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Bisons manager Marty Brown… Simply The Best

marty_brownROCHESTER… It was more than just an ordinary win for the Buffalo Bisons this afternoon at Frontier Field in Rochester.

The Bisons downed the Rochester Red Wings, 5-3, to improve their record to an International League best 16-6 on this young season. The 16 wins sets a modern era record for most wins in April by the team. The Bisons have two games remaining this month, both in Rochester, to possibly add to this record.

Manager Marty Brown set a record for most wins by a team manager in the modern era, his 254th win here in Buffalo, Brown managed the Herd from 2003-2005 before returning this season, now with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

The previous record was held by Brian Graham with 253 wins. Other managers who have served during this era include Eric Wedge and Terry Collins, now both managing big league teams.

“It only means I’ve been around a lot longer than those guys,” quipped Brown this afternoon as he accepted congratulations and well wishes from visitors to the clubhouse, including Bisons GM Mike Buczkowski, who made the trip to Rochester.

“It is gratifying to have such a solid group of guys playing for me. I am grateful to each and every one of them, for without them I am not standing here today. But it’s just a number. We’re here to win. We’re here to develop players. We are going to do it one day at a time,” said Brown.

With that there was one more ceremony in the happy Bisons clubhouse in the service level of Rochester’s ballpark. Brown took a seat in a regular shopping cart, where his entire of cadre of players paraded him around the dressing room, then leading their skipper into the showers. There he was doused with a healthy dose of bottled beer. Brown emerged from the showers, drenched from head to toe, smiling and exclaimed, “Damn, are we going to do this every time we win now?”

Good times. And fun times to be around Buffalo Bisons baseball right about now.


Redemption night for Ryan Miller

Ryan MillerAs far as things go, it was a pretty good night on Friday for goaltender Ryan Miller, and for the Buffalo Sabres organization.

Just one week after a night of ugliness between Miller and the Buffalo fans, the Sabres front office, the coaches and Miller himself cobbled together an almost perfect “feel good” night of hockey to try and put some of what happened in the past behind everyone, and move on to better things.

Few expected interim coach Ron Rolston to put Miller back on the home ice after what happened last week, but being Miller’s 500th career game, who would not want him to see him reach that milestone in a Buffalo uniform. So he got the start in net against the New York Islanders.

The team won, 2-1, in a shootout. It was one of those free wheeling, entertaining games that have been too few and far between this season at First Niagara Center. The players were having fun, the fans were oo-ing and aah-ing and chanting all night long, and few left the arena in the waning moments, when the norm is to see a trickle of fans leave their seats late in the contest even if the game is close.

It was Miller’s night to savor. And he did. He received pre game honors as team’s MVP, voted on by his fellow players. The audience applause wasn’t as robust as it could have been, but nobody jeered. The applause got a bit louder when the PA announcer informed the crowd that this was Miller’s 500th career start.

But it was the happenings at the end of the game that stole the show. Thomas Vanek was the only scorer for Buffalo in the shootout. In a poignant and symbolic gesture, Rolston inserted Jochen Hecht as the third shooter. He missed. Meantime, Miller was perfect during the shootout, stopping all three New York Islanders attempts, including the final one by John Tavares which had Miller backed up into almost the back of his own net. The referee waved no goal. Exhale.

Fans who won the “jerseys off our back” lined up to accept their coveted prizes from the players. Miller hung out the longest. He signed autographs for everyone. He exchanged a hug and kiss with an elderly lady on the ice. The game night crew was following their goaltender closely with the hand held camera, capturing the moments and beaming them onto the HD board.

All this did not take place by happenstance. The front office, the players, the coaches, and Ryan Miller desperately needed this reach out to the fans. They nailed it.

Miller held court with the media for a long spell in the locker room. For everyone, reality was setting in that Jochen Hecht would be leaving for good, and there was plenty of emotion in the air. Team owner Terry Pegula, an infrequent visitor to the post game gatherings, was there watching the whole scene. Hecht had his family present and battled tears as he had his turn before the microphones. Miller passionately talked about what the night meant to him. He was contrite and sincere. He won a few hearts back, even as he asserted that the future is full of uncertainty.

Sometimes the best public relations is not ignoring a problem, nor is it tackling it head on with assertive apologies and press conferences. Sometimes passive advocacy gets the best results. The front office, the PR crew, the team and their beleaguered goaltender scored a hat trick on Friday night. And that is something positive to build upon.


