In last week’s print edition of Artvoice, we reported on some very special visitors who were planning a visit to Buffalo. A group of 65 or so hockey crazed fans from Mannheim, Germany, were headed to see the Sabres play right here in town. This tour all came about as a result of the Sabres’ exhibition game played in Mannheim back on October 4. The Adler Mannheim supporters are especially proud of their own favorite son Jochen Hecht, who found fame and fortune in the NHL with the Sabres, and many locals in Mannheim follow and cheer for the Sabres from afar.
So what was the evening like? A smash hit, judging by the smiles and excitement and reaction of many of the Germans as they left the First Niagara Center after last night’s game.
As the night began, the group assembled in the atrium of their headquarters hotel the Hyatt, with Adler press officer Mathias Fries and his assistant checking names off their list and passing out tickets. All wore Adler jerseys, hats, scarves, you couldn’t help but notice them they would stand out in any crowd. After a group photo, the fans headed to the arena. No special bus or shuttle, just a short walk to the Metrorail Fountain Plaza station. “How much are tickets for the train?”, a couple fans asked. Hey, downtown is a fare free zone…welcome to Buffalo! In due time, the train arrived, and the fans boarded, and the songs and chants started right in the rail car as they headed down to the front door of the arena.
Waiting just inside the doors of the pavilion were none other than Suzanne K. Taylor and Cindy Barrett, both of whom took part in the Sabres fan tour to Germany last fall, and were instrumental in getting the ball rolling for this Mannheim invasion to Buffalo. They held up their signature “Danke Mannheim” sign, and a number of the Germans stopped to greet them and have their pictures taken. Our visitors wasted no time, many headed right to the team store, looking for Sabres gear and souvenirs, and anything, just anything, with the name “Hecht” on it. One woman remarked, “I came with a long shopping list from home, not just for me, but my two grandchildren. They asked for a Hecht team shirt.” Our contact and newfound friend Stefan Schaefer had earlier shared that when the Sabres visited Mannheim back in October, the front office severely misjudged the demand for Sabres paraphernalia and apparel, and the merchandise stands at SAP Arena quickly sold out of everything. “Tell your people to keep the shelves stocked, especially with Hecht merchandise. Our people will be buying,” said Schaefer.
But there would be more surprises in store for our visitors, courtesy of the Buffalo Sabres team management, who knew in advance of the contingent’s arrival, and went the extra mile to make our visitors feel welcome and special. Most of their group was perched high atop sec 323, and weren’t they surprised to see a special welcome message on the HD Board during a media timeout, complete with a taped greeting by Hecht spoken in German. They let out a loud cheer. It got better. The visitors were taken down to the locker room area during the intermission, and invited to participate on the special “rope line”, where the Sabres players pass right by enroute from the team clubhouse onto the ice.
As for the game? Talk about the “Mannheim Karma”! Countryman Christian Ehrhoff got things started got things started, giving the Sabres an early 1-0 lead. There were fights galore, the Sabres played with a zeal and passion that has been far too absent this year at the First Niagara Center. It just got louder and louder as the team built a 4-0 cushion after two, coasting to a 6-0 shutout, and Patrick Kaleta showing bad boy Milan Lucic a thing or two. By the third period, Sabretooth had made his way to sec 323 with drum in hand, and the Germans were doing what they do best, chanting, helping to start the wave and joining in on the fun. After such disappointment this season against the Bruins, including what was arguably the seminal season changing event when Lucic decked Ryan Miller in Boston back in November, Sabres fans ate up every bit of last night’s game. And fortunately, being an NBCSports telecast, everyone back home got to view it.
But back to the Germans – one more treat was in store. The Sabres ushered the group down to a hospitality area next to the locker room following the game. After a few minutes their hero, Jochen Hecht, emerged to greet his fans, and got a great ovation. The visitors broke out in an impromptu song “Jochen Hecht ist einer von uns!” (Jochen Hecht is one of us). Hecht stayed as long as he was wanted, talking to every fan, posing for pictures and signing for autographs. Speaking to Hecht after the meet and greet was over, Hecht responded, “I am so humbled and thankful that these fans would travel so far just to come and see me, and see my team play. This was very special to me.” Hecht was unable to play in the exhibition game in fall due to after effects from his concussion, and as it turns out, is sidelined again and did not dress for last night’s game. “That’s how it goes sometimes, I would have like to be able to play in front of my friends and neighbors. I just hope to be better and get out there soon and help my team out.”
There was one more stop to make this evening complete… a visit to a local eatery for some post game brews and food. Stefan Schaefer and his posse gladly obliged, and we headed to a sports bar on the Chippewa strip. We sort of cringed as we ordered the pitchers of cold Labatts Blue. Hey, nothing wrong with the local stuff, but after sampling some of the amazing pilseners available in the Mannheim-Heidelberg region, let’s just say that one serves up a Genny Cream or OM Light to a German with great trepidation. Nonetheless the beer went down well, two heaping plates of wings were scarfed down in no time, and sharing some great stories and road trip adventures from these people who were still a buzz about the evening that was.
Today there will be trips to Niagara Falls, to the malls, some random sightseeing. Tomorrow they do it all over again at the Sabres-Stars game at First Niagara Center, before leaving for Toronto for yet more hockey and a visit to the Hall of Fame. Thanks to the Sabres front office, and thanks to the efforts of some very special people, our visitors from Mannheim, Germany will leave Buffalo with great stories to tell back home, and memories of their visit here that will last a lifetime.