Changes downtown will greet Sabres' fans

September 19, 2013 Updated Sep 19, 2013 at 9:42 AM EDT

By James Fink, Buffalo Business First Reporter

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Changes downtown will greet Sabres' fans

September 19, 2013 Updated Sep 19, 2013 at 9:42 AM EDT

Ted Black is the first to admit that hockey fans may be in for a surprise when they approach First Niagara Center Thursday night.

For many, it may be the first time they see the HarborCenter project in all its construction glory. While some work had started on the $172.2 million complex last spring, when the Buffalo Sabres played their last home game at First Niagara Center, the Webster Block - now home to the HarborCenter - was still, relatively untouched.

Not so anymore.

In the five months since then, construction has been going at a rapid pace. Steel girders have outlined the first three floors of what will be an 18-story complex, anchored by a pair of hockey rinks and a 200-room Marriott hotel. The HarborCenter will be directly connected to the First Niagara Center.

"It will be interesting to watch," Black, Sabres' president, said. "I think for many, it will be a major shock."

Given its strong suburban fan base, not to mention some 18 percent of its season ticket holders who hail from Southern Ontario, Thursday's pre-season game will be the first time many will see the HarborCenter construction up close and personal. The Sabres have three pre-season games at First Niagara Center before the regular season opener on Oct. 4.

"It is changing the landscape of downtown Buffalo, literally and figuratively," Black said.

The first phase of the HarborCenter is slated to open next September. That's when the two rinks will be operating, the 850-car parking garage completed and the sports-themed restaurant/bar is open. The hotel won't be completed until May 2015.

Black noted this is the final season where the First Niagara Center will be operating as a sole entity. Next fall, the HarborCenter will serve as its downtown companion.

The HarborCenter, which is being privately financed by Sabres' owner Terry Pegula, is viewed as a major anchor of the fast-emerging Canalside District in downtown's lower Main Street neighborhood. Sabres officials estimate it will see 500,000 people pass through its doors annually.

HarborCenter's main, 1,800-seat arena will be the home base for Canisius College's men's hockey squad and Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

Sabres officials say they expect the rinks to host major national and regional youth, amateur and recreational league tournaments at least twice a month between the peak September to April period.

With the construction, new traffic patterns leading to the arena have been established as vehicles only have limited access on such thoroughfares as Washington Street. The Sabres have made arrangements with the Buffalo Police Department to help direct traffic.

Black, for his part, said he is very interested to hear what fans think about the HarborCenter construction.

"Buffalo is very much a 'seeing is believing' community," Black said. "All they have to do is look at the Webster Block to see that HarborCenter is very real."

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