By Nick Wojton firstname.lastname@example.org
Get ready Niagara Falls, junior hockey is back in the Cataract City.
The Lockport Express of the NA3HL have shipped up to Niagara County to establish a new identity in Niagara Falls — as the Niagara Falls Powerhawks. The team will bring the first dose of junior hockey to the city since the 80’s.
The Powerhawks have set up shop at the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion, switching gears from the newly built Cornerstone Arena in Lockport where the team spent their first three years as an organization.
Despite the new facility, general manager Frank Vecchio said the move was purely made because of financial reasons, such as facility usage costs, expressing remorse for Express fans.
“It came down to economics. The fans out in Lockport were great,” Vecchio said. ” For a business model, we just couldn’t make it work.”
But so far so good in Niagara Falls, according to Vecchio said.
“It’s taken off pretty well,” he said. “No disrespect to Lockport, the people out there are amazing. But people come from all over to Niagara Falls, the name is recognizable.”
Local officials have taken notice too. Mayor of Niagara Falls Paul Dyster and Chief of Police Bryan DalPorto have both taken to Twitter to express their support of the Powerhawks.
“Glad to have @NFPowerHawks coming on board, bringing #NA3HL Jr. Hockey to #NiagaraFallsNY!” the mayor tweeted on June 27.
For both Vecchio and new head coach and Niagara Falls native Jason Hill, support from the local community will be a key to the team’s success.
“We appreciate that backing we’ve got,” Hill said. “To get the community involved will be huge. At this level of hockey, you see a lot of hungry kids which could make for an environment even better than a Sabres game at times.”
As owner of Hill’s Hockey Development, which is run out of Hyde Park, Hill is no stranger to coaching hockey in the region. He played four years for the Buffalo State Bengals, setting the record for assists (91) and tying the all-time record for points (131) in the program’s history.
That propelled Hill to spend time playing in the professional minor leagues and semi-professional levels of hockey, including time in the Pittsburgh Penguins system.
However, Hill was not able to get those opportunities from home, having to play his junior hockey in Welland, Ontario, with the Jr. Canadians.
In May 2009 following the completion of his Buffalo State career, Hill had already expressed an interest in coaching in an interview with the Gazette. Now Hill has that chance to coach the team which brings junior hockey back to the Falls.
“It was a goal for us to bring a junior hockey team to Niagara falls as there was in the past,” Hill said. “I’m hoping I can help some of these kids reach the goals I once did and hopefully even further.”
During the organization’s final season in Lockport, Hill helped Vecchio coach the Express after a change was made during the first half of the season to the coaching staff.
Vecchio said he believes the duo can help bring success to the newly named Powerhawks organization.
“I can be strong on the administrative end and (Hill) can focus on the team on the ice,” Vecchio said.
The NA3HL’s tier III level of junior hockey consists of 48 teams and eight divisions, spanning across 21 different states. Niagara Falls will compete in the Northeast division, which consists of teams in Binghamton, Oswego, Rochester, and two others based in New Jersey in Stockholm and Wall Township.
Lockport competed in the Northeast Division as well, finishing with a record of 18-29-0 last season. Last year’s squad was mostly homegrown, as 20 of the 24 players from the roster were from Niagara or Erie Counties.
The NA3HL season will begin in September.