A Road Trip Like No Other
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Sabres riding to Europe on Cloud Nine
The day is finally upon us.
The opening to the NHL 2011-12 regular season is fast approaching, but for the Buffalo Sabres, this will be no ordinary kickoff. As if it’s not enough that the buzz is sky-high, what with the new ownership, the name change on the arena, all the new additions and improvements to the building, the rebranding of the classic Sabres logo, and the addition of several new players who offer hope for a legitimate Stanley Cup run. The team will depart for Germany on Saturday afternoon, settling into their headquarters in Heidelberg, south of Frankfurt-am-Main and immediately adjacent to the industrial city of Mannheim. In addition to taking the ice for team practices, the team will make a side trip to the USO hospital facilities at the nearby Ramstein Air Base and do a meet-and-greet with American service personnel. The Sabres will play at SAP Arena on Tuesday night in an exhibition match against the Adler Mannheim team, former squad for Sabre Jochen Hecht, who comes from this area.
On Wednesday the team departs for Helsinki, Finland, and will open the regular season on Friday, October 7 against the Anaheim Ducks at Hartwall Areena. The following night will be the second regular season game, against the Los Angeles Kings at the spanking new O2 World Arena in Berlin, Germany. Both games will be telecast live and in high definition on MSG. Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale will be doing the call, albeit from back home, while the rest of the Sabres production crew and on-air personnel will be at the venues.
“The team contingent will be about 80 people, about double what we normally send out for a typical road game,” says Sabres spokesman Mike Gilbert. “We have a number of spouses coming along, and in addition team senior management and other front office personnel who will be making this trip.”
The Sabres are approaching the planning for this excursion much like any other prolonged road trip, say, to the West Coast. “I know I have to get me one of those universal plugs so I can charge my cell phone,” quips Coach Lindy Ruff.
While a lot of attention has been devoted to the daily grind of training camp over at the First Niagara Center, the players have been gearing up for a unique experience. “I’ve only been to Europe once, it was for an under-18 tournament in Prague and Bratislava,” says Tyler Ennis.
Nathan Gerbe is already a seasoned Euro vet, having made at least 10 trips to Europe over the years. “I appeared in more than a few tournaments representing Team USA,” he says. “These type of events are lots of fun for the players, but we are mindful that this is also work and we have to keep focused.
“I’m really excited to get the Finland experience and the Germany experience. It will be a great team-building exercise,” Ennis adds. “It’s important to find good food and get your rest, and the time change might be difficult for a couple days, but we have great staff and handlers to do a great job. For the most part we have to go and play hockey and the rest of that stuff will take care of itself. We haven’t talked about it too much yet, but for a lot of guys it will be different just to see what the cities and arenas and crowds are like.”
“We’ve had some discussions on when to travel and how to travel, and even how to get there and the prep coming back, and all that stuff is underway,” Ruff says.
“I’m pretty used to it, but it’s been a few years now so I’m pretty excited to be going back,” Gerbe says. “One can’t let the outside sources mess with your game, just focus on playing and playing only. Don’t get distracted with touring, but on your days off get to enjoy Europe…guys who haven’t been there get to see what it’s like. Then, come game day, focus on the job that needs to be done.”
The game in Berlin will be somewhat historic, as it will be the first NHL regular season game played on German soil. Back in December, Team Germany assistant coach (and former Sabre) Uwe Krupp was in town for the World Juniors, and proudly rattled off stats and boasted how far the German hockey program has come. “We have 12 players from Germany signed to NHL contracts,” Krupp says. “Sparkling new practice facilities and new arenas are being built throughout the country. We plan to be a force in future international tournaments.”
Gerbe says that this will be a special moment for guys on the team such as Hecht, Christian Ehrhoff, and Thomas Vanek, who hails from Austria. “They’re all excited they get to play in their hometowns and get to play in front of their friends and family who have probably never seen them play in the NHL live, so that will be pretty cool for them,” Gerbe says. “But as far as how to prepare for the culture change, they haven’t said too much, but I’m sure they will when the time comes.”
Culture change? Goaltender Jhonas Enroth reports that the game-day experience in a European hockey rink is not too much different than that here in North America, with a few exceptions. “The crowds there are much more like soccer crowds,” Enroth says. “The fans sing more, they chant more, even while play is in progress. There aren’t as many music bumps played between the breaks. The fans can get very rowdy, but since they will not be watching their own teams, I don’t expect it to be as noisy.”
Enroth also expects a contingent of friends and family members from his home in Sweden to come see the games. “This whole Europe experience is a great team bonding thing, and from my standpoint I am very excited to have us appearing before the fans in Europe.”
The Sabres organization is gearing up to be goodwill ambassadors to their European hosts. “We’re planning to do some things with youth hockey organizations during our stay in Mannheim,” Gilbert says. At the same time, look for some lifestyle reports and features on the MSG telecasts, as game night host Kevin Sylvester will be checking out the streets and the scenes and the beer gardens to capture the local buzz surrounding the NHL hockey experience in Europe.
As for Sabres fans? A number of tours will be departing from these parts to Europe, so expect a contingent of blue-and-gold-wearing Buffalo supporters in the stands at all three sites. “Oh, yeah, we know our Buffalo fans travel well,” says Gerbe. “Tell them to be loud and proud, we need all the help we can get.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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