Even before he ever made a national team, Marcus Foligno recalls the tradition of watching the IIHF World Junior Championship each year on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas in Canada and the annual start date for the international ice hockey tournament.
When the chance finally did come for him to participate back in 2010, the tournament happened to be held in Buffalo – not only Foligno’s birthplace, but the city where his father, Mike (a Canadian citizen), spent the bulk of his NHL career and the place to which he himself had been drafted two years earlier.
Now, on the heels of an announcement made on Friday that Buffalo would host the 2018 World Junior Championship (which begins in Dec. 2017), Foligno recalls the feeling of finding out he was going to represent Canada in the tournament five years ago.
“I think the whole process of training camp is what sticks out with me,” he said. “I went in there as a player that wasn’t even invited to summer camp and I made it out just because of how the year was going for me. I really went in there with confidence and positivity and came out making the team, so that was exciting.
“For it to be in Buffalo was really special.”
Foligno and Canada went on to win silver that year, falling to Russia 5-3 in the gold medal game at what is now First Niagara Center. Along the way, he had his fair share of memorable moments.
Take a preliminary round matchup between Canada and Switzerland on New Year’s Eve, for example. The Canadians lost 6-5 in a shootout, but Foligno was named the game’s most valuable player for his physicality and for tallying an assist.
Two future teammates, current Sabres forward Johan Larsson and goaltender Robin Lehner, played for Sweden in that game. When Lehner was traded to Buffalo over the summer, he and Foligno reminisced about the matchup.
“When he first got traded here he came up to me and was like, ‘For some reason I knew we would play together,’” Foligno said. “I think it’s good because I remember playing him in Rochester when he was with Binghamton and he’s a great goaltender and a great guy too.”
Canada avenged the loss with a 4-1 win over the Swedes in the quarterfinals, setting the stage for a semifinal matchup between the Canadians and the United States. As Foligno recalls, there was no better site for the game than Buffalo, just a 20-minute drive from the Canadian border.
If the U.S. and Canada play each other outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the 2018 tournament – USA Hockey announced that an outdoor game will be a part of the tournament and that U.S.-Canada is the preferred matchup – Foligno said he would expect a packed house.
“It’s going to be sold out, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. When we played the U.S. in Buffalo it was loud, it was exciting for all of us. It was great to beat the U.S.A. but, I mean, it felt like we had a lot of Canadian fans being so close to the border in Buffalo. It was a great mix of U.S. and Canadian fans for that game and it was a great rivalry.”
Looking back, Foligno thinks of that tournament in its entirety as a time when Buffalo truly began to set itself apart as a hockey market.
Since then, it’s continued to grow – HARBORCENTER has been built and will replace Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena as a secondary venue in 2018, and other events like the NHL Scouting Combine and the Women’s U18 World Championship have come to Buffalo in the past year.
In June, Buffalo will host the 2016 NHL Draft.
For Foligno, who is able to experience the passion of Buffalo’s fan base each time he puts on a Sabres sweater at First Niagara Center, the experience of seeing the city show itself on a national stage made for a special time.
“There was a huge buzz,” he said. “For Buffalo to get that tournament and have it in town, that was something that was special for the city and it kind of helped showcase how big of a hockey town Buffalo is. I think with Buffalo now, it’s kind of turning that way that they’re a hockey town. We have some pretty crazy fans and it’s getting noticed.”