The Buffalo Sabres are going to be out of town for much of the World Junior Championship, with Tuesday's initial set of four games one of the few chances they'll have to check out the action at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter.
The tourney's opening is a flashback for many members on the team. Defenseman Jake McCabe, for one, captained Team USA to its 2013 title in Ufa, Russia, on a club that was coached by current Sabres boss Phil Housley. The Americans' open defense of their gold medal in this event Tuesday at 8 against Denmark, with the buildup growing for Friday's outdoor game against Canada in New Era Field.
"It's going to be a fun tournament. It always is and I'm looking forward to following it," McCabe said. "It's too bad we won't be around to catch more games because I know espcially that outdoor game is going to be really cool. I wish we could have somehow swung our Winter Classic at New Era Field but it's going to be really fun for those guys."
"I'm going to try to get to the game against Denmark here just to show some support," Housley said. "It's great they're bringing the same coaching staff back they had last year. They have some consistency and they really feed off each other."
McCabe had three goals and three assists in the 2013 tournament, leading the team with a plus-9 rating. McCabe and current Winnipeg Jets standout Jacob Trouba were the two defensemen named to the tourney's all-star team.
"It's such a huge tournament, to see where players have gone from the World Juniors to their development," said Housley. "You look at the 2013 team, and it's great to see where they're playing now."
In addition to McCabe and Trouba, the American roster included Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk, J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey of the New York Rangers, Florida's Vincent Trocheck, Columbus' Seth Jones, Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere and Anaheim goalie John Gibson, who was the tournament MVP.
"It's always exciting to see the games and you're reliving it a little bit every year," McCabe said. "It's just such a unique tournament that brings all the young stars together and it's something the whole hockey world is watching that's gotten bigger and bigger. The pressure the Canadians have is quite a bit more than the U.S. guys. Being in Buffalo here, I bet our guys will have a bigger chip on their shoulders and hopefully they can bring home the gold again."
Sabres players routinely have the tournament on televisions in their locker room at home and on the road. The team was in Chicago last year during the Canada-USA shootout in the gold medal game, with roars on each shot audible to reporters in the hallway and then-coach Dan Bylsma briefly delaying his postgame news conference while he was watching the finish as well.
The 2013 version of Team USA only went 2-2 in pool play, suffering 2-1 losses to both Canada and Russia but still sneaking into the quarterfinals. After blowing out the Czech Republic, 7-0, Team USA got revenge with Canada in a 5-1 semifinal blowout. Sweden was dispatched in the gold medal game, 3-1.
McCabe was in his second year on the ice at the University of Wisconsin after being drafted by the Sabres in the second round in 2012. He made his debut with the Sabres in 2014 after signing his pro contract, was a regular in Rochester in 2014-15 and became a full-timer with the Sabres in 2015-16.
McCabe said his World Juniors experience was made unique by making the jaunt to Ufa, a Russian city of about 1 million people located roughly 850 miles from Moscow.
"It was different, a couple interesting experiences there and the food is a lot different,' he said. "I know Canada brought in a couple of their own chefs to make their meals but we just stuck with the old Russian food and it worked out for us. My dad was able to come over there too and it was a lot of fun to have him there."