By Rob Crean- Amerks.com
While Justin Bailey has spent plenty of time in and around First Niagara Center over the years, his first step onto the ice this Wednesday night will carry added significance. The Williamsville native and lifelong Sabres fan who cheered the team as a kid and participated in development and training camps as a prospect, will play his first regular season professional hockey game in Buffalo as a member of the Rochester Americans.
|Bailey grew up playing for the Amherst Knights (Photo courtesy of Justin Bailey)|
The Amerks’ trek down the Thruway has become an annual event. On Wednesday, the team will face-off with the North Division rival St. John’s IceCaps, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, at First Niagara Center in a 7:05 p.m. matchup.
Bailey will enter the game as one of only four Amerks to have appeared in all 30 games so far this season. He’s also one of two Buffalo natives on the team, joining veteran forward Patrick Kaleta. For Kaleta, skating in downtown Buffalo is old hat, having appeared in 348 career games with the Sabres over parts of nine seasons. But for the 20-year-old Bailey, who was drafted by the Sabres in the second round (52nd overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft, the chance to play a pro game in his hometown on Wednesday will mark a major milestone.
“It’s exciting and special, something I’ve worked my whole life toward,” Bailey said of the opportunity to play in Buffalo following practice on Monday.
Playing the majority of his home games just over an hour from Williamsville, Bailey routinely has family in attendance at The Blue Cross Arena. But he’s expecting an even bigger turnout on Wednesday.
“I already put aside a pretty good amount of tickets,” he said. “I’ll have a lot of support with a lot of family and friends. It will be great to represent myself in Buffalo at the highest level I’ve ever played at.”
The foundation for Bailey’s career was laid in the youth hockey programs of Buffalo, with the majority of his time spent with the Amherst Knights program. He also played one year for the Buffalo Regals and a partial season with Canisius High School.
“I played my first 15 or 16 years of hockey in Buffalo. It’s definitely a hockey city,” said Bailey, who lists his favorite players growing up as former Sabres co-captains Danny Briere and Chris Drury. “There’s a lot of good competition and a lot of good players are starting to come out of there now. For me, it’s the place that helped me build my base and get where I am now.”
After a brief stint with the USHL’s Indiana Ice, Bailey continued his hockey career closer to home in the Ontario Hockey League, primarily with the Kitchener Rangers before finishing last season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Now in his first full pro season, Bailey currently ranks third on the Amerks among rookies with 10 points on three goals and seven assists. And while his game has taken noticeable steps forward over the last three months, that first step onto the ice Wednesday might be the biggest for him.
“Every summer, going to development camps and training camps (at First Niagara Center) have all been awesome things, but being from Buffalo and playing a pro game there for the first time will be another great step.”