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Sabres excited for return of World Juniors

The last time the World Junior Championships were in Buffalo, Marcus Foligno was a 19-year-old one day hoping to crack the Sabres’ roster. He was a former fourth-round draft pick, better known as the son of former Buffalo captain Mike Foligno.

But as one of the standouts of Team Canada, Foligno quickly learned what a hockey crowd in Buffalo could be during the 2011 tournament.

“It was just amazing,” Foligno recalled Thursday after word spread that Buffalo has been chosen to again host the event in 2018. “The whole tournament itself was crazy, hectic but it was a lot of fun with great memories. The skill and talent you play against was great European players. It definitely got me out there and more confident as a player, letting me handle situations better.”

Foligno recalled how then-HSBC Arena was filled with Canadian fans, with the crescendo rising to its highest points during the semifinal win over Team USA and the gold medal loss to Russia.

“It was almost like a showcase for myself with the fans,” he said. “They were awesome and we had fans from all over the place. A lot of Canadian fans came down for the USA vs. Canada game. It was outstanding, loud the whole game. Something I’ll never forget. There were a lot of red jerseys. We knew it was in Buffalo and on American soil but being part of Team Canada we had a lot of Canadian fans and they showed their support big time.”

Many Sabres have played in the World Juniors on their way up to the NHL. Sam Reinhart tied with Connor McDavid for the scoring lead in the tournament last year as Canada beat Russia in the gold-medal game in Toronto.

His linemates in the tournament were Arizona prospects Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, and the trio will be opponents Friday night in First Niagara Center as the Sabres meet the Coyotes.

“It’s been fun watching each other and how everyone’s careers have progressed over the past year,” Reinhart said. “It makes it fun to look at the schedule and know you’ve got some buddies that you can catch up and reminsce with and compete against them again. We’ve had a lot of experiences together. It will be exciting going up against each other.”

All three have blossomed this season. Reinhart has six goals – third on the Buffalo roster – and nine points. Domi has eight goals and a team-high 21 points for Arizona, second among NHL rookies, while Duclair has eight goals and six assists.

“I had a blast. It was one of the best times of my life,” Reinhart said. “And I remember watching it on TV when it was in Buffalo and I know how good the crowd could get. That will be exciting.”

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was serving as a television analyst for last year’s tournament games in Montreal and was blown away by how well Reinhart’s line played.

“Sam Reinhart on the ice with Domi and Duclair was the best line in the tournament. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Bylsma said. “There was obviously a lot of talk about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel surrounding that tournament but they were the best line.

“There was a lot of speed on that line with Duclair and Domi on the wings. I thought Sam was the steady influence in the middle in distributing the puck and playing on the right side of the puck.”

Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen scored the gold medal-winning goal in overtime for Finland over Sweden at the 2014 World Juniors in Malmo, Sweden.

“It’s a great tournament, very special in my country,” said Ristolainen. “It’s getting bigger and bigger every year. This year they are there in Finland so it’s huge there and I have some good memories from a couple of years ago that I’m going to remember all of my life. Great fans in Buffalo. I bet pretty much all the games are going to be packed here. It’s going to be good for the city.”

Ristolainen’s “Golden Goal” and his wild celebration after lives forever on YouTube as well as in the annals of Finnish hockey.

“Someone had to score if you wanted to win and it was me. I remember more the win,” he said. “That was one of the better couple days in my life. There was a huge celebration with the team and the families and it was a nice experience.”