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Team Canada spends Christmas Eve at Ruffs

Team Canada felt right at home on Christmas Eve even though they were in Western New York.

That's because one of their own, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, opened up his house to the Canadian Under-20 team Friday so that they could bond by spreading some holiday cheer, enjoying fine dining, engaging in competitive fun by playing video games, ping pong and bubble hockey and exchanging gifts.

Ruff was an assistant on last year's gold-medal winning Canadian Olympic team and also has served as head coach at the World Championship.

The gesture is something that was greatly appreciated, especially by Sabres prospects Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian, as the Canadians returned to work Saturday afternoon to prepare for today's heavyweight IIHF World Under-20 Championship opener against Russia (4 p.m., NHL Network).

"It was awesome," said Foligno, who was born in Western New York and has dual citizenship. "For Lindy and his family to bring us into their own home, it's Christmas Eve dinner. You don't have too many guys bring in 20-something guys and share with their family. It was really special."

Ruff did briefly address the team, stressing to them to enjoy the moment as representing Canada in international play is a special honor.

It's especially true when the Canadians get to play longtime-rival Russia. The two have strung together a plethora of memorable tournament moments since 1977, with the Russians holding a 17-14-2 edge in the all-time series. Canada, which didn't play Russia in last year's tournament, has won the most gold medals (15) followed by Russia (12).

"It's huge," forward said Brett Connolly. "We're looking forward to the challenge."

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Uwe Krupp has fond memories of Buffalo. The former Sabres defenseman figures he'll run into plenty of people he knows over the next 10 days.

But he won't get to see one man he had hoped to run into. The Team Germany assistant hadn't heard of Jim Kelley's passing until being informed that the Hockey Hall of Famer and former Buffalo News columnist lost his battle with cancer last month.

Krupp, who is also the head coach of Germany's National/Olympic Team and the first German to ever play in the NHL, didn't even know Kelley was battling cancer.

"He was the guy, I came to Sabreland, Scotty Bowman said to me 'Uwe you have to do an interview.' He went over to Jim Kelley and said 'Jim you better treat this guy right. Be nice to him. Don't be like you normally are,' " Krupp recalled. "I was just standing there, eyes wide open. My first time away from home in North American. Jim did an unbelievable interview. My English wasn't perfect, so he helped me with the questions. He's a big loss to the hockey [community] and Western New York. He'll be missed."

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Team USA held a vote to select its captains. Defenseman John Ramage won the honor to wear the 'C.' He's not the only member worthy of wearing a letter. Ramage voted for Ryan Bourque, Jeremy Morin and Kyle Palmieri. Bourque and Morin were selected as alternates. All are returnees from last year's gold-medal winning squad.

"We have a very good team this year," said Ramage, a first-time captain. "Everyone in that locker room can lead and I think that's special."

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Team USA opted not to practice Saturday morning because coach Keith Allain thought his team needed a breather before facing Finland tonight at HSBC Arena.

"It wasn't a Christmas-type gift," he said. "We've been going at it pretty hard. We got a sense that physically they needed a day off. We did an active warm-up [kicking around a soccer ball], guys were getting treatments in there. We'll have a pre-game skate [today] and play the game [tonight]."

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com