BUFFALO--The problem with hosting events like the world junior hockey championships for any city is that it sometimes gives outsiders all kinds of time to trash the town they're visiting.
For Buffalo, it started with Team USA forward Emerson Etem labelling it a "ghost town" and complaining it made Medicine Hat look like "paradise," and has sort of continued from there.
It's not Paris. We get it. It's not even Vancouver, which joined the NHL at the same time as Buffalo four decades and has gone in an opposite direction from the western New York city ever since.
But I like hard-hit Buffalo for what it is, warts and all, and I don't even really like chicken wings. It's got personality. It knows what it is. After a week here for the world juniors, here's five things to like about the place:
1. The people. Geez, they're trying. They know the downtown core leaves something to be desired, but there are all kinds of efforts afoot to make it better. There's a friendliness to Buffalo that makes you think of a much smaller town.
2. The free rides. From outside the Hyatt Regency you can catch a light rail all the way to HSBC Arena. For free. Very nice.
3. The history. You don't have dig very deep to understand this was once a very important city. William McKinley was assassinated here. There's a house on Delaware where Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest presidents of them all, was inaugurated. Drive along North St. and look at the mansions that once were home to the wealthy and elite. City Hall looms like a vestige of another time. If you're lucky, like I was, a generous military man might take you on an unofficial of the gorgeous 74th Regiment Armory, the last "castle-style" armory of its type still operating in the United States. If you're curious and history-minded, there's tons here.
4. HSBC Arena. It's a good one. Maybe there aren't all the bells and whistles and the press box is awfully high, but for a hockey fan actually buying a seat, it's as good as there is.
5. The passion. People from Toronto may want to steal their football team, but my goodness, do they care about sport here. It may seem like it's just about the Bills, but it's the NFL beyond that, and college football, and the Sabres, of course. They know hockey here because it's played here. The late, great Jim Kelley wrote about the sport here forever and better than most, and these days, there aren't many better than Bucky Gleason. Sure, maybe more Canadians snapped up tickets for the world juniors than did locals, but they were expensive, maybe too expensive for a town where the recession and unemployment are very real, not abstract ideas. To buy end zone tickets for $105 you've got to either have deep pockets or really, really care about junior hockey. Besides, there's no American town where a Canadian can feel quite so welcome and at home.