Encore on Lake Erie

Bill Hoppe

Mike Gilbert can still remember weaving his way through the Ralph Wilson Stadium parking lot early on New Year's Day in 2008, passing excited tailgaters waiting to watch history in the making at the first NHL Winter Classic.

The electric atmosphere on the streets of Orchard Park, N.Y., was surpassed only by the scene inside the stadium with the falling snow creating a snow globe effect as a crowd of more than 71,000 watched the Buffalo Sabres take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"To have the snow falling and to see the atmosphere inside the stadium was really neat," the Sabres longtime public relations director recalled. 

And now, almost 10 years to the day, the same stadium, rebranded New Era Field, will host another ground-breaking event as the first outdoor game in the 41-year history of the IIHF World Junior Championship will take place between the United States and Canada.

"It just adds a more little of a bookmark in the U.S.-Canada rivalry," Jim Johannson, Team USA's general manager for the upcoming 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo, said of the outdoor game.

The marquee matchup of these North American rivals highlights the return of the World Juniors to the shores of Lake Erie after USA Hockey and the Buffalo Sabres teamed up to host a record-setting event in 2011.

USA Hockey and the Sabres set the bar high seven years ago, earning rave reviews and filling KeyBank Center with a record number of spectators. 

So, bringing the tournament back to town only seemed natural.

"It's a great place to have a World Junior tournament," said Sabres coach Phil Housley, who was an assistant coach with Team USA in 2011.

The U.S.-Canada contest on Dec. 29 will be one of 31 contests taking place over the course of 11 days as 10 countries will face off in a battle of international hockey's most talented players under the age of 20. 

Naturally, the outdoor game in Orchard Park, a first for the World Juniors, promises to be a memorable event that will raise the profile ofJunior hockey and the tournament.

"Going to Bills games and seeing the atmosphere there and how crazy the fans get, it's a great venue for an event like this," said the Sabres young superstar Jack Eichel, who has competed in two World Juniors. "People are pretty close to the field, which is great. I imagine that it's going to be a great experience for all the kids taking part in it."

Just think about the teams' last meeting in 2017. Team USA beat Canada 5-4 in a classic gold medal game in Montreal, with the Americans winning thanks to the shootout heroics of Troy Terry and Tyler Parsons.

The rivalry "is second to none," Housley said.

USA Hockey's Kevin Couture believes the rivalry game "wrings the heartstrings of sports fans."

"Whether they were hockey fans prior or not, I think it's going to add a level of excitement and patriotism we're excited to pull from," said the organization's director of events.

The biggest crowd to attend an IIHF game took place at the 2010 Men's World Championship as 77,803 crammed into Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany to see the host country take on the United States.

Transforming New Era Field, the home of the Buffalo Bills, into a hockey rink will be no easy task, but USA Hockey received the needed cooperation from Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

"When you think about the Bills going on the road for the last couple weekends of the regular season to allow us to take over and put a hockey rink at New Era Field, it shows how important it is to our partners," Couture said.

The importance of the outdoor game and the entire World Junior Championship will likely ignite interest in the game and inspire children across New York to start playing the sport.

"If they're not already involved in it, they may want to try it," said Joe Baudo, the president of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association. "That's how they get involved. They see what's happening with the young kids in the World Juniors."

With the next Olympic Winter Games taking place just weeks later, Baudo thinks the two events could provide a "double shot" for youth hockey.

Before the Olympic flame is lit, that same atmosphere of international competition will be at home in downtown Buffalo with the addition of the HarborCenter, the three-year old, 1,800-seat facility connected to KeyBank Center, which will host seven games. Utilizing a second venue so close to the main arena will create an "Olympic atmosphere."

"The entire pulse of the tournament is going to be right there," Johannson said.

In 2011, several games were played at Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University, about a 30-minute drive from KeyBank Center.

"If the sites are like 20 miles apart, which they were in Buffalo [last time], you just don't get a feel for that other group," Johannson said. "You're just not around it, you don't see it."

However, with HarborCenter so close, most of the action will be concentrated along Buffalo's Canalside district.

"It creates more of an Olympic atmosphere, where athletes are more present with each other and more aware of what's going on between competition, where fans are just seeing a fully ingrained one-block radius hosting all these teams and the great athletes," Couture said of having the games concentrated in one spot. 

"The overall excitement is going to magnify because of that."

Naturally, the action on the ice promises to be world class.

"The hockey sells itself," Johannson said. "I'm confident saying to you right now the hockey's going to be unbelievable again this year, and who knows who the hero's going to be or where the story's going to come from? But it's going to be a great story."

When the Sabres hosted the World Juniors in 2011, Russia rallied to win the gold medal, defeating Canada, 5-3. Two days earlier, Canada beat the U.S. in the semifinals. The U.S. eventually won the bronze medal.

Can last year's U.S.-Canada thriller be topped? Johannson thinks so.

"It just seems like every time you don't think you're going to beat it you do," he said of past U.S.-Canada tilts. 

"To me, it's unbelievable, both how competitive and exciting the games have been, but also the level of play. It's fantastic exposure for our game, and I think more and more kids relate to the World Juniors than they do to the Olympics, because I think they can almost envision, 'Maybe I can do that.'"




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