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Saturday, March 21, 2015: HarborCenter could wrest hockey finals from Utica

   Leading off today: New owner Terry Pegula didn't waste much time in shaking up the Buffalo Bills this winter with a coaching change, trades and free-agent signings. But the natural gas magnate's sporting ambitions have now trickled down to the high school level, setting up a very interesting vote on the future of the NYSPHSAA hockey tournament.

   Pegula is the force behind HarborCenter, an extraordinary $172 million complex in Buffalo that he financed. It features two NHL-sized rinks, numerous locker rooms, a 205-room hotel and meeting and training space -- all connected to First Niagara Center, home of the Sabres.

   USA Hockey has already committed to moving events there, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said his league could move its annual pre-draft scouting combine there on a long-term basis from Toronto.

   And, now, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has taken notice. After more than a quarter of a century in Utica, the high school tournament semifinals and finals in two divisions could be heading to Western New York next year.

   The Utica Memorial Auditorium, which agreed to host in 1988 after The Aud in Buffalo booked a circus for the scheduled tournament dates, typically has received overwhelming support when past contracts were awarded. But when presentations were made last week ahead of the final fours, HarborCenter charged into consideration.

   Robert Zayas, executive director of the NYSPHSAA, said his office favors Buffalo's bid, though the state hockey committee made up of representatives from each section prefers to stay in Utica.

   "Utica has done an amazing job for 27 years," Zayas said. "There's a lot of loyalty and I understand why."

   However, there's a "but" attached. Zayas said Buffalo's proposal amounted to a "zero bid" -- as in covering the major expenses and leaving the NYSPHSAA with just about no bills to pay. And that's no small consideration. Building rental for 2014, the last year for which NYSPHSAA records are available, cost $9,373. HarborCenter's bid drops that number to zero and also covers other pieces of the approximately $20,000 annual budget to stage six games in two days.

   With Western New York's insatiable appetite for hockey and the likelihood of Section 6 advancing at least one team per year to the semifinals, ticket and merchandising income could climb sharply, creating a profit substantially above the $8,324 booked in 2014.

   This could be the beginning of something special for the future," Zayas said.

   The first glimpse into what the future holds comes May 1 when the NYSPHSAA Executive Committee convenes for its next scheduled meeting. Two representatives from each of the 11 sections will be asked to choose between the two bids (a third proposal from Rochester Institute of Technology, which has its own new hockey complex, isn't likely to be a factor.) on a three-year contract.

   Under Zayas, the NYSPHSAA has required more detailed bid proposals than in the past and has actively sought more


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  • proposals by reaching out to colleges, regional visitor associations and tourism organizations, which creates competition and helps the state's largest high school sports governing body control expenses.

       Last fall, the Executive Committee could not decide between the Glens Falls Civic Center and Onondaga Community College on the venue for the boys and girls volleyball tournaments beginning in 2015. Once the boys and girls volleyball committees agreed to split up the event, the GFCC was able to retain the girls tournament while the boys moved downstate.

       Geography was an indisputable factor in the volleyball process. Understandably, downstate sections preferred the shorter, straight trip up to Glens Falls rather than traveling to the Syracuse area.

       The dynamics will presumably change more than somewhat when the hockey decision comes up for discussion. With the two Long Island sections not participants in the NYSPHSAA tournament, those are four votes that won't automatically fall into the Utica column.

       Fisher won't coach this fall: Steve Fisher, on the verge of becoming the winningest football coach in Section 3 history, said this week he won't be on the sidelines at General Brown the fall.

       Fisher, who has coached for 47 years -- 45 at General Brown -- told he is taking the 2015 season off for "personal reasons." Fisher, 69, did not elaborate but did not rule out a return to coaching in the future.

       Fisher has won 268 games in 47 seasons at General Brown, Alexandria Bay and Thousand Islands. His total is second only to the 271 by Jerry Walczak, who retired in 2004 after coaching at Dolgeville and Waterville.

       His General Brown team was 7-2 last fall.

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