The Ultimate Sports Road Trip at 15

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This really didn’t start out as any sort of grand plan.

There was no strategy, no meeting, no spreadsheet or calendar.

The date was April 19, 1998, and the venue was what was then named Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo. It was the final day of the NHL regular season, and two neighbors and passionate sports fans living at the time in South Cheektowaga traded emails and then phone tag. “Hey let’s meet up at the Sabres game!”

Buffalo v Ottawa. Andrew and Peter, having a beer or two, talking sports and watching Dominik Hasek and the boys lose to the Ottawa Senators 2-1.

Little did we know that that event would be “Stop #1″ on the joint quest to attend a home game of each of the (then) 121 franchises that play in the four major North American sports. And so, this past weekend we marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of the USRT, with a special celebration held Tuesday night at the Buffalo Bisons game at Coca Cola Field.

The actual plan was hatched 10 months later, in 1999. The Sabres were on the road in Tampa and in Florida as a prelude to the NHL All Star Game at the Ice Palace. Over too many beers and wings at a Buffalo themed sports bar, we began comparing who had been to what hockey arena. and to what MLB ballpark. The beers flowed and so did the ideas, and by the end of the night we had those place mats flipped over, listing names of teams and venues and cities and thinking this is all crazy and over the top and never going to happen. But on that night in January of 1999, the Ultimate Sports Road Trip was formally hatched. The rules were simple – we had to attend a home game of each of the teams in the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB in their current and active venue. If a team moved to a new arena or stadium, or relocated to a different market, we had to do a do-over. When we hit the finish line, we could claim that we had seen each team play at a home game. Eight teams were already crossed off (although two of those eight were the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, so those would require do-overs).

We launched a web site. Initially, it was one of those one page thingys so that our families and friends could keep track of our schedule, but eventually grew into the voluminous monster you see today with profiles, thumbnailed photos, ratings, and delving into the minor league parks, arenas, Europe, college football and other things we’ve done to enhance the journey.

It took almost five years to complete the quest. We combined multiple visits on faraway journeys to save money and time and knock the teams off the to-do list. For example, in March of 2001 we traveled to the Pacific Northwest, started with the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Grizzlies (Grizzlies later moved to Memphis, requiring a do-over, get it?), then down to Portland to see the Trailblazers, ending in Seattle to see the Supersonics. The trip ended on Opening Day of the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. One trip, five teams, three sports, $218 r/t flight. That’s how we rolled.

detroit033It all came to an exciting conclusion on December 15, 2002 in Detroit. We took our families with us, and did the weekend celebration in the Motor City, culminating with stop 121, the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. There were a couple media appearances, the Lions flashed our names on their video board, and we initialed our “Good Book” for the final time and toasted our accomplishment.

What happened next was something we never expected. A story about our mission which ran in the sports pages of the Buffalo News went viral and hit the AP newswires. In the ensuing days and into the New Year, we were deluged with interview requests from around the country. It all culminated with a live appearance on NBC’s The Today Show, which was beamed across the country via a satellite uplink right from the zamboni entrance here at our downtown arena. Truly, there is something to be said about one’s 15 minutes of fame.

So what have we been up to since the finish line was crossed? Well, plenty. To start with, we have been back 30 “official” times for do-overs involving teams that have relocated and/or changed venues. The NBA added an expansion team, the Charlotte Bobcats, and that became the 122nd franchise in the four sports. We have also added minor league baseball, minor league hockey and college football to the mix. We can now count over 90 separate minor league baseball parks visited as part of our project. There will be more in 2013. Add to this 40 NCAA division 1 college football experiences.

And how about Europe. Three separate trips, in 2010, 2011 and this past February, to experience the true joy and wonder of big league soccer in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga. We followed the Buffalo Sabres as they debuted their 2011-12 season in Helsinki and Berlin, and forged lifelong friendships with the folks in Mannheim, where Buffalo staged an exhibition game. Think we’re going to go back to Europe again? Hell, yeah!

