September 10, 2011 - Amherst, New York
Its always fun to take in an early season game while the weather is still summer-like. I decided to head 3 hours northwest to catch some OJHL action at the home of the only U.S. team in the league, the Buffalo Junior Sabres. The Northtown Center, formerly known as the Amherst Pepsi Center, sits in suburban Amherst, nestled near other athletic facilities used by the University at Buffalo. In fact there was a traffic backup getting to the game due to the football game going on across the street. I did get to see a military flyover which buzzed above the arena about an hour before the puck drop. The building was constructed in 1998 and is huge. It could easily be mistaken for a warehouse in an industrial park, and has the exterior look to match. Most of the exterior is rather stark and features a few courses of gray block along the bottom, and then tan and brown metal siding above it. The main entrance has a nice glassed in facade near what is the middle of the building, and there is another less ornate entrance directly on the other side of the building. There are huge parking lots surrounding the building. The complex houses 4 ice pads, including the "Lexus Feature Rink" which is the arena that the Junior Sabres call home. The Northtown Center actually hosted some preliminary action for the 2011 World Junior Tournament as well.
Entering through the main entrance you encounter a large staircase which leads to the upper concourse. This area has a wide carpeted hallway and allows viewing of the 3 smaller rinks through glass windows. There is also a restaurant and bar, which has seating overlooking the feature arena. A very nice fitness center sits on the upper level as well. The lower level of the concourse features the snack bar, which has quite a large area of table seating and reasonable concession prices. There is also a large pro shop and restrooms on the lower level. The concourse as expected was bustling on a saturday with all 4 ice pads in action for youth hockey and the like. Although this is a newer building, it looked like the hallways and walls could use a good scrubbing. I wasn't sure that kind of crowd or fan response the Junior Sabres would get, but a decent crowd turned out and tickets were only $7. The feature rink sits to the right of the main entrance, and is not visible from the concourse. It is listed as having a capacity of 1400, and is made up of a hodge podge of seating. The arena is set up with 4 rows of wooden benches as seating along the sides, and 8 rows on one end. The other end of the arena has no seating at all. There have been an additional 2 rows of aluminum bleachers added along the penalty box side of the arena, and also a 2 row high aluminum bleacher on the other side, although it sits on the back side of the walkway making watching from there difficult . There are what is referred to as 2 skyboxes on the team bench side, which are essentially 2 rooms with windows next to the restaurant. The sight lines aren't the best since you are looking through the glass most of the time due to the low seating. Seating on the end appears to be the preferred choice and that area filled up the quickest. There is netting in front of the end seating area, but nowhere else.
Although the arena does not seem any fancier than your average community rink the game day experience is fun. There is music during stoppages, and former Sabre Michael Peca was wandering the crowd as he is now a GM for the Junior Sabres. The coach is another former Sabre, Grant Ledyard. There are not any souvenirs or merchandise available, and the presentation is basic. The ceiling is low, so there is no center ice scoreboard. There are scoreboards on each and and on each side however. The quality of hockey is good and the game against Newmarket was exciting, featuring a third period comeback by the Sabres, a decent fight, and an exciting 4-3 OT win for the boys in blue. Attendance was listed at 425, but the fans that were there seemed into the game, and the seating area was far from empty, the layout of the seating and rink are just not ideal for viewing due to the sight lines. Clearly with other hockey options in the area, such as Canisius and Niagara Universities, and the Sabres themselves the Junior Sabres are a tough sell. If in the area though the Northtown Center at Amherst is an option to watch some hard nosed hockey and see a bunch of Ontario teams while still staying on this side of the border.
Other information about the Buffalo Junior Sabres is available at: Junior Sabres Home
Other information about the Northtown Center at Amherst is available at: Arena Home
More photos of the Northtown Center at Amherst are available Here