By Bill Hoppe
Oh, hockey’s pretty popular in Germany. Adler Mannheim, Jochen Hecht’s hometown team, regularly draws 10,000 fans, he said. The country’s obviously excited to host the Buffalo Sabres and the NHL this week.
But overall, soccer reigns as the undisputed No. 1 sport in Germany. After that, Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff joked about his country, “Then comes nothing and nothing. Hockey’s competing probably with basketball. Handball’s pretty big, too. So it’s competing for second-tier sports.”
For a week, though, the 2011 NHL Premiere Games might make hockey king throughout Germany and Europe.
The Sabres play an exhibition against Mannheim on Tuesday, open the regular season against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday in Helsinki, Finland, and then return to Germany on Saturday for a tilt against the Los Angeles Kings in Berlin.
It’s a neat way to start the franchise’s 41st season, no doubt. But the Sabres left for their three-city, eight-day odyssey Saturday night from Prior Aviation surrounded by the highest expectations in decades.
Thanks to a wild offseason spending spree by owner Terry Pegula, 2011-12 has become a Stanley Cup-or-bust campaign. It’s easy to forget the Anaheim and Los Angeles games are part of the regular 82-game schedule, worth two points like any others.
“Don’t call it vacation,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff warned. “It’s a work trip for us. That’s part of the message I sent.”
The Sabres will have a short practice this morning once they get off the transatlantic flight.
“I guess that sends a message, too,” Ruff said.
Everything will be the same overseas.
“We’re not changing anything we do that would go into playing a regular-season game over here — the way we treat it, team meals, the way we dress, we’re going to be exactly the same,” Ruff said. “That preparation is going to be what we would normally prepare for over here.”
Ehrhoff agreed with Ruff, calling it a “business trip.” Last season, before Ehrhoff arrived, the Sabres lost 11 of their first 14 games.
“We want to get off to a good start on the season,” Ehrhoff said. “Our main focus is winning those two games. It’s going to fly by anyway so quick, the first couple days it’s going to be tough adjusting to the time difference. By the time you get that figured out you’re already playing in the regular-season games.”
Still, the Sabres will have some fun and bond.
“Everybody realizes there’s some fun involved, there’s some team bonding — but we’re going to win games,” Ruff said.
Ruff joked he had “ambassadors.” Besides Ehrhoff and Hecht, the Sabres have five other Europeans, including two Finns — center Ville Leino and assistant coach Teppo Numminen.
Hecht had said earlier he wanted to take his teammates to Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, although time might not allow for it. His recovery from a possible concussion will likely keep the center out of the game against Mannheim, his DEL club before he came to North America and during the lockout.
“It’s something you can’t imagine to play with your NHL club in your hometown against your former team that you grew up cheering for and you played for,” said Hecht, who skated again Saturday.
The German hockey experience is much different than the North American one, Hecht noted. He said fans make noise the entire 60 minutes, sing and play the drums.
“I think it’s important for everybody to go there and see the different mentality that German hockey is,” he said. “We’re playing a good team. The fans there are crazy about their team, very professional about hockey.”
The European games may be a good omen for the Sabres. The last three Cup winners — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins — all started the season overseas.
Whatever happens, the Sabres will try to enjoy the trip of a lifetime.
“It’s not one of those experiences every player gets to have, especially at our league,” said defenseman Jordan Leopold, who started the 2009 season in Finland with the Florida Panthers. “(At) our level we tend to gravitate and stay in North America, so it’s an honor and a privilege for all those guys to go overseas.
“Some of the guys are from over there, so it’s really important for them. I think the NHL has the best players in the world, and we go over there and showcase what we have.”
NOTES: Two bubble players — forwards Luke Adam and Matt Ellis — made the trip, leaving the Sabres at the 23-man roster limit. They also took Drew MacIntyre as a third goalie. The AHL veteran doesn’t count against the roster.