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by Brian Wheeler / Buffalo Sabres
Drew Stafford is heading to a place filled with memories.  And he'll announce his arrival as a conquering hero.

The former University of North Dakota student athlete returns to the Ralph Engelstad Arena  for the Sabres third exhibition game tonight (8 p.m., WGR 550-AM) as another of the successful professional products of an established, hockey institution. 

Buffalo squares off with the Minnesota Wild for their third exhibition contest in Grand Forks, ND, marking the fourth time Minnesota has played a game on campus.  It will be Stafford's first since signing with the Sabres.

"I was pretty excited," said Stafford of learning Buffalo would play in the arena where he scored 48 goals and 118 points in 120 games. 

A national powerhouse in collegiate hockey, which annually competes for the National Championship, the University of North Dakota boasts some of the most dedicated hockey fans in the WCHA.  The program consistently sells out its 11,000 plus seat arena during the season.

Each time the NHL has visited, the event becomes a little more of a spectacle.

"That was a huge thing," said Stafford.  "It was right at the beginning of the school year and it was kind of the fun thing to do.

"They were using our rink, so we were around all the time and got to see some of the NHL guys.  You don't get a chance to see too much NHL hockey [in North Dakota]."

Stafford left the Fighting Sioux following his junior season, departing for the professional ranks like such recent ND standouts Mike Commodore, Jason Blake, Brandon Bochenski and Zach Parise. 

Having an uncle, Barrie Stafford, who has served as the head equipment manager for the Edmonton Oilers over the past 23 seasons, Stafford had grown up around professional hockey players.  But for some on the Sioux lineup, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"It has a huge impact," said Stafford of the chance to mingle with some of the game's best.  "For me, I was fortunate enough to grow up around the game and get exposed to the NHL game compared to some of the other guys who were on the team and maybe hadn't experienced an NHL locker room, met guys when they were younger or skating around with them.

"But any chance you get to be around that environment is a great experience.  I love hockey so much that I don't care if I've seen it a million times, it never gets old being around that atmosphere."

College campus' often become like a second homes for their students.  Talented winger Thomas Vanek escapes to St. Paul, M.N. during the off-season, returning to his University of Minnesota roots.  Vanek won a National Championship in HSBC Arena as a member of the Golden Gophers in 2003.

Stafford is no different.  The trip to North Dakota is a homecoming of sorts.  Now that he's on the other side of the ice, the professional side, one thing is for certain. 

He isn't going to be the one searching for ducats to the only NHL game in town.

"I've been getting a lot of calls from a lot of people," said Stafford of his ticket requests.  "They've been waiting for me to get back up there."
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