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As Sabres' Johan Larsson returns to Sweden, he remembers a historic day in the park

STOCKHOLM — Even as the sun shines brightly on Stockholm this week, it's chilly in Kungstradgarden and not nearly as crowded as the city's most popular downtown park is in the summer. Small children stumble around the park's ice rink, carrying tiny hockey sticks because, well, they start them young here like they do in Canada.

Sabres center Johan Larsson last week encouraged anyone who asked about the park, even without its famed cherry blossoms, to check it out during the team's trip for the NHL Global Series. Nearly eight years ago, he spent one afternoon there as a national hero.

On Jan. 5, 2012, Larsson was the captain for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships in Calgary. Playing the gold-medal game against Russia, Sweden pulled out a 1-0 victory on an overtime goal by current New York Rangers star Mika Zibanejad to win its first championship since 1981.

"It was an unbelievable moment. The World Juniors were getting bigger and bigger in Sweden, and we had a lot of good years but were never able to win again," Larsson said. "For us to finally do it and then to come home and see how many people were following it was amazing. It's something I'll remember forever."

The Swedish roster included Vegas' William Karlsson, Nashville's Filip Forsberg, Anaheim's Rickard Rakell and Dallas defenseman John Klingberg. They beat a Russian team that included current Tampa Bay standouts Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, as well as former Sabres prospects Viktor Antipin, Mikhail Grigorenko and Andrei Makarov. It was Makarov who played goalie in the deciding game ahead of Vasilevskiy.

The players headed out of Calgary and were told there would be a reception of some sort when they got to Stockholm. They had no idea what was coming.

"We landed and there were a lot of people at the airport and you were surprised," Larsson said. "You're thinking, 'Whoa, there's people waiting for us.' But then they had a bus for us to go into the city and we get there and there's 20,000 people waiting in the park to celebrate. It was crazy. Just crazy."

The scene is well-known in recent Swedish sports history. The small stage at one end of the park still remains, often used for summer speeches and concerts. The players later met members of the royal family at the Royal Palace. On that cold day, Larsson's team was the center of attention.

"The whole park was filled up. From the stage to the other end," he said. "It was amazing."

Larsson grew up in Lau, a tiny locale on the island of Gotland located in the Baltic Sea. It doesn't produce many hockey players and certainly not many who become NHLers and earn national acclaim on the international stage.

"You have to take a ferry three hours or a 30-minute flight," he said. "Lau is super small farm country, but it's a nice vacation spot in the summer. I always enjoy spending time there."

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Larsson is one of six Swedes on the Buffalo roster having a homecoming for this weekend's games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The teams play here Friday and Saturday nights, which will make them matinees in Buffalo.

"It's been really good to do this," he said after practice Wednesday in Ericsson Globe. "It's a little bit of a weird feeling coming here in the middle of the season because you never do that. But now that you're here, you're walking around, and it feels like home. I just walked around on our off day, got coffee, did some shopping and was watching people."

Larsson spent time Wednesday doing an interview with veteran Swedish journalist Marie Lehmann of SVT, the national public television network that is similar to the BBC.

They were laughing about the Sabres' big rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in part because Buffalo's Nov. 29 home game against Toronto will be on national television in Sweden. With a 4 p.m. faceoff in Buffalo, it will only be 10 p.m. here.

Lehmann has covered many World Junior Championships, including the 2012 tournament. She said she learned of the plan for the rally in Stockholm after the gold medal, but there were only business class fares remaining and she could not make it home in time.

"But something happened we would not have seen had we left quickly," she recalled. "We were in the hotel in Calgary and all the staff that had been rooting for Canada, who didn't make it to the gold-medal game, gathered together for Team Sweden. They lined up and the team left (through the lobby) and they were all cheering for Team Sweden. It was so cool. I still get them, the goosebumps, thinking about it."

Larsson is one of the forgotten Swedes on this trip, overshadowed by the star power of Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman and Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin, as well as the emergence of Sabres rookie Victor Olofsson.

His post-World Junior career has been much the same, with bouts of uneven play marking his time in Buffalo.

"Johan was the captain and he was important, but there was only one goal in the (gold-medal) game," Lehmann said. "That was Mika. He is the big star today. Everyone in Sweden knows about that goal, the only goal. And now he plays for the New York Rangers, one of the most popular teams in Sweden, and he's a big star on that team."

Larsson has just one goal and one assist this year for the Sabres but has helped lead a bounce-back for players on the same Buffalo line, along with Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo.

"Larsson is definitely a player who is exemplary in the way he executes on and off the ice," coach Ralph Krueger said here Wednesday. "When we started this journey on the ice, there were a lot of principles and concepts bringing into the group to understand the responsibility we have without the puck and with it. Larsson and his line have really been helpful in bringing these concepts into our group."

Larsson said he's enjoyed his first three days in Stockholm but that the Sabres will have a much different approach starting with Thursday's open practice, expected to be attended by a few thousand fans. The business trip portion of the journey really kicks in.

Still, the team had time in the city Wednesday night and will have some before and after Thursday's practice, which doesn't begin until 3 p.m. local time. The bars and restaurants of Kungstradgarden are available to them.

"It's a beautiful park, a beautiful place to walk around," Larsson said. "In Stockholm, the Old Town section and that park are special places. Certainly are for me."

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