As the Sabres wind down their annual development camp at First Niagara Center I can’t help but think the organization missed a terrific opportunity to draw even more fans down to the foot of Washington Street.
Mid July is an inherently slow time of year in every sense of the word. The NHL calendar is in a bit of a lull after the initial free agent flurry of activity, the Bills are still a ways out from kicking off training camp, and we’re in the midst of the dog days of baseball season. That, coupled with the fact that the area’s children are a few weeks into summer vacation and parents are searching for things to keep their kids occupied, means that development camp is in a great position to fill the void in affordable entertainment.
The week’s on-ice happenings were the lone Sabres related attraction this week, and there were multiple other things that the organization could’ve done in conjunction with the camp to make it a great experience for the fans. The improvements to the week have nothing to do with the on ice activity, but more of the ancillary activities to draw people to the area and keep them there for a few hours. They range from improving things inside the arena during practice to having activities outside during down time. Here are just a few ways to make the week significantly better:
– Make the players available. I count nine players on the Sabres’ NHL roster that are new to the team since the trade deadline; the average fan couldn’t pick Ryan O’Reilly or Zach Bogosian out of a lineup. O’Reilly, Bogosian, Evander Kane, and Robin Lehner are players fans will (theoretically) be watching for the better part of the next decade; it would behoove the organization to let the fans get a glimpse of them and put faces to all the new names. This could be done by having autograph booths, having the players just go section to section, or any other number of ways. It’s not a difficult thing to execute.
– Improve the in arena amenities. I was down at the arena on Monday for the practice and grabbed the last soft pretzel at one of the two concession stands at 1:30 pm. That’s totally fine if the practice wasn’t ending at 3. Having a concession stand open with only half of its menu items available, and having the available items understocked, is pointless. Either open them and do it right or don’t open them at all. There was also nothing to do inside the arena other than watch practice. Having a few interactive activities for fans would help solve that issue, especially when kids get antsy from watching three hours of hockey practice. The Slapshot Accuracy machine, for instance, would be a nice addition that could be run by an intern for the day. Sabretooth was also not there on Monday from what I saw. There were tons of young kids who don’t get to FNC very often, and the team’s mascot was nowhere to be found. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a small thing that goes a long way to improving the experience of younger fans.
– Take advantage of Haborcenter. The facility is open with pregame activities during the season, yet not this week. Having the open skates at Harborcenter (that they do before home games) either before or after the prospects are on the ice would’ve been a nice way for people to make a day out of being at the arena. You could even have a roster player skate around with the fans for a half hour if you wanted to get crazy. Having lunch/drink/happy hour specials should’ve also been a layup. Looking at when the on-ice portion of the camp ends each day, one would think a lunch special makes perfect sense. The organization could even promote some of the new retail shops opening up in the building. It’s yet another way to keep people in the area, plus it’s an opportunity to make some money for the restaurant.
– Street Hockey Fest. This event seems to be an annual thing, although nothing appears to have been released in terms of the event happening this year.
Looking at the schedule, the Saturday of development camp (an off day for prospects) would’ve been a perfect for it. The team could make a few bucks on team registration fees, kids aren’t inside playing video games, and parents find something to occupy their kids for a day; it’s a win for everybody. Add a few players signing autographs (or guest refereeing?), and perhaps some arena tours, and you’ve got the makings of a great day for fans.
– Utilize Canalside. This is the perfect weekend for a “Sabres Carnival” type event. Hosting the event Saturday during the street hockey tournament and Sunday after the 3 on 3 tournament would be perfect. The team did this a few years ago and even brought in a band (10,000 Maniacs), so there’s precedent for this happening.
All of these suggestions are not incredibly complicated, and some have been done before. With where the organization has been the last few years this week could’ve really served as a catalyst to get fans back into the Sabres and back into hockey. Fans still filled up FNC the last two seasons (for the most part) despite the on ice product being pretty poor, by doing a few little things (like player autographs) the franchise can show its appreciation for those who showed up every night to watch a historically bad team, while also taking a few steps to repatriate some fans who may have been turned off by the happenings of the last couple years.