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A Trip to Remember Forever

The Sabres' season-opening faceoff in Berlin.

Sabres to open at home after epic Europe adventure

For anyone who had the opportunity to travel to Europe and take part in the NHL premiere challenge, the kickoff to the regular season, well… let’s just say it was something truly special. The Buffalo Sabres came, they saw, they played, and they took care of business, posting wins over the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings to open the season 2-0.

But this was no ordinary road trip. The three games, which also included an exhibition match in Mannheim, Germany against the local team Adler Mannheim, gave the Sabres an opportunity to present themselves as ambassadors of the sport. It gave the chance for adoring fans to come in person and cheer on their fellow countrymen—forwards Jochen Hecht and Thomas Vanek and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff in Germany, and forward Ville Leino in Finland. With, of course, a nod to former Sabre and now assistant coach Teppo Numminen.

One could feel the excitement and energy as soon as the Sabres took to the ice in Mannheim for their first practice. Nearly 1,000 people filled the auxiliary rink at SAP Arena, and clapped and cheered as coach Lindy Ruff took his guys through their paces, ending the practice with an impromptu skills competition. The crowd ate it up, and at the conclusion, Buffalo fans who made the trip were awarded the privilege of coming down on the ice for a group photo with the team and the chance to talk to the players and snag an autograph or two.

None of the players were anxious to leave the ice. “How cool is this?” said Nathan Gerbe as he posed for a picture with three women from Tonawanda. “We’re not even here 48 hours and all this. All the guys are having such fun.” Jochen Hecht took to the ice midway through the practice, receiving a huge ovation from the crowd. Hecht was unable to play in the game due to his lingering concussion problems, but was the man of the hour. “This is Jochen’s moment,” said teammate Jason Pominville. “If he ran for mayor here, he would win in a landslide.”

Sabres players who have never participated in competition in Europe got an eyeful and earful on game night. The noisiest and most colorful fans fill an entire end zone. They sing. They chant. They stand for the entire game. They bang their drums. It goes on throughout the game and even after the final whistle. “We didn’t know what to expect but this sort of crowd energy is so totally different than anything in the US or Canada,” said Pominville. Thomas Vanek added, “This is how they do things here. Many of the fans stay long after the game, especially after a win, to sing and party. The players then return to the ice to join the celebration, helping to lead the chants and sometimes lead the wave.”

Remember the very final clip in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Ferris comes on screen and says “It’s over. Go home.” Not in Mannheim. In fact, 20 minutes after the last players left the ice, the Mannheim fans were still in the bowl, now chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo” in tribute to their visitors. The players could hear it in the dressing room.

Helsinki and Berlin were even bigger stages, for now the games would count. The Finns filled Hartwall Areena, mostly to support their countrymen Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu on the Anaheim Ducks team. Yet that didn’t stop the locals from raising the roof with a huge cheer when Ville Leino scored to give Buffalo a 2-0 lead. Said Leino, “Of course it was emotional for me, before my home fans. I wish every player could feel what I’m feeling right now.”

Buffalo managed to overcome what turned out to be an “away” crowd in Helsinki and post a 4-1 win over the Ducks. At the end of the game, both teams got a rousing ovation. But the Finns had hosted the NHL before, so they have seen all this. The following night it would be far different.

O2 World Berlin was the venue for what would be the first ever NHL regular season game played on German soil. Fans who made the trip and the locals were loud and proud for the Buffalo team. Approaching the arena, one could see a multitude of fans dressed in Sabres gear. Blue and gold merchandise flew off the shelves at concession stands. By the end of the night only purple and black Kings apparel remained for sale—with few takers.

The Sabres came out on the ice to the music of their two theme songs, Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” All that was missing was Doug Allen to do the anthems. Buffalo took control early, although by the third period one could see fatigue setting in. The team had endured a two-hour flight delay coming out of Helsinki, and didn’t hit their hotel rooms until 4:30 that morning. Yet they hunkered down late, clinging to a two-goal lead, and won 4-2.

What happened next was a Sabres first. Thomas Vanek, who earned second star honors (Luke Adam was the first star) took a prolonged victory lap around the ice, tossing a cap and stick into the audience and receiving huge cheers. Then the entire Sabres team came back onto the ice. They saluted the fans from center ice, then in Euro style, raced as a team towards each end zone and quickly raised their arms in unison, giving the crowd a wave. The fans ate it up.

“It was all Christian’s [Ehrhoff] idea,” said Tyler Ennis. “He sort of described how it’s done and we all decided to roll with it. It was really fun.”

So might the Sabres try this again before the hometown Buffalo fans? “We’re thinking about it,” said Ryan Miller. “We soaked in so much so fast it will be hard not to bring a bit of Europe back to Buffalo. This has been so much to experience all the guys are a bit overwhelmed.”

Team president Ted Black, always on the lookout for new ideas and scripts to make the Buffalo game-day experience unique and special, had to be taking a lot of notes. As for the players, just about everyone agreed that a return trip to Europe down the road would be most welcome. “Everyone really enjoyed this. It gave us a chance to bond as a team. To see the cities and culture of two countries, and best of all we go home with four points,” said Ennis. “Now we get to open the season again, this time on Friday before our home fans. I can’t wait.”

Neither can we, Tyler. Neither can we.

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