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Mike Harrington: As we learned at 2011 World Juniors, get ready for a wild time

Seven years ago, there was a lot of curiosity when the World Junior Championship hit town for the first time. We didn't know what we would see.

Now, a lot of us know what to expect. Trust me on this one: Get ready for a wild 10 days downtown. And a crazy afternoon out in Orchard Park.

The Swedes, the Finns and the Russians will always put on a good show. There will be a surprise from somebody, be it Slovakia or Switzerland or Denmark. Team Canada and Team USA will get most of the attention and fan support, whether they're in KeyBank Center or in New Era Field on Dec. 29.

And those Canadian fans? Just expect pure craziness from them.

Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill became the first and only player in Canadian history to win three straight gold medals in this event (1994-96). He got a good deal of notoriety for the feat but he'd be a household name from coast to coast if he did that today.

"In Canada it's gone to a different level," Botterill said. "The popularity and coverage from their summer camps to their selection camps make it an amazing tournament. And with the outdoor game here, I can't even imagine what the atmosphere is going to be there."

"It's a big deal. Let's not kid ourselves. That's how most people get into this league," said Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who played for Sweden in 2011. "National teams are pretty much the channel to being on the radar for the NHL and to getting drafted. It's an honor to play for your country and it's opportunity to show yourself off to scouts and have a better chance."

Buffalo is going to become the first U.S. city to play host for a second time but there will be a different feel around the event this time. Seven years ago, ice skating or curling at the site of Memorial Auditorium was just a dream. So was Canalside. HarborCenter was a parking lot.

When people are not inside watching hockey, there's going to be plenty for them to do outside and that's a great statement about where we've advanced as a community. And we know how to host big events as the litany of NCAA basketball tournaments and the 2003 Frozen Four also show.

The '11 World Juniors belongs on that list as well, with full houses or close to it on hand to see Canada and Team USA play all of their games.

Sabres center Johan Larsson, who captained Sweden to the gold medal in the 2012 Edmonton-Calgary tournament, made his debut for his home country here the year before. He vividly remembers the scene.

"I was really excited," Larsson said. "I had never been to Buffalo and you heard so much about the tournament. The experience was great and one reason was it was crazy here. We didn't know what the deal was with Canada at all. We had no idea. There were Canadians fans everywhere and we were a little shocked about that. They bring the atmosphere and it's great for the tournament."

Indeed, the tournament was more red and white than red, white and blue in 2011 and the bet here is that will happen again. When Canada and Team USA played in the semifinals seven years ago, there were far more fans from north of the border in the stands. It was actually disappointing to see. Team Canada won the game, 5-1, against what turned into a mostly forgettable American entry.

"That was unbelievable. The whole process of playing for Canada in that tournament was something I'll never forget," then-Sabres draft pick Marcus Foligno said last month while in town with the Minnesota Wild. "Leaving your junior team to go play with the best of your country was a special moment. It pushed me to get to the NHL a lot quicker. We had some great games. The semifinal against the United States was incredible."

Many Sabres have been in the tournament. Evander Kane was on Canada's legendary 2009 gold medal team that included future Sabres Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson as well as  future NHL stars P.K. Subban, John Tavares and Jamie Benn. Sam Reinhart won for Canada in 2015 when he played with Connor McDavid and they beat Jack Eichel's U.S. entry in a pool play game on New Year's Eve in Montreal. Jake McCabe captained Team USA's 2013 gold medalists coached by Phil Housley.

Rasmus Ristolainen scored what might have been the biggest single goal ever for Finland, an overtime winner in the 2014 gold medal game against Sweden. Ristolainen played in the tourney three times, the first in the '12 event in Canada.

"It was great for me. I still miss it. It was a great time in your life," Ristolainen said. "I was fortunate to be there three times for Finland. I enjoyed every single one. That was the first big tournament I ever played in. There were big stars on that team and I was fortunate to play my first one in Canada. The crowd was great and to see what hockey means over here was really good.

"And then I was fortunate to have a great moment. I haven't won anything else really and that's my top moment so far. I hope there's some good moments coming for me and the team I play on."

Seven years later, Lehner still has a pained smile about Sweden's shootout loss to Russia in the '11 semifinals here.

"It was a really good tournament but, of course, I remember being screwed against the Russians," Lehener said. "That was the ref's fault."

Russia's tying goal came late in the third period after an icing call was waved off, catching Lehner and his teammates off guard.

"He called the icing off for some non-existent reason," Lehner said. "Their player got it, passed it out front and they scored. Still angry about that one."

The gold medal game was another classic. Canada led, 3-0, through 40 minutes and it seemed more coronation than competition. Then it all fell apart.

The Russians scored five goals to win the game, 5-3, in what rates as the biggest collapse in the history of Canadian international play at any level. It was front-page news and talk-show fodder up north for days.

Four of the five goals came from Russia's top line. They were prospects then. They are stars now: Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington) and Artemi Panarin (Columbus via Chicago).

"We had such a good team but in junior hockey things can happen," St. Louis Blues star Brayden Schenn, the tourney's leading scorer while playing for Canada, told me when the Sabres visited earlier this month. "You have a 3-0 lead and you think you'd be able to hold it down but you have someone like Tarasenko and he had Panarin with him. It all happened pretty quick.

"You always wish you still had that gold medal," Schenn said. "But there's good players who have jumped to big careers. At that level, there's big swings in games sometimes."

"It would be worse if it happened against guys who aren't in the NHL today," Foligno admitted. "You're talking elite, elite players. They scored at will and we lost to them and it still stinks but that was a real good team. They must have had a second intermission in that room because they came out flying."

In 2011, 16 first-round pick from the previous draft were on the ice. Who will you be watching this time? Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is a good bet to be the No. 1 overall draft pick come June. Team USA will be led by Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres' top pick earlier this year. It will almost be more fun to look at the rosters four years from now to see who become what.

We know that's how it will play out. We've learned from 2011. This should be wild. Again.

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