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Sabres players re-live their World Junior memories

December 21, 2017
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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship is set to begin on Tuesday when the first game of the tournament between the Czech Republic and Russia gets underway at KeyBank Center. It will be the second time in the tournament's history that Buffalo will play host to the eleven-day tournament, the first time since 2011.

The annual tournament showcases some of the best players from around the world under the age of 20. This year, the Buffalo Sabres will likely have five players representing the organization from four different countries.

Many of the current Sabres have played in this tournament in the past. All together, 15 players on the current roster have played in at least one tournament in their careers. Five players on the current roster have gotten the chance to represent their country in multiple World Junior tournaments.

Every player's experience has been a different one, whether it ends with a medal or not, but the message is pretty similar all around.

"Any time you get a chance to represent your country is a special thing," said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo after practice on Thursday. "To put the USA jersey on and hear the anthem after a win is really special. Wish I would've been able to play in one stateside, but it's a great experience. You have the eyes of the hockey world watching you for a week and a half, and it's a really fun tournament."

"It was the biggest moment of my life at that point," said Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella of his World Juniors experience. "It's just huge playing for Team Canada when the tournament was held in Canada. It felt like a surreal experience. The World Juniors in Canada is bigger than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Everyone is watching that during the holidays, and just trying to find out who the future stars are going to be. Once I got to that level and got to play, it was just magical."

Sabres head coach Phil Housley never played in a World Junior tournament in his playing career, but was fortunate enough to coach the 2013 United States national team to a gold medal in Russia. Housley gets what it means for the players to get an opportunity to wear the nation's colors and play for the right to be called the world's best hockey team.

"Any time you get to represent your country it's an honor. There's a lot of pride that goes into it when you put on that sweater," Housley said with Howard Simon on WGR on Wednesday. "I think [Team USA] has come such a long way with consistency in our hockey program. It's a great experience. The last time the World Juniors were here in 2011, the fans got behind us and gave us tremendous support. Being able to win a medal, even though we lost that big game against Canada, it was a great experience. It just showcases a lot of the future stars of the game. There's going to be a lot of really good players in this tournament. It's going to be an exciting time, and hopefully the USA can get the back-to-back gold."

Many current NHL players took part in the 2011 World Juniors and have gone on to have considerable success in the league. Two current Sabres players took part in that tournament in goalie Robin Lehner and forward Johan Larsson. Both played for Sweden, who failed to medal after losing in the bronze medal game against the United States.

For Larsson, coming to Buffalo in 2011 was a whole new experience for him at 18 years of age.

"It meant a lot," Larsson said. "For us (Sweden), the World Juniors is kind of big. Coming over here is kind of the first time coming over to the U.S. or Canada. It's on the TV, you're on the big scene for a couple of weeks, so you learn the whole tournament was kind of crazy. It was fun playing in every game, the media was good, and it was a great experience."

Although Sweden failed to medal in 2011, they bounced back the next year with a gold medal win over the Russians in Alberta, Canada. That year, Larsson led the Swedes as team captain while racking up six assists in six games played.

"We knew we had a good team, we had a solid team," Larsson said. "The whole year we were playing good with that team, and we knew it was the time. We just knew this team was going to do it. We had a lot of good character guys. Definitely going all the way in Canada, I can't explain how exciting and fun it was."

Another former Sabre who knows what it's like to win gold at the World Junior Championship is forward Sam Reinhart. After failing to medal in the 2014 tournament, Reinhart and the Canadians returned to home soil and dominated the field en route to a gold medal win over the Russians.

"The enthusiasm that comes with junior hockey in Canada from those little towns like the one I played in in Cranbrook (British Columbia) is so underestimated. That's the time of year where it really shows," Reinhart said. "The passion that wipes across the country is great to be a part of. Whether you're at home, overseas or this close to the border, you feel that support especially being a Canadian.

"To do it the way we did in Toronto, you couldn't have set up a better scenario for us."

One of the biggest rivalries in hockey will take shape once again this year at the tournament, but with a unique twist to the tradition. For the first time in World Junior history, the United States and Canada will play one another in an outdoor game at New Era Field on December 29th.

In the tournament's 42-year history, the U.S. and Canada have played some all-time classic games. The two teams have met up several times in the medal rounds, including last year's tournament where the U.S. captured the gold medal in a shootout in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

While many of the players in the NHL have a close relationship with one another, regardless of where they come from, the rivalry between the U.S. and Canada will likely continue for many more years.

"Everyone has their own opinions. You've got Canada-Russia or Canada-U.S. from our perspectives, those are the two huge ones," Reinhart said. "For me, Canada-U.S. was always the biggest. Especially at that age when you're more familiar with the U.S. guys being from Canada, whether you play with them or against them numerous time growing up. That's the one that was a big one, that made it easy to get up for. I can't imagine a better place for that to be set this year in Buffalo.

"It's just huge," Scandella echoes. "You don't want to lose to the U.S. if you're Canadian and vise-versa. You just know you're playing for your country, for pride. It's a big moment in hockey. Everyone watches the World Juniors. You don't want to lose and have that hanging over your head for the rest of your career."

On Wednesday, the Sabres officially loaned prospect Alexander Nylander to the Swedish national hockey team for the World Juniors, making him the fifth prospect to likely compete in the tournament. Nylander joins fellow Swede Marcus Davidsson, Vojtech Budik (Czech Republic), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Finland), and Casey Mittelstadt (United States) as the Sabres' representatives in Buffalo.

Housley is hoping that this tournament can give Nylander, and every Sabres prospect an added boost of energy heading into the second half of the hockey season.

"It gives all of our prospects that are going to be able to go play in this tournament a chance to represent their country," Housley said following practice on Thursday. "[Nylander] can get back with some of the teammates he's played with before and that he's familiar with. Obviously we want to have him succeed. I think you can get a good boost of confidence if your country does well and that's what we're looking from him, just to continue to develop his game."

On the ice Thursday, Housley did some more shuffling of the lines as he continues to look for ways to get some more positive outcomes on a nightly basis.

Here's how the lines looked:


Kane - O'Reilly - Okposo

Girgensons - Eichel - Reinhart

Pouliot - Josefson - Pominville

Nolan - Larsson - Wilson


Scandella - Ristolainen

McCabe - Bogosian

Gorges - Beaulieu

Antipin - Falk


Evan Rodrigues was the extra skater for the Sabres. Here's also a look at how the powerplays lined up:


PP1:

Kane - O'Reilly - Okposo

Eichel - Ristolainen


PP2:

Pouliot - Reinhart - Pominville

Scandella - Beaulieu

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