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CHANCE TO DEFEND WORLD TITLE AN HONOR BRIERE WOULD RATHER NOT HAVE

Daniel Briere speaks of the accomplishment in a tone approaching reverence. He is immensely proud of the gold medal he recently won playing for Canada at the World Championships.

That, however, is a title he doesn't want to defend next spring.

"No, not at all," the Buffalo Sabres' feisty center said. "I had a great time, but I'd rather be in the Stanley Cup playoffs."

A gold medal at the World Championships is a source of pride in Canada, so much so that the players cried after the medals were hung on their necks and the national anthem was played.

But the World Championships are a booby prize of sorts. Tournament rosters are filled by players who didn't qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Briere has his heart set on reaching the NHL postseason in 2004, and he is a major reason Sabres fans hold hope that the moribund club can turn it around.

Briere became an instant fan favorite when he was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes for enigmatic center Chris Gratton. Briere had seven goals and five assists in 14 games with Buffalo. He was Canada's second-leading scorer in the World Championships with four goals -- two were winners -- and five assists.

"The goal I'm setting for next year is I want the Sabres to make the playoffs," Briere said last week while driving with his father from Phoenix to his hometown of Gatineau, Quebec.

"I'm already thinking about it. I'm really excited. I don't know if it's just me, but I was just really impressed with the team in Buffalo."

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier pulled off one of his biggest deals when he acquired Briere. Regier was able to get so much in return for Gratton because the Coyotes had soured on Briere, even though he scored 32 goals in 2001-02.

Briere eventually found himself on the fourth line in Phoenix. He had 17 goals and 29 assists in 68 games before the trade.

"It was a difficult time getting traded at the trade deadline, but I don't regret it one bit," Briere said. "I wasn't playing well. I'm not going to hide from it. At the end in Phoenix I wasn't playing much. It's a good thing (the trade) happened."

Said Regier: "What we saw was a very rejuvenated player when he arrived here. He fit in well not only on the ice but on the team itself. The chemistry was good."

Gratton had zero goals, one assist and a minus-11 rating in 14 games after the trade. He was invited to play in the World Championships but declined.

The last two months have been a whirlwind for Briere, but he already has purchased a home in Amherst. He plans to take the next month off to spend time with his wife and three sons, whom he said he has seen "about five days in the last two months."

The Sabres are confident they soon will lock up Derek Roy and Chris Thorburn, two centers taken in the second round in 2001. If they are not signed by June 1, the Sabres will lose their rights and those prospects will go back into next month's draft pool.

Roy has been spectacular for the Kitchener Rangers in winning the Ontario Hockey League championship and moving on to the Memorial Cup. He has 12 goals and 23 assists in 24 postseason games.

Thorburn had 30 goals, 41 assists and 124 penalty minutes in 64 games with the Plymouth Whalers.

The Sabres also want to sign forward Mike Ryan and defenseman Dennis Wideman even though they aren't under a deadline to do so.

Ryan was the collegiate prospect obtained from the Dallas Stars in the Stu Barnes trade. Ryan accounted for 22 percent of Northeastern's offense in his senior season, leading the team with 18 goals and 32 points.

Wideman, an eighth-round draft pick last year, had 20 goals and 27 assists in 55 games for the London Knights of the OHL.

The Sabres aren't interested in signing Jakub Klepis for next season. Klepis, acquired in the deal that sent Vaclav Varada to the Ottawa Senators, still has one year of junior eligibility. He probably will return to the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League after an unsuccessful season in the Czech Republic.

"We're going to leave him in junior next year or he'll play in Europe," Regier said.

The Sabres still haven't heard from forward Jaroslav Kristek since the 1998 second-round draft pick left the Rochester Americans prior to the American Hockey League playoffs.

Kristek, who missed the last two weeks of the regular season with an illness, was cleared to play in the postseason but returned to the Czech Republic, apparently upset he didn't get a better shot at playing with Buffalo.

"He remains a suspended player," Regier said. "We retain his rights.

"There's a good chance he will play in Europe next year. It was disappointing but maybe necessary. There's no point in having him here if he doesn't want to be here."

Kristek was one of 15 players who dressed for both Buffalo and Rochester and one of seven who made his NHL debut. He had no points in six games for Buffalo, and 15 goals and 17 assists in 47 games for Rochester.

"He certainly has a lot of talent," Regier said. "I think he's got to sort some things out for himself, and until or if he does that we can look at him again as a potential Sabre. He's got to figure out what he wants."

There will be two sessions of the Sabres Hockey School this summer for mites, squirts, peewees and bantams. The first runs from July 7-11 in Holiday Twin Rinks and the second from Aug. 18-22 in the Amherst Pepsi Center.

Participants will receive, among other things, four 100 Level tickets to a Sabres preseason game.

The cost for each session is $200, and registration will be handled on a first-come basis. For more information, call Pat Fisher at 855-4459.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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