CLINTON, NEW YORK - The kids were out of school and at the rink for the Buffalo Sabres' special morning skate at Clinton Arena on Tuesday, and they made their presence known.
Clinton natives braved rainy weather to greet players on the red carpet for autographs as they made their way into the rink.
And once inside, with a DJ blasting tunes over the speakers and hundreds of screaming young hockey fans in the stands, the Sabres took the ice to a lot of noise prior to their preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As part of the fourth annual Kraft Hockeyville USA, the community rink in Clinton, N.Y. was awarded $150,000 in arena upgrades and the opportunity to host tonight's game. It will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 7 p.m. Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray will have the call on WGR 550.
Undeniably, there was a unique energy to Tuesday morning's practice.
"It was great. Tunes were blaring, guys were moving the puck really well and feeling it," coach Phil Housley said. "This crowd was awesome. It was a great atmosphere. It's going to be exciting tonight."
Defenseman Zach Bogosian, a native of Messina, N.Y., played Clinton's minor league team growing up, but this was his first time at Clinton Arena. Players were packed into smaller dressing rooms than normal, which brought back some memories of their days growing up and playing in rinks like this one.
"When you come into a rink like this," he said, "you reminisce a little bit about your childhood and the games that you played and the friends that you meet and the long road trips. It's cool."
The tight corners and narrow lanes behind the nets were also noticeable.
"We'll see how it goes. The corners are pretty square," Bogosian said. "It kind of reminds me of my junior days in Peterborough. It was kind of like that there as well."
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
92 Alexander Nylander - 10 Patrik Berglund - 52 Andrew Oglevie
49 C.J. Smith - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 21 Kyle Okposo
95 Justin Bailey - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 65 Danny O'Regan
19 Jake McCabe - 4 Zach Bogosian
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 8 Casey Nelson
45 Brendan Guhle - 33 Will Borgen
31 Scott Wedgewood
34 Jonas Johansson
Extra skater: Lawrence Pilut
Mittelstadt's education continues
Center Casey Mittelstadt, just two years removed from Minnesota high school hockey where he played in rinks like Clinton Arena, will have a pair of new linemates tonight. Housley said Mittelstadt and the coaching staff reviewed some clips from his last game against Toronto - with an emphasis on defensive zone play - and is looking forward to seeing Mittelstadt put those lessons in action moving forward.
"Every shift, you're not going to get what you want," Housley said. "Obviously, if you play good defense and you have good checking detail, the rest of the things will come in play."
Mittelstadt knows he still has a lot to learn at the pro level. This is his first NHL training camp after signing with the Sabres out of college at the end of last season. He finished the season with five points in six games.
"It's getting better. It hasn't been my best, but I'm getting better each game," he said of his camp so far. "I'm starting to feel it come back. I'm just taking it game by game and trying to get better every day.
"…For me, there's things to learn but I've always caught on pretty quick."
Housley is trying some new looks, including on defense. Rasmus Dahlin has skated almost exclusively with Jake McCabe, but tonight, he'll play alongside Casey Nelson.
"We talked about changing it up, giving guys different partners," Housley said. "We'll see where that takes us but we're just trying to get some looks at different combinations."
Scott Wedgewood is expected to go the full 60.