We decided to commemorate the 15 years milestone at Coca Cola Field, because the Buffalo Bisons have been such an integral part of our success. Back in 2001, we showed up at their doorstep as “media”, representing a poorly constructed and unwatchable public access sports show. Yet they credentialed us. We met and made contacts with so many important people who supported us and helped us along. Fellow media members Mike Harrington and Dave Ricci played huge roles. Mike took an immediate shine to what we were doing and did two feature stories on the USRT in the Buffalo News; Dave gave us the “Media 101″ orientation to how to be good reporters. When we signed on with Artvoice as their baseball columnists in 2004 (adding coverage of the Buffalo Sabres beginning in 2005-06), his advice was invaluable in our being effective freelance journalists. And speaking of 2004, just two months into the baseball season the team’s PR director had left, and a young assistant named Brad Bisbing became the new head media relations guy for the Bisons, thrown abruptly into the deep end of the pool. He’s still at the media helm at Bisons baseball, and in these past 10 years we’ve all sort of grown together in our jobs and our roles.

So what does the future hold for the USRT? The core part of all this are the 122 teams. For now, the next “official” visit doesn’t take place until fall of 2014, when the San Francisco 49ers move into their new home in Santa Clara, now under construction. Right now we’re also on the relocation watch for two franchises, the NBA Sacramento Kings and the NHL Phoenix Coyotes. If either or both move, we go see them in their new homes. The do-overs. And we’re constantly adding more minor league baseball and college football to the list of venue experiences.

We acknowledged three names in this article as people who have been helpful and supportive. But there have been more. Many more. And we wish we could list them all. Our families have been wonderfully engaged in our project, and our friends, fellow media members, contacts in other cities and throughout the world, other sports travel enthusiasts many who are actually crazier than we are, and representatives from the teams’ front offices have been remarkable. The friendships and fellowships we have built over these past 15 years have been tremendous. Thank you to everyone.

We are Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell. We write for Artvoice. We travel. A lot. Here’s to the next 15 years!

Follow Andrew and Peter on Twitter… @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


Buffalo 27, Syracuse 9. No that is not a typo.

Bisons_logoBuffalo Bisons Manager Marty Brown was pretty irked this past Sunday, after watching his team split a doubleheader at Coca Cola Field in a listless second game with plenty of bad pitching and mistakes on the field. At 4-4, the team was packing for a road trip which was to begin in Syracuse.

Four days later, and the Bisons are 8-4. They swept the Chiefs on their home field at NBT Stadium, capping off the visit with an incredible 27-9 thumping of Syracuse in a matinee game played this afternoon.

How incredible was the game? Here are some fast facts:

-Jim Negrych hit for the cycle, the first time for a Bisons to accomplish that feat since 2010.

-Moises Sierra had six hits and fell a home run short of hitting for the cycle himself.

-The Bisons scored 10 runs in the 7th inning. That one inning performance ties a Bisons modern era record which was also accomplished in 2001

-Luis Jimenez drove in 8 runs.

-The 27 runs on 29 base hits is a Bisons modern era record. This tops a 25-13 win over Rochester in 2004 and a 26 hit performance in Indianapolis in 1995.

-The four game road sweep is the first for Buffalo since doing it in Pawtucket in August of 2004.

According to the International League, this is the largest run performance by any team in the league in 40 years.

And for you trivia buffs, what is the Bisons record for most runs ever? (And that goes back to baseball’s beginnings in 1879) The answer… Buffalo 33, Providence 6. It happened on July 26, 1902. Anybody who was at that game please email us and we will spring for a pair of game tickets and an order of Poutine.

Here is the box score of the incredible day that was in Syracuse.

The Bisons take their monster offense to Lehigh Valley next for a four game set, before returning home to Coca Cola Field next Tuesday (6:05pm start).


Bisons win. Anthopoulos speaks out.

Bisons_logoSun drenched ballpark. Big crowd (15,821 through the gates). A solid win on the field as Buffalo beat Rochester 12-7, with Anthony Gose and Jim Negrych doing the on field heroics with a solid hitting day, combined by first baseman Luis Jimenez’ mammoth two run homer across the Oak Street fence.

But this was no ordinary Opening Day at Coca Cola Field. For the fourth time in the history of the downtown ballpark, the Bisons welcomed a new major league affiliate to town (the previous ones being Pittsburgh, 1988; Cleveland 1995 and the New York Mets, 2009). And this one had a completely different look and feel – from the singing of “Oh Canada” at the start of the game, to the ample number of fans from north of the border in the crowd wearing Blue Jays gear