’s superior coverage of the IIHF World U20 Championship in their hotel rooms? How can there be time for Twittering?

This is my third visit to Buffalo in 30 years. In 1982, I drove down here from Toronto for a Sabres-Bruins playoff game at the old Aud (what a wonderful building); in 1998, for the NHL Entry Draft (Vincent Lecavalier went first overall); and now for the best little hockey event in the world.

There have never been any people in the downtown area after 6pm, so why expect it now? Why does it matter? The most important thing: This has always been a great hockey town (even before the arrival of the Sabres in 1970), with knowledgeable fans and excellent hockey coverage in the media.

Which brings me to the greater point. Take this advice if bored to death – grab a copy of the Buffalo News, one of the very few American daily publications that can match their Canadian counterparts when it comes to extensive and educated hockey reporting.

Yes, the sports pages contain far too much coverage of a sport that Americans insist on calling football. (How can you call it football when the sport is mainly played with your hands? And how fun can it be to play a game where you are rewarded with being benched as soon as you win the ball?)

But once you get past this American infatuation, you’ll find very fine hockey reporting. Every World U20 game is covered with a well-written game report. There is always an interesting lead column on the event, one feature story, plus a notebook and something called Junior Journal – news, notes and quotes from the championship. On top of that, the paper provides a scoreboard with standings, schedule and game summaries.

And if this were not enough, there is very good off-ice tournament reporting in the other sections of the News where you can read all about the challenges of Canadian fans trying to get through the border control in a timely fashion and the ridiculous price gouging on parking where visitors are asked to fork out $40 for a spot.

In the Thursday’s paper we are informed that even city mayor Byron W. Brown has gotten involved to stop the parking rip-off that is perhaps the only blight on the otherwise perfect tournament.

And on top of that, everything in the newspaper is packaged in an appealing layout and design. How much more can you want for 75 cents? A breakfast with the Buffalo News takes at least one hour and is as enjoyable an experience as if it were the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail or the paper with the best hockey coverage in the world, the The Montreal Gazette, where the eternal Red Fisher has been covering the Canadiens since 1955.

Good journalism craves good journalists and the one who set the standard in the 1970s was Jim Kelley, a hockey writer who joined the Buffalo News in 1981 and provided wall-to-wall hockey coverage in this city for more than three decades. Kelley passed away in late November this year after battling pancreatic cancer since December of 2009.

In 2004, he was awarded the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, a supreme honour for any hockey writer bestowed upon only the finest journalists by the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Kelley, a real journalist who was never afraid of asking tough questions, wrote with conviction, and he had strong opinions on the game of hockey. Obsequious he was not.

He even challenged the Sabres’ star goalie Dominik Hasek during the 1997 playoffs and the ensuing altercation resulted in the netminder's suspension after Kelley questioned Hasek's "poor mental toughness”.

It is in Jim Kelley’s spirit that the Buffalo News sports pages are produced.

The writer is the IIHF’s Communications Director who considers Buffalo vs. Soviet Wings 12-6 in 1976 as the most entertaining hockey game he has seen.

A Dwyer Arena primer

December 28 / Andrew Podnieks

NIAGARA – Ten of the 31 U20 games in New York state are being played at the Dwyer Arena on the Niagara University campus in Lewiston, New York. A comfortable half hour drive from Buffalo, the venue is ideal for the games that do not involve "the two home teams", Canada and the U.S. It has a capacity of 2,100, and the building houses a practice facility as well.

The Niagara Purple Eagles is the name of the university’s team for both men and women. The men compete in Atlantic Hockey, along with Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, and Holy Cross, among others. The women compete in College Hockey America, a five-team league which includes Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, as well as Syracuse and Wayne State.

Originally built in 1996, the arena underwent extensive renovations in 1999 thanks to a generous donation from Bob and Connie Dwyer, alumni from 1965 who contributed $3 million for upgrades. These include refurbished dressing rooms, a “presidential suite” and modern amenities.

The arena has hosted several College Hockey America tournaments and has been the home of the Buffalo Sabres’ summer development camp since 2008. It is of regulation size (200’ x 85’) and is fully capable of handling video review, an essential condition for an IIHF top event.

