Does Minnesota Really Deserve To Be Called “The State of Hockey?”

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Picture: Ryan Grimshaw (Rochester–Harvard) and a few western N.Y. teammates at the Empire State Games in 2008. The western New York region men’s ice hockey team has won eight consecutive Empire State gold medals. The tournament is a set of annual Olympic-style competitions for amateur athletes from the state of New York, divided into six different regions of the state: Adirondack, Central, Hudson Valley, Long Island, New York City and the Western region.


Does Minnesota really deserve to be called “The State of Hockey?”

Eh…maybe…if one state was already the 11th province, but, comparatively, the state of Minnesota does not stand a chance to upstate New York and specifically, the western region.

Minnesota and upstate have three things in common: They border our northern neighbors, Canada; have a major city called Rochester and its residents praise ice hockey, but upstate has quite a bit of an edge when it comes down the sport, itself.

Because upstate is clouded by the misconception that everything in New York, is merely the Big Apple, one must draw the conclusion that, while “the city” and its metropolitan area makes up more than half of the state population, it only takes up about 118-miles of a state that has more than 55,000.

In fact, in just upstate, alone, most of New England (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut—minus Rhode Island) can fit within its limits and this is where the bulk of ice hockey reigns supreme.

According to Fromtherink.com, an online sports magazine “for the fans,” upstate produces the most collegiate, amateur, Olympic and NHL players from the United States than another state in the country—the majority of players come from the state’s second and third largest cities: Buffalo and Rochester or generally known as western New York.

Reports from NHL.com indicate that upstate provides an average of three players a year to the league’s first round draft, since documented in 1963.

Upstate produces the most NCAA Division I colleges and universities for men and women’s ice hockey, while often making the Associated Press and other ice hockey poll’s top 25 list with Clarkson, Cornell, Niagara University, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and St. Lawrence, to name a few of the elite.

According to USCHO rankings, in both men and women’s Division III top 10, upstate gives the poll four teams, while the rest of the colleges come from various states across the rest of the Great Lakes region, mid-Atlantic, Northeast and upper Midwest.

The majority of the future NHL’s talent is produced in upstate due to holding four AHL teams—more than any state: Albany River Rats (Carolina Hurricanes), Binghamton Senators (Ottawa Senators), Rochester Americans (Florida Panthers) and Syracuse Crunch (Columbus Blue Jackets).


Everyday is hockey day across upstate—at every level.

Upstate is America’s hockey showcase.

At 20 below zero in Plattsburg, the state’s northernmost recognized city, you can find men, women and children, of all ages, gearing up for a competitive game of pond hockey on Lake Champlain.

Head south four-hours to the state’s capital, Albany, in the summer and you’ll see, at any hour, people blocking the roads with their nets and teams battling for a street hockey victory.

Go west, five-hours, past central New York’s hockey zone in Syracuse, to Buffalo-Niagara Falls and you’ll find people counting down the days to mid-September when the city usually sees its first frost and signs of frozen ponds around Lake Erie, and a parade of western New Yorkers rioting in the streets during a Sabres game.

…And just 50-miles northeast in Rochester, you’ll see people shouting across the border to their friendly Canadian neighbors to “come on over” or boat across Lake Ontario to play in the annual Battle of the Border Cup challenge: Canada (Burlington, Ontario) versus USA (Rochester).

As USA Hockey, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based national organization headquarters, proclaims and promotes “Hockey Weekend Across America,” the signals about the pastime’s popularity influence and reach in the U.S. gets seemingly more mixed every day, but it depends on where and how you look at it:

1. Geographically;

2. Organizationally.

According to Denver Post columnist and ESPN contributing writer, Terry Frei, while Sun Belt NHL franchises are struggling, youth hockey is gaining popularity in those areas.

Watching their NHL team on TV generates interest that goes beyond paying $50 for a ticket. Players from “non-traditional” areas in the U.S. are starting to show up in the NHL and that trend will, hopefully, continue.

The often-disdainful focus on Sun Belt markets, in some ways, misses a bigger issue.

Especially in this economy, the only way most U.S. markets will fill or come close to filling, their buildings, is if their teams win—and win in stretches sustained enough to create a demand for season tickets, the pressure to be the first in line for single-game tickets or to use the league’s officially sanctioned ticket exchange service.

That’s as true in Buffalo, Detroit and the Twin Cities, as it is in Florida and Phoenix.

Go back to the regression that happened during the AHL Rochester–NHL Buffalo affiliation debacle. It was one of the reasons, owners, Tom Golisano (Sabres) teamed up with Steve Donner (Americans) and got away with taking the Sabres’ affiliation northeast to Portland, Maine.

