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Euro countries offer unique hockey experiences

“Going to play in Europe”.

We hear that phrase often about an NHL player who perhaps is past his prime, or, with two labor stoppages in this past decade, we saw quite an exodus of big league talent off to ply their trades across the ocean.

But what’s it really like over there? The arenas, the crowds, the music, the food, the sophistication of the fans? We got the opportunity to find out, in a big way.

Today we returned from an 11 day Ultimate Sports Road Trip journey across Europe. The itinerary took us through three countries, seven separate game experiences, four of them involving professional ice hockey.

Our thoughts? The purest fan experience can probably be found in Germany. The Deustche Eishockey Liga operates in 18 cities, some of them in glitzy and opulent NHL-ready arenas (Berlin and Mannheim), others in plain old hockey barns. But make no mistake, the fans own the event.

Game night at a German hockey game rivals that of a soccer match, albeit on a smaller scale. Fans own the night – they bring their drums and horns, they wear scarves, they pack the end zone standing sections, and lead the crowd in songs and chants and heap derisive scorn on the visiting team. And it goes on all night long.

The EHC Red Bull Muenchen fans light sparklers as the teams take to the ice

The EHC Red Bull Muenchen fans light sparklers as the teams take to the ice

EHC Red Bull Muenchen plays in a small and spartan hockey rink on the grounds of the park where the 1972 Olympics took place. The 4000+ seat arena is nothing much to speak of, one basic dot matrix board hanging over center ice and two replay video screens hanging in each corner. But add the fan energy, synchronized hopping up and down, a bevy of fight songs, the PA announcer exhorting the crowd to shout out player names after each goal, not once, not twice, but three times, and barking out the score after every home goal which prompts a crowd response. You learn fast that this is nothing like you will never experience in North America. Oh, and no kiss cams, no silly blooper reel, no constant commercials. The only canned music is played during the pregame warmups, and that leads to a crescendo of fight songs as the teams take to the ice.

It was more of the same in Mannheim, although on a larger stage. SAP Arena has a capacity of 13,700, and despite the less-than-NHL-threshold could pass for a major league rink anywhere. And like in Muenchen, the fans there absolutely control the event, with a never ending loop of chants and drumbeats. They call themselves “Hockeytown” in Mannheim. And the fans there mean it, for it is not a casual interest in their Alder, but a true passion.

That's Stefan Schaefer leading the drumbeat high atop SAP Arena in Mannheim

That’s Stefan Schaefer leading the drumbeat high atop SAP Arena in Mannheim

To get a taste of hockey in Switzerland, we solicited the folks in “Hockeytown” for advice on where to go. Most fans here in Buffalo know the Swiss for two things – goalie Martin Gerber, and the Spengler Cup, which is staged each year in December in Davos. The advice we received? “Go see SC Bern”.

And so we did, and the folks in the capital city of Bern take great pride in their team, and like to describe themselves as the marker for all of Swiss hockey.

What’s not to like? They play in their country’s largest hockey building, the 18,700 capacity Post Finance Arena. They have 12 league championships to their name in their 73 year history, they continually lead the league in attendance, and in the past NHL lockout, Islanders stars John Tavares and Mark Streit were their team’s standouts.

Post Finance Arena is the most unique facility for hockey we have ever seen in our travels. It is massive, with a tall arched roof which slopes downward on one side, but the signature area is a large standing room area which straddles the length of an entire sideline upper deck with a steep pitch, and that area alone has a capacity of 10,000 fans. Here is where the drums are banged and the flags are waved . The arena itself is not heated, yet for fans seeking respite from the chill, or just a special culinary experience, there are no fewer than five full service restaurants onsite, with a total capacity of almost 1300 seats.

Over in England, ten franchises play in the British Elite League, and in this soccer centric country, ice hockey could be considered something more of a niche sport (think National Lacrosse league where we live). We headed to Coventry, just east of Birmingham, to take in the Coventry Blaze in their home venue, named Skydome Arena. Their most noted NHL-er? Former Leafs bad boy Wade Belak, who played for the Blaze during the ’04-’05 lockout.

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The Euro experience takes a back seat here, and game night has more the look and feel of going to an ECHL arena, or perhaps the Ontario Hockey League. The rink is small (capacity here about 3000 although there are larger arenas in their league elsewhere). Pregame they do the North American style music and light show for the intros. They perform the national anthem, God Save The Queen, where anthems of any kind are unusual for domestic Euro sporting events. Once it’s showtime, breaks in the action prompt music interludes and artificially induced chants, and the PA announcer helps lead the cheers. A mascot performs on the ice and works the crowd and the kids during the action.

One thing you won’t find at your local minor league or junior rink within driving distance of Buffalo? Slot machines. Yes there was a betting parlor tucked off into one corner of their arena, with a bank of one arm bandits for adults to play.

This was the third Ultimate Sports Road Trip Europe experience, and despite the differences in cultures, how we put on the games, the manner in which we all cheer and chant, there is one constant – fans are fans everywhere. We go to support our teams, and keep going back despite the likelihood of more disappointment and heartbreak, because there is a special bond which resonates between the fans and the teams we love.

Nowhere more was that evident than at The Etihad, the glitzy new home for FC Manchester City, last year’s Premier League champs. We took a ride over there on an off day to check out the stadium and the grounds. Displayed everywhere – on walls, on benches, on poles, are fan quotes, describing their signature game experiences. In rapid fire comments, fans talk about going with their dad to their first game ever, or seeing a goal or play which inspired them, or a bonding experience with other fans which left them longing for more. Many of the quotations are lump-in-your-throat thoughts. Then there is this tome, simply plastered on the side wall of a concession stand outside the stadium. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it.

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The Ultimate Sports Road Trip – all 122 franchises in four North American sports, and now add European stops in Germany, Finland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom to the itinerary of sports experiences. The only question that remains now is… How soon can we go back?

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Special thanks to the many people who helped out and assisted in making this USRT so memorable and special.

In Mannheim, our friends Stefan Schaefer, Dominik Kaiser, Anna Chaluppa, Max Gotz and Sven Schaller rolled out the red carpet. Adler press officer Mathias Fries provided game tickets, and the incomparable PA guy and game night host Udo Scholz was lights out awesome.

In Bern, it was Mathias Mueller from IMS Sports AG who gave us the royal welcome, the tour, and a great viewing perch from their end zone sky box. Special assist to Rudy Consoni from Resort Realty in St Petersburg, FL for setting all this up.

Our magical time in Dortmund, beer and schnitzel and an evening in a soccer clubhouse came about thanks to cousins Mathias Burchardt and Ralf Burchardt.

What more can we say about our superstar booster Chris Boyes of Wakefield, UK?! He flew down to Zurich and took the local train to join us for the SC Bern game, then when we got to England took care of getting all the game tickets and drove us around to all the events we attended. Beer, wings and baseball await for the Boyes family when they come visit Buffalo in ’14!

Lastly, cheers to our friend at home, Matt Ricchiazzi. When our outbound flights got messed up, Matt raced over to fetch us and get us to the airport to make it to an earlier flight. And he picked us up at Toronto/Pearson on our return home.

Thank you friends, one and all, the USRT is that much more because of support from great friends like you!

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@akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT