Canisius Poised For More
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When Canisius made its run to the NCAAs last year, including coming within a period of knocking off No. 1 Quinnipiac, it was surrounded with new-found attention. Its rags to riches story was obvious, feel good, and a long time in the making, and everyone wanted their attention.
But for those who walked away after that, they missed the rest of the story, one that's still being written. Instead of getting the moment in the sun then fading away, Canisius' story continued well past March, and has the potential to keep right on going for a very long time.
Canisius has become the latest beneficiary of natural gas mogul Terry Pegula's generosity. Pegula, whose large donation spurred the creation of Penn State's program, is the owner of the Buffalo Sabres. On the other end of town is Canisius, which has never had its own rink and plays home games at Buffalo State's facility.
All of that is about to change.
Pegula is building a new state-of-the-art facility for the Sabres, and, after many meetings and rumors, officially invited Canisius to be a partner in the project. When it opens next fall, Canisius will have one of the best setups in the league, if not the best, and a prime recruiting attraction in a hockey-centric part of North America.
"The Sabres want us as partners," Canisius coach Dave Smith said. "They want us in everything. That is a great feeling. (It's not) the best situation in college hockey, it's one of the unique situations in college hockey. North Dakota is a different kind of unique, Michigan, Cornell ... now Canisius is different unique."
The anticipation had built for a while, but was finalized over the summer.
"Until it got done, there's always a little bit of, 'Oh, man, it's not done yet,'" Smith said. "Because it's such a special project, a special opportunity, you want it to come through. But there was never a time where we said, 'This might not happen.'"
It all bodes well for the long-term future of the program, and makes one think that, as opposed to a flash in the pan, last March may have been only the beginning for Canisius.
It's even exciting for the seniors, who won't be around to enjoy the new facility.
"Having an NHL team in our backyard will sit well with a lot of recruits," Canisius senior forward Kyle Gibbons said. "We're getting a new rink, we're gonna be in front of an NHL team — being able to look out their office and seeing us practice.
"It's going to be really nice. I'm a little jealous. A lot of us have been waiting. Buffalo State is pretty nice, but when you look at the big programs across the country, and the places they have, to now finally have one to call our own is pretty cool."
Smith said he's trying to include the current seniors in the process as much as possible.
"We're going to involve everyone in the design, listen to input at the right times," Smith said. "It's a little early to say what color carpet there will be, but they're jazzed. They're a big part of all of this.
"For recruiting, we can bring in a midget team for a tour, they can train, practice, tour our campus and go to an NHL game. It will be a desitination for elite hockey players. And the Sabres have put us at the forefront of the new facility."
Even without the new facility, last year's success, Smith believes, did plenty, in and of itself, to catapult the Griffs forward.
"It's been enjoyable to watch our guys' confidence," Smith said. "And they have brought a work ethic and commitment that has been the best in my time here, and an excitement and chatter about the future. Not about the past, but the past has created a confidence. But they're talking about tomorrow, and that's been neat, and they're hungry and I love it."
The key is putting it together for a full season. Last year's team languished through much of the regular season, and finished seventh in Atlantic Hockey.
"We played great all year — we didn't win all year," Smith said. "We outplayed teams, but either tied or lost, especially early. ... Down the stretch we started getting contributions from freshmen and all of a sudden the depth was there. Can we bottle that? I hope so. But I was really happy with our year last year."
Gibbons believes the leadership of those like him and fellow seniors, will create the consistently that was sorely lacking.
"Last year, we struggled on how to close out games," Gibbons said. "Scoring a late goal or defending better. About halfway through the season, we figured that out, and this year, having a lot of seniors, a majority of us have played through those games."
The sting of last year's NCAA defeat was put behind the Griffs relatively quickly. Instead, it has turned its attention to a tough early-season schedule, and another opportunity to prove themselves.
"It took a couple weeks," Gibbons said of getting over the loss. "I watched some film, saw some things we could've done better, and some things we did well. A couple of bounces and it could've been different. Then you have to put it behind you and use it as motivation."
And Gibbons, now a senior, who started slowly last year and was benched for a game before coming on like gangbusters down the stretch, knows he'll have as much influence over this year's success than anyone.
"I have a little more of a voice on the team, but the biggest thing is leading by example," Gibbons said. "I have to work hard on and off the ice, I've gotta go to class, set a good example. When we leave the campus, we represent Canisius.
"I have to work hard for my space. And when I have the puck, I have to protect it. And when I don't have (the puck), I have to work just as hard to get it back. It literally comes down to working hard and playing smart. I don't know if I'll score or get a point every game, but it starts with little things, getting a block, getting in on the foreceheck, a chip that leads to a 2-on-1.
"Hard work and simplicity."