Wings left, and right, and all over the place

December 28 / Martin Merk

BUFFALO – There’s certainly one thing on a visitor’s to-do list in Buffalo: eating Buffalo Wings. Of course, you could eat these chicken wings coated in cayenne pepper hot sauce at any other place across the U.S. But to have the same authenticity you get when eating pasta in Italy, cheese fondue in the Swiss mountains or sushi in Japan, there’s probably no better (and more touristy) place than heading to the birthplace of the Buffalo Wings – the Anchor Bar on Main Street.
That might explain the always full parking lot, the bar’s own gift shop, and the lengthy queue at the entrance. These days, the talk in the lineup is about hockey, not the least of which because of the many hockey fans and players in town for the U20 who wait patiently for their table and chance to eat history.
The bar fulfills most clichés you could imagine of an American rock bar. It's equipped with old Harleys, licence plates from Aruba to Ontario and sports merchandise of all stripes. It may be coincidence that this writer was assigned the only table that was marked by two hockey sticks and with a Team USA jersey hanging from the roof.
The spiciness of the world-famous wings ranges from mild to suicide (“if you dare”). While the author admittedly went with medium, a Swiss photographer dared to try the suicide wings. By the end of the meal, everything but his lips seemed to be good enough to shoot photos for today’s game against Finland.

IIHF loans HSBC to NHL

December 27 / Szymon Szemberg

BUFFALO – Hockey history will be written on January 1, 2011 when, for the first time ever, the IIHF World U20 Championship will be interrupted by an NHL game. On this day, the only one during the tournament with no games scheduled, the regular HSBC Arena tenants Buffalo Sabres will host divisional rivals Boston Bruins at 7PM.

As there is no time to melt the ice and change the under-ice advertisement, the current design will stay which means that this will be the first NHL game during which fans will see an IIHF event logo at centre ice.

Part of the deal was also to keep the NHL-specific ice markings as the goal crease and the trapezoid behind the net during the "World Juniors", to make an easy transition for the New Year's Day NHL game.

Of course, the World U20s board advertisement will be changed after the December 31 USA vs. Switzerland game, but restored back for the January 2 quarterfinals. The players taking part in the "World Juniors" will be treated to the Buffalo - Boston game, as well as others who work with the IIHF event.

A few stats

December 27 / Andrew Podnieks

BUFFALO – The rosters are set for the U20 now, so here are a few neat little facts ‘n’ stats about the 200 or so players in Buffalo.

  • the youngest player in the tournament is Finland’s Olli Maataa who was born on August 22, 1994. He’s the only ’94 in the event.
  • the tallest player is Canada’s Jared Cowen who stands 6’6”/1.97m
  • not surprisingly, Cowen is also the heaviest at 227 lbs./103 kg
  • the shortest player is Petr Holik of the Czech Republic who is but 5’7”/1.70m
  • the lightest players are Holik and Artemi Panarin of Russia, both of whom tip the Toledos at 154 lbs./70 kg
  • the teams with the most players at least 6’ tall are Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, all with 17 players at least that height
  • fewest 6’ players? Norway, with only ten
  • players with the shortest name – three letters – are Olivier ROY of Canada and Martin FRK of the Czech Republic
  • longest name is no contest. This belongs to Swedish goalie Fredrik PETERSSON WENTZEL, 16 letters in all.

Christmas skating

December 25 / Martin Merk

BUFFALO – Bringing hockey to a city, may it be with the founding of an NHL franchise in 1970, or by hosting a major international hockey tournament, is a great thing. Offering facilities to follow suit makes it even better and helps make use of the event in a sustainable way.

In many cities kids and adults can not only use professional ice rinks, but also temporary open-air rinks downtown, as seen at Fountain Plaza in Buffalo, just a few tramway stops away from HSBC Arena.

It’s the place to go skating with the family and friends under the flags of the ten participating nations of the World U20 Championship. And at this time of the year they can do it in true Christmassy fashion and skate in front of a Christmas tree and to the beat of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other Christmas classics.

Sabres getting ready

December 24 / Martin Merk

BUFFALO – In October 2008 it was announced that the Buffalo Sabres were selected by the hosting national association, USA Hockey, to organize the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship.

After Team USA had ended Canada’s reign by defeating them in the gold medal game in Saskatoon on year ago, there could hardly be a better place to revive this rivalry than Buffalo. The city in the state of New York so close to the Canadian border will fill the HSBC Arena with fans from both nations. 60 per cent of the ticket packages have been sold to Canadian fans, 40 per cent to Americans. For some games, single-game tickets are still available.

Hosting the “World Juniors” close to the border is nothing new for USA Hockey. Last time the event came to the U.S. it took place in Grand Forks in 2005. But this time, with an NHL arena and an NHL venue, it will bring the event to a new level both in attendance and organization.

Organizing an international hockey tournament is also something special for the Buffalo Sabres and part of their 40-year anniversary. Yesterday, the Sabres had their last game before the World U20 Championship that ended with a 4-3 loss against the Florida Panthers. Already the same night the Sabres started working on the World U20 Championship setup, including repainting the ice, and the staff assigned for the event can now fully focus on the World U20 Championship.

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