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NHL PRESEASON GAME: Stealing the show

The first time the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils played last season, Drew Stafford said there was a lot of laughing on the ice during warm-ups.

The first time the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils played last season, Drew Stafford said there was a lot of laughing on the ice during warm-ups.

He couldn't help it, seeing a pair of good friends and former college teammates Travis Zajac and Zach Parise skating on the other side.

"When we were in college, we would talk about playing against each other in the NHL," Stafford said, "and there we were. It was such a cool experience. We were all laughing and having a good time."

Stafford had another interesting experience Monday night, one that again crossed paths between his time in college and his young professional career. The former collegiate All-American played an NHL preseason game with the Buffalo Sabres in Grand Forks' Ralph Engelstad Arena against the Minnesota Wild.

Minnesota won the game 2-1, but Stafford stole the show. The second-year pro played on Buffalo's top line (alongside former Minnesota player Thomas Vanek and center Jochen Hecht) and received the loudest ovation when the starting lineups were read.


"I was definitely excited when I found out we were playing the exhibition game in Grand Forks," Stafford said. "I remember when I was playing at UND and Florida came there for an exhibition. We were sneaking around the rink trying to catch some of the players."

Monday night, Stafford was the player everyone was trying to catch. He spent some time with current UND players and coaches and signed autographs for a large number of fans after the game.

He's a hit in Buffalo, too.

"We're real excited about Drew," said James Patrick, a former Sioux defenseman who now is an assistant coach with the Sabres. "He played fantastic for us last year. He's going to play a big role on our team this year. I think it was hard on him tonight, playing in front of so many friends and family. But we think he's going to be a big part of this team for a long time."

Stafford will be looked upon to help fill voids left in Buffalo's lineup when star centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury bolted during free agency last summer. He hopes to improve on his strong rookie totals of 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 41 games.

"He's still a young player and we expect him to grow a lot," Patrick said. "Certainly, there are spots that will change within our team. There are opportunities for a guy like him to play more. He's still a young player, . . . but he's only going to get better and he's got a bright future."

Stafford said the biggest adjustment he's had from UND to the NHL is the professional lifestyle. In college, there is a much more balanced lifestyle class during the morning, hockey in the afternoon and homework at night.

In the pros, it's all hockey all the time.


"You are playing more and you have to take care of yourself and prepare yourself," Stafford said. "It's definitely a grind. But I have to give credit to my experiences at Shattuck and UND for preparing me for this."

Stafford was back in his old college town Monday night, trading his green and white No. 18 jersey for a blue and white No. 21. But nobody, not even one of his own coaches, has forgotten his college days.

"I certainly have a special interest in the fact that he came from North Dakota," Patrick said. "I want to see him succeed."

Notes: The game marked the fourth time that the Wild have played an exhibition game in Ralph Engelstad Arena. They beat Atlanta 3-2 in overtime in 2002, lost to St. Louis 2-0 in 2003 and beat Florida 2-1 in 2005. . . . Former Sioux goaltender Karl Goehring dressed for the Sabres but didn't see the ice. Goehring is with Buffalo on a tryout. He is not under contract.

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