KeyBank Center – Buffalo Sabres
Building Hockey Heaven
First Niagara Center, the home of the NHL Buffalo Sabres and NLL Buffalo Bandits, still has the look and feel of a new arena even though it’s been open since 1996. It was built just a block away from Buffalo’s old Memorial Auditorium, a beloved sports barn that served the region for over half a century and was recently demolished. The arena, located at the foot of Main Street in Buffalo, is the anchor of the emerging Canalside and Cobblestone districts, which has become the biggest attraction in downtown Buffalo. Attached to the First Niagara Center is HarborCenter, a mixed use facility with parking, two hockey rinks, fitness center and hockey training facility, restaurants and retail, and a new hotel. With the arena and HarborCenter, this is the only three rink facility in the NHL. Buffalo is positioning itself as a first class destination for tournaments and sports travel, and the hockey arena is right in the middle of things.
Food & Beverage 5
The food presentation has always been pretty good at First Niagara Center, but the Sabres and their concessionaire have taken it to yet another new level. The concourses are replete with specialty food stands, and Buffalo cuisine is abundant throughout the facility.
A must have is Buffalo’s famed beef-on-weck sandwich, a salt encrusted roll with shaved roast beef, and add spicy horseradish sauce on top ($9 with kettle chips side). The Bologna and fried onions sandwich is another hidden local concoction ($6). Specialty hot dogs with a local theme, such as the Sabre Coney dog, Elmwood dog, North Buffalo dog ($7.00), or the flatbread pizza ($6.75) which come with toppings such as spinach, artichokes and chicken. Locally produced pizza logs ($6) come with marinara sauce for dipping. The Mexican stand offers a Buffalo chicken burrito ($9.25).
We haven’t even started with the routine fare such as burger baskets ($8), Polish or Italian sausage ($6.25), deli sandwiches, and the whole gamut of Perry’s ice cream flavors. Up on the club level, the bacon-on-a-stick ($5) is to die for. Beer offerings are plenty and varied, from the ubiquitous Budweiser and Labatt’s brands to more exotic offerings such as Stella or Shock Top ($9.25 for large can). A new craft beer stand adjacent to sec 117 is headlined by a newly produced beer especially for the Buffalo Sabres, titled One Buffalo Ale.
The building exudes an energy which screams history and tradition. There is a Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame display right next to the team store. Player murals line the concourse walls. The seating bowl has been accented in team blue and gold colors. The electronics, including an HD scoreboard and surround ribbon boards, along with video presentation that includes the entire ice surface, makes for good opportunities for game night entertainment.
About the only drawback is the muted energy in the crowd. With several years of non playoff hockey, the enthusiasm level has dropped somewhat. Picking a better atmosphere is as easy as picking the opponent – the Bruins and Flyers are hated rivals so having them in the building always jacks up the noise level. The presence of any Canadian team, especially the Toronto Maple Leafs, brings throngs of fans from across the border supporting the visitors. It makes for good fun.
Canalside is hopping. It’s happening. But the good news is, with the opening of HarborCenter, and the opening of a grid of historically aligned canals replicating the path of the old Erie Canal, the district is becoming a people magnet, and commerce is following. Take in the ice skating and festivities on the canals, and when the weather is good, a stroll on the Central Wharf along the Buffalo River. Across the river is one of 18 old grain elevators, and this one is lit up every night with an elaborate kinetic light show which is a feast to the eyes.
There are a number of really good restaurants all within walking distance of First Niagara Center. 716 Food and Sport is a must see at HarborCenter. Lagerhaus 95, Liberty Hound, Pizza Plant, Pearl Street Brewing Company, Buffalo Iron Works and Washington Square Lounge all good recommendations. Check out the Tim Hortons cafe and bake shop at HarborCenter. Inside is a veritable museum to the player Tim Horton with displays, Horton memorabilia, and a timeline showcasing the history of the old Aud. It’s worth checking out. Helium Comedy Club offers up great national comedy acts. The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is nearby. There is plenty to see and do, and there is much, much more to come.
These are “suffering” fans. They have supported the team through thick and thin. During the 1970s people would camp out overnight for the chance to purchase precious Sabres game tickets. Even now, the team maintains a season ticket base of 16,000, leaving but 3000 tickets per game available for single game purchase. And despite the recent lack of success on the ice, the arena is full or just about full, night after night, as Sabres fans await the planned rebuilding of the team into a contender. One of the most popular t-shirts spotted around these parts? The slogan “One B4 I Die” adorned in either Bills or Sabres colors. If this community actually ever wins a world title in either of these two sports, the city will in all likelihood shut down from the weight of the jubilation.
First Niagara Center can be accessed by car via the Elm-Oak or Church St exits off of the I-190. There are parking ramps at the arena itself, at HarborCenter and at Coca Cola Field. Surface parking is available in ridiculous abundance throughout downtown. Parking generally runs anywhere from $5-$10 depending on location. Parking in the adjacent HarborCenter ramp is $20 and a skybridge takes you right into the arena. Street meters are not monitored on evenings or weekends, so fans arriving early enough might snag a free spot. Metrorail runs from The University at Buffalo’s south campus all the way to literally the front door of the arena, at the Special Events station. Riding the Metrorail is free on the downtown portion. A good strategy is to park free in the Chippewa entertainment district, enjoy dinner/drinks, then hop on at Fountain Plaza station for the short ride to the arena.
Check out Parking Panda for some of the best parking options for the game. Use the promo code STADIUMJOURNEY10 for 10% off your first transaction.
Return on Investment 4
Sabres tickets are among the cheapest in the NHL. Fans can still secure lower level single game tickets without touching three figures. Upper level nosebleeds start at around $25. With the team’s swoon, the secondary market offers a plethora of opportunities to score some real deals. Concession prices run about the mid range for a venue of this stature. Add in the relatively reasonable parking prices. It’s always good to check the team web site, as they offer 4-pack specials and other discounted tickets on a regular basis to select games. And season ticket holders get even more of a bargain, with tickets priced about 40% off of face value, and a rebate of 2.5% in “Sabrebucks,” a loaded gift card which can be redeemed at any retail installation in the arena or at HarborCenter.
Two stars for the team history – there are statues of the French Connection in the Alumni Plaza outside the arena. Another statue of the famed Tim Horton has been unveiled at Main and Scott. Plenty of displays throughout the building. No Stanley Cups (yet), but a tremendous sense of tradition and history which makes Buffalo one of the true hockey must sees.
One star for HarborCenter – owners Terry and Kim Pegula have built a destination venue which is one of a kind anywhere. The building is in continuous use, and teams and players and families and tournaments are coming to Buffalo from far and wide. The vibe and energy coming from Buffalo’s newest digs is truly evident.
One star for Rick Jeanneret. Who, you ask? The famed voice of the Sabres has been calling play-by-play at the microphone with the team since 1971. He is Rodney Dangerfield’s doppleganger, his voice unique, his famous calls are a celebrated part of Buffalo’s hockey DNA. The man is slowing down, but is still at it. A true community treasure.
“Hockey Heaven” is a marketing phrase coined when the Pegula era began in Buffalo in 2011. The failures of the team have weighed heavily on the fan base since that time, but Sabres fans still support the team in droves. The Canadians come to town often, many have season tickets of their own, and with their visits come the imprint of their culture – the beer, the poutine, the funny accents, their colorful plastic currency, giving the unique imprint of an American/Canadian hockey city that really isn’t replicated anywhere, not even in the border city of Detroit. Both the Canadian and American anthems are played before the game, and the Sabres have embraced that tradition since 1970. No wonder so many players make Buffalo their home after they retire.
If there’s any city that deserves to end all their suffering and torture and claim hockey’s ultimate prize, it’s this one. There is such a thing as Hockey Gods. Let’s hope the day will come when they will be smiling down on Hockey Heaven.
Food and Drink Recommendations
Buffalo Marriot HarborCenter (map it!)
95 Main St.
Buffalo, NY 14203
Courtyard by Marriot Buffalo Downtown/Canalside (map it!)
125 Main St.
Buffalo, NY 14203
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Latest Crowd Reviews
The Sabres are a young team on the way up, and Buffalo fans, starving for a winner, are coming downtown in big numbers. The KeyBank Center is starting to show its age, and does not look too different from my last visit a decade ago, but it is a solid place to watch a game. Good sight lines and dedicated fans make up for a decent, but not great atmosphere and menu. Plus, the prices are on the low side for the NHL.
A solid NHL hockey experience which continues to improve. Bronze statues of the French Connection and Tim Horton help add to the sharing of Sabres history. Always a solid food scene and lots of good spots to see in the neighbourhood. However, banners for corporate partners up with the championship and honoured player banners is a turn-off. Love the organ when it plays Sabre Dance and the traditional Buffalo honouring of the Canadian National Anthem at all games.