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Minnesotans on Team USA excited to play in Buffalo Bills football stadium

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—If you grew up playing hockey in Minnesota, odds are you logged plenty of ice time outdoors. Here, outdoor hockey is just a way of life.

So when the U.S. National Junior Team stepped outside Wednesday for practice, it should have been just another day of hockey for the team's 10 Minnesotans — five of which play at Minnesota Duluth.

It wasn't. The Americans found themselves in the middle of a 71,608-seat football stadium, specifically the Buffalo Bills' New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y. It's the site of today's IIHF World Junior Championship preliminary round game against Canada scheduled for 2 p.m. on NHL Network.

Bob Motzko, head coach of Team USA and also St. Cloud State, said today's game might not be the prettiest hockey anyone has ever seen with the temperature at puck drop expected to be in the single digits, but his team plans to embrace the game as much as they embraced Wednesday's practice. Like a game of pond hockey back in Minnesota, the team who has the most fun is the likeliest to come out on top, he said.

"There is no question a lot of hockey purists have some question marks," Motzko said of playing outdoors. "We walked out there (Wednesday) and saw the stadium and the rink there. I've never been a part of that. I have to admit, it was pretty cool. It's on the schedule, we can't change it, so we're going to embrace it. Let's enjoy it."

Today's outdoor game against Canada, that is expected to draw around 40,000 fans, was a big reason Bulldogs sophomore wing Riley Tufte was pushing himself to make the U.S. team this year. Playing in a World Juniors tournament was something the native of Ham Lake, Minn., said he always dreamed of as a kid. He's always wanted the chance to represent his country and community in the tournament.

But playing outside in an NFL stadium in front of 40,000 fans gave him an even bigger incentive to make the team.

Tufte, who spent plenty of time as a youngster playing outdoors on ponds and backyard rinks, said Wednesday was an entirely different outdoor hockey experience.

"It was awesome. I told a few people it felt like a dream," Tufte said. "It just means so much this year (to be on Team USA) playing outdoors. It's going to be something really special and something I'm not really used to. It's going to be a good experience. I'm looking forward to it."

This is Tufte's first experience at the World Juniors after missing out a year ago. He tried out for the U.S. National Junior Team the summer prior to his freshman year at UMD, but broke his wrist at the summer camp. That led to a slow first semester with the Bulldogs and no invite to the selection camp.

Tufte had a strong showing at the World Junior Summer Showcase this year and a solid start for the Bulldogs in the first half. He leads the team in goals with eight through 19 games. That led to an invite to this year's selection camp and a spot on the 2018 USA roster.

"For Riley, who didn't get that opportunity last year, I think he's more ready for it this year," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "He had a good first half. He's leading our team in goals. He's played well from every indication I've heard from their staff."

Motzko said Tufte had a solid week at the selection camp, which included a pair of goals for the winger in an exhibition against Belarus. The 2015 Minnesota Mr. Hockey out of Blaine High School has all the ability in the world, plus an attribute you can't teach — size — Motzko said.

Unfortunately, that ability and size only comes in spurts, Motzko said, adding he wants to see more consistency out of Tufte.

"Riley, you can't change the fact that he's big. He just doesn't know it yet," Motzko said. "He just has to understand that size is a gift and play with a little more energy. It's difficult for opponents to contain him."

Along with Tufte, Bulldogs freshmen defensemen Mikey Anderson, Scott Perunovich of Hibbing and Dylan Samberg of Hermantown are playing in their first World Juniors tournament. UMD sophomore wing Joey Anderson is playing in his second World Juniors with Motzko after winning a gold medal a year ago in Montreal. This time around, Joey Anderson is captain.

While Tufte, Samberg and the Anderson brothers all took part in the summer evaluation showcase, Perunovich was a late addition to the U.S. junior squad. Motzko said the former Hibbing-Chisholm standout didn't land on his radar until the Bulldogs' series at Maine at the end of October.

Perunovich's poise with the puck, ability to make plays in transition and reliability all jumped out to Motzko, he said, as he watched film while preparing for a series against UMD. He went to U.S. general manager Jim Johannson and said, 'You have to look at him,' Motzko said.

"That's exactly what I told Jim Johansen. I said, 'If we're seriously looking at the other two, we have to look at this guy, too,' Motzko said, referencing Mikey Anderson and Samberg. "They followed up and saw the same thing. He came to camp and did an outstanding job."

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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