It’s near to impossible that this situation could happen again and that’s to say that if there is a U.S. market that now seems immune to drastic fluctuations in the league, it’s Buffalo, where the Sabres have sold out every game, since then.

Although, Detroit has deemed the name Hockeytown, USA, NHL editor for Yahoo!, Ross McKeon, dug inside NHL information and discovered that Buffalo was the runner up, only losing due to lack of Stanley Cup appearances. “It was an unfortunate time for Buffalo when the league picked the heart of ‘Hockey Town’,” McKeon said.

However, in 2006, there was a grassroots movement to western New York and Buffalo was labeled as the “New Hockeytown” by Ilitch Holding, Inc., the parent company of the Red Wings, due to an overwhelming fan presence that was previously clouded by Minnesota and Detroit, and the state’s general reputation.

The only time Buffalo failed to sell every seat in their arena was on Oct. 15, 1972 when it was only 475 seats under capacity.

Buffalo is the only city that hosts an NHL team that, not only, sells out every game, including pre and post season, but also holds and sells space for people to sit outside the Sabres’ HSBC Arena and watch the game on the large, erected video screen in the parking lot.

While the sport has been ingrained in the upstate culture for generations, perhaps in some places, as much as in Canada, the reach now is more pervasive than it has been.

Upstate, of course, is only one of a few hockey-loving regions that are preeminent on the country’s hockey scene, along with the rest of the Great Lakes region, mid-Atlantic, Northeast and upper Midwest, but it’s the leader.

The Olympic Centre located in Lake Placid, N.Y. was home to the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, where the U.S. men’s hockey team made history in winning gold, coming in as the underdogs.

The Olympic Centre is not just about history, though.

Today, its four fully operating rinks provide an adventure for hockey players in the “true upstate” and east central-southeastern Vermont regions.

One of the rinks that the Olympic Centre features is the Herb Brooks Arena, named after the legendary Olympic coach who led the unheralded 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to its historic defeat of the Soviet Union and ultimately, a gold medal.

At almost 8,000, the Herb Brooks Arena has the largest seating capacity of the Olympic Centre’s indoor rinks. This part of the Olympic Centre was officially dedicated to Herb Brooks on Feb. 23, 2005, the night of the pinnacle celebration for the 25th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Games.

There’s an average of more than 15 hockey jerseys, of professional and high school players to come out of the respective area, on display at all professional ice hockey arenas—including the Olympic Centre—as part of the museum-like atmosphere you can see at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

This advertises the sport’s reach that makes arriving early to the arenas and taking a walk around the main concourses advisable for first-time visitors.

Part of the experience is knowing that high schools and towns in the area bore a plethora of NHL standouts like Jason Bonsignore (Rochester–Edmonton Oilers); Tim Connolly (Syracuse–Buffalo Sabres); Brian Gionta (Rochester–New Jersey Devils), captain of the U.S. Olympic Team; Pat Kane (South Buffalo–Chicago Blackhawks), the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007, etc.

The World Junior Hockey Championship, which is held at the, more than, 19 thousand seated HSBC Arena, is the same arena where the Sabres play and will make history in 2011 as the first city in New York State to hold this tournament and only the fifth U.S. city to host the championships in its 32-year existence.

Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University will serve as the secondary facility for the event.

“Buffalo is a wonderful city and we could not be more pleased to be bringing the World Juniors to western New York,” Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey, said. “The Sabres are a first-class organization, and the participants and fans from around the world will have the chance to experience that first hand.”

“We are honored that USA Hockey has chosen the Buffalo Sabres and HSBC Arena as the host for the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Tournament,” Tom Golisano, Rochester native and owner of the Buffalo Sabres, said. “All of western New York will benefit greatly from this world-class event being staged right here in Buffalo.”

“The interest level of the World Junior Championship continues to grow,” Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, said. “The tournament is a crown jewel within international hockey circles and an event at which fans will see the future stars of the National Hockey League and Olympic games.”

The United States has earned six medals in the event’s history, claiming gold in 2004 and 2008, silver in 1997 and bronze in 1986, 1992 and 2007. Team USA has played for a medal in each of the last six World Junior Championships.

Recently, several junior hockey players from upstate have participated in the World Juniors: Mike Cieslak (Rochester–Vermont), Ryan Grimshaw (Rochester–Harvard), Kevin McCarey (Baldwinsville, N.Y.–New Hampshire), Kevin Montgomery (Rochester – Ohio State/London Knights OHL), Jeremy Morin (Auburn, N.Y.–Pioneer High School), Joe Palmer (Yorkville, N.Y.–Ohio State), etc. A few years ago, Stephen Gionta (Rochester–Lowell Devils), Brooks Orpik (Amherst, N.Y.–Pittsburgh Penguins), Adam Reasoner (Honeoye Falls, N.Y.–Boston College), etc. participated in the games.

