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Hello, Mannheim!

Sabres defenseman Jochen Hecht's promotional poster with Adler Mannheim.

Buffalo Sabres make a splash in hockey exhibition

Mannheim, Germany—As far as preseason games go, the final tuneup is usually a meaningless game used to pare down the final roster and get everyone geared up for the regular season.

This one was different.

This week the Buffalo Sabres, and their goodwill ambassador forward Jochen Hecht, brought NHL hockey to the sports-crazed town of Mannheim, Germany, in preparation for this weekend’s season-opening games in Helsinki and Berlin.Was it special? One would have to say so, based on the 1,000 or so fans who filled the adjacent practice rink to watch the Sabres take to the ice for the first time on Monday. They were cheering and clapping, saving their biggest ovations for a local hero, Hecht, who took to the ice during the middle of the practice.

Once the hard work was done, head coach Lindy Ruff decided to have some fun and put on a show for the fans, calling for races up and down the ice and a dexterity test skating a puck around other stationary pucks. One could see the big smiles on the players’ faces. “Oh, yeah, it was fun,” said Patrick Kaleta. “I’ve played in tournaments here before, so I know how wild these fans could be. And even though we’ve only had a short time here so far, everyone has been so warm and welcoming.”

Jason Pominville had never been to Europe before, doesn’t know a lick of German or Finnish, and was just trying to savor the experience. “I’ve never seen such energy and excitement over an exhibition,” he said. “This is all great.”

All the Buffalo fans in the stands were invited to come down on the ice at the conclusion of the practice to participate in a massive group photo and talk to the players and collect autographs. The contingent was sizable. And noisy. “I could pick out the Sabres fans in the crowd here right away,” said team president Ted Black. “They were the ones holding the cups of beer and drinking at 11am.” Owner Terry Pegula and his family watched the entire scene from ice level in the corner, and Pegula looked like a proud papa as Mannheim officials came by one by one to introduce themselves and welcome him to their city.

Pominville recognized that, while there was work to be done with the regular season fast approaching, this was an opportunity to sell the NHL version of the sport to an entirely new audience of hockey fans. “We all know how special this must be for Jochen and Christian [Ehrhoff], to be able to play in front of their home country fans,” he said. “We just want to support them as our teammates and put our best foot forward as ambassadors for the sport.”

The man of the hour in Mannheim was Hecht, who grew up here and played hockey as a kid, eventually joining the Adler Mannheim team before finding fame and fortune in the NHL. Hecht returns regularly; this past summer he posed in a promotional poster with the Mannheim players, with Hecht dead center. The poster was on display on many a shop and pub window on the streets of nearby Heidelberg.

While Hecht, still fighting off his nagging injuries, was disappointed not to be able to play in the exhibition, he revelled in the enormity of the moment. “These fans here know their hockey, and they are so serious about it in the German league,” he said. While there have been many players from Europe who have played and do play in the NHL, this may be the first time that an active player led his team back to his hometown, and Hecht was eating it up. “Of course I am am excited and honored by all this, and I was from the minute I learned that the Sabres would be playing in Mannheim. I can’t tell you how many of my friends are going to be in the stands at the game, and of cuurse my entire family. This is an unbelievable honor for me.”

Even though the game was just an exhibition, the players and Ruff came in with the mindset of getting the win. “We aren’t taking these guys lightly,” said Ruff. “Last year San Jose came in here and almost lost. These guys are tougher than you think.”

“You think we want to lose this game?” added Tyler Ennis. “There are bragging rights involved.”

Those bragging rights went to the Buffalo Sabres. Thanks in part to two quick goals by Tyler Ennis, the first coming on a breakaway, the Sabres took a 3-0 lead after one period and never look back, cruising to a 8-3 victory in front of 13,600 full-throated fans at SAP Arena. Ennis received “player of the game” honors and was awarded a bottle of bubbly for his effort. Pominville gave props to the fans. “These fans are amazing,” he said. “Here it is 15 minutes after the game and they are still in the stands signing and chanting. The energy and electricity in this building is awesome.”

Both Ehrhoff and Thomas Vanek said that this sort of noise and atmosphere is typical at “Eishockey” games in Germany. The end zone supporters never sat down, clapping throughout the entire game and leading the rest of the building with the songs and chants. “This happens all the time,” said Ehrhoff. “The fans stay afterwards and have a party, especially after a win, and the players usually go back on the ice and party with the fans.” Vanek chimed in, “The players lead the fans with the post-game wave. This is all good fun here. We’re glad the Buffalo fans who came tonight got a chance to see it for themselves.”

Now it starts for real. The Buffalo Sabres open the 2011-12 regular season in Helsinki this Friday against the Anaheim Ducks. One night later they will be in Berlin to play the Los Angeles Kings. “We’ve had a good camp. We’re ready,” said Vanek.

Pominville is 100 percent and said he’s ready to go, feeling no after effects from his season ending injury in the spring. “The guys here are pumped. It’s been a wonderful trip so far. We’re ready to get this thing started. Let’s go.”

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