BUFFALO — Terry and Kim Pegula, owner of the Sabres, want to up this city’s game — and the entire approach to hockey development along with it.
By spending upward of $200 million of their own cash, the Pegulas are putting a load of money where their goal mouth is, not only building two NHL-sized ice sheets adjacent to their arena as part of an attempted downtown renaissance, but also creating a one-of-a-kind Hockey Academy directed by ex-Bruins draft pick Kevyn Adams.
Adams, 39, was Boston’s first-round pick in the 1993 draft, but never pulled on the Bruins uniform, ultimately signing with the Maple Leafs upon leaving college (Miami University) and then later spending his most productive NHL seasons with the Hurricanes. Now he’s back here in his hometown, charged with designing and implementing a puck paradise.
“Our goal with the Hockey Academy is really to become the development destination for hockey players,’’ Adams said in the Sabres’ downtown arena early last week. “Players in western New York, southern Ontario, sure . . . but we also want to think bigger. We want to become the development destination for players and coaches around the world — that’s our vision, our goal, and we are going to set out, we expect, to make it happen.’’
The precise theme and shape of the Hockey Academy is, much like the construction project, a work in progress. It will open for business full time in 18 months. Meanwhile, Adams and his two lead associates in the Harborcenter project, president John Koelmel (Holy Cross, 1974), and vice president Nik Fattey, a former Sabres scout, will spend the next year or so tailoring an academy that they believe will draw young players from far beyond the edge of Lake Erie.
Ambitious? No question. There are thousands of burgs big and small around the world where rough-cut young kids and emerging teenaged talent can hone their games. And this city, because of all its snow and associated well-known warts of urban blight, isn’t the drawing card of, say, Colorado Springs or even Ann Arbor, Mich., the two largest hockey hubs that cultivate America’s primo amateur talent.
But with vision often must come courage, and with the Pegulas’ deep pockets providing huge dollops of both, the Harborcenter construction is well underway. It will include the two NHL-sized sheets, at least one of which will be open for public skating prior to every Sabres home game. The Marriott hotel chain, which in a few weeks will open one of its Courtyard brands within a short walk from Harborcenter, also will have a 205-room, full-service hotel in the new 20-story complex. The entire package is being built on a parcel of land of less than two acres and will include a five-level parking garage, a sprawling sports-themed restaurant, and myriad other retail shops.
All in all, the project is as much about trying to rebrand a city as it is about sticks, pucks, and thinking outside the rink. Not unlike how Quincy Market played a vital role in bringing suburbanites back to Boston in the early 1970s, the Harborcenter with its retail stores and wholesale dreams could be a sizable step forward in gathering up Buffalo’s tired bones.
Buffalo wants to be cool again. The Pegulas have the greenbacks and the Zambonis to provide the finish.
“Destination, development, impact,’’ said Koelmel, the Pegulas’ lead voice on the project. “It will be a tremendous facility. It changes the landscape around here. Unfortunately, this [part of the city] has evolved as more of a dead zone, so this is the foundation for what has been an evolving transformation. I don’t want to suggest the transformation hadn’t started several years back, but this really accelerates and advances the growth and development of the waterfront. It legitimizes it.’’
Meanwhile, Adams and Fattey are charged with the considerable task of building the Hockey Academy. They want kids of all ages to train and develop on the two new sheets located on the sixth floor of the new building. Their vision is to have the best coaches, training methods, and technology — the best chance for a young player to develop — in place under one roof.
If a tree can grow in Brooklyn, they think a whole new approach to hockey development can grow in the Buff.
“So . . . how do you do it? That’s the obvious question,’’ noted Adams, who also was an assistant coach for two years with the Sabres. “The first way you do it is to hire expert teachers, coaches, to provide that world-class instruction. That has to be at the forefront of everything you do. You have to be surrounding yourself . . . build a team of great teachers. From there, you can take it to the innovation level, to a point where a young player in Boston or Chicago or Sweden says, ‘I need to be at the Academy in the summer.’ The player will do things — be it through coaching, teaching, and technology — that aren’t being done day in and day out anywhere else. So, rather than just throw on your skates and get a puck and say you are going to skate for an hour and get better — there’s a lot more to it.’’
For now, the Hockey Academy is a lot of ideas, dreams, colorful schematics, and, most important, freshly poured cement. By summer or fall of next year, Adams et al expect, they’ll be curating the dreams of their first students. Fattey envisions it all somewhat akin to a college campus, spread across two rinks high up in a downtown building.
“You can be here part time, full time, or maybe just attend a workshop or lecture,’’ said Fattey, noting the Academy will run 12 months a year. “In the summer, we’ll offer a college course catalog for what you can take. Fitness and strength, skating, power skating, goaltending . . . across the board, different courses, with different times and continuous themes.’’
There’s no telling how, or if, the Academy will fly. The urban renaissance play in itself is also tricky. Cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati have seen substantial, bold turnarounds over the last 25 or so years, sports an essential part of the elixir. Then there is Detroit, bankrupt and stagnant, even with a new ballpark, a new football stadium in place, a new NHL rink soon to be built.
For now, Harborcenter is a start, one with substantial pace, with vision, with promise. The Pegulas bought the Sabres only three years ago. They made some substantial missteps in managing their NHL business, above all learned the hard knocks that come with trying to be both fans and owners. But their love of and dedication to hockey cannot be questioned. They now have an NHL team in progress, a Hockey Academy in the works, and with a $200 million construction project, another thick layer of skin in the game.
It’s really more than anyone could ask, which is something Buffalo hasn’t said for a very long time.