Another one, of many, hockey events to happen in upstate, was the NHL Winter Classic held in Orchard Park, N.Y., at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Winter Classic in Buffalo was the first NHL outdoor game and to date, it attracted the most fans and sold more seats than any Winter Classic, with an attendance of 57,167.

On Jan. 1, 2008, in a blizzard, high of 23-degree-day and more than, already, 60-inches of snow, Sabres fans were not phased by the weather.

Some fans went shirtless sitting outside with their favorite hockey player’s number painted on their chest, while Pittsburgh fans shivered uncontrollably in their seats, as more snow and temperatures dropped drastically, hoping for a victory.

Unfortunately for Sabres fans, the Pens got just that.

Out shooting the Sabres by seven shots on goal, Pittsburgh eventually won in a shootout, 2-1, but despite a failed attempt by Buffalo, they still made league and franchise history.

Western New York Hockey Magazine featured several articles on first hand experience of the Winter Classic, including player interviews and broke down all major hockey events happening in the area.

“The magazine is the definitive guide and source for local hockey action,” publisher, Steve Mason, said. “You’ll find great photos, features and articles from award-winning writers like Hockey Hall of Fame writer, Jim Kelley—plus all the news from this country’s ‘Hockey Hotbed’!”

Just last year, the magazine took an in-depth look at two of the nation’s most prominent tournaments, held right in the World’s Imaging Centre, Rochester.

In 2007, western New York experienced two major hockey tournaments in the city of Rochester by hosting the Atlantic Hockey Conference Championship and Division I collegiate club championships, at the nearly 12 thousand seating capacity of Blue Cross Arena, home of the AHL’s Rochester “Amerks.”

Both tournaments were a success, bringing in revenue and thousands to the city, and settling a victory for RIT and Robert Morris (Moon Township, Penn.).

College hockey, including the ranked teams mentioned in the beginning, remain popular around the state, and brings an estimated 25 percent of fans into the New York border from Ontario and Québec.

“With their love of hockey, French speaking people and number of Canadians there, upstate really should be the 11th province,” contributing online blog writer, Miguel Cardosa, said. “There is no doubt, that ‘state’ eats, sleeps and breathes ice hockey…all year long.”

Take, for example, even something most people think as small as high school hockey; it’s all some towns have and the only time you’ll ever see the streets of Potsdam, N.Y., a small town in the “true upstate,” ever have a traffic jam.

According to Americanhockeycenter.com, the largest high school ice hockey tournament in the U.S. is held in Rochester with the Rochester Rumble Hockey Tournament. All division AAA teams from the state and selected hockey teams from across the country enter the tournament held at the ESL Sports Centre. All tournament finalists are invited to participate in the season ending Advanced Tournaments “Tournament of Champions.”

It’s difficult for upstate to have more of a “State of Hockey” résumé than Marty Reasoner. Playing for McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, Reasoner was awarded several NCAA, Olympic and NHL awards, including Rookie of the Year and tournament MVPs, and is part of the display that honors the hockey arenas in western New York.

He played three seasons at Boston College before turning pro with the St. Louis Blue in 1998 and started his World Championship career in 2002 with the U.S. Olympic Team in Sweden. His NHL career is still prospering while he was just traded, last year, to the Atlanta Thrashers from Edmonton.

As for other upstate hockey players, the Buffalo Sabres have a roster of more players from upstate than any other team. “There’s nothing like playing at home for my favorite team growing up as a kid,” Patrick Kaleta (Angola, N.Y.), forward for the Sabres, said.

Other upstaters who play in Buffalo with the Sabres are Tim Connolly (Syracuse), Tim Kennedy (Buffalo), Matt MacDonald (Niagara Falls) and Derek Whitmore (Rochester), and Andrew Peters is from nearby, St. Catherines, Ontario.

These hometown heroes are the reason hockey is so eminent in upstate and gives a reason to believe, especially during times of crisis.

When tragedy hit on Feb. 12, 2009, when Continental Airline flight 3407 crashed into a suburban Buffalo home, it created a devastated western New York. “Hometown heroes” and local hockey clubs helped keep the focus off the devastation by helping out and playing games.

The Sabres had a moment of silence during the Buffalo-San Jose game, that next day and the region began feeling slightly at peace with the situation.

The league had offered the Sabres an option to postpone the game, but the team refused the proposal, because it would give residents a moment to forget about their sorrows.

This story was heard around the country and helped the sport gain respect.

Hockey fans in upstate are quick to admit that there is not enough advertising to highlight that a region of New York State, of all places, is the country’s hockey heaven or the real “State of Hockey.”

Yes, upstate lives this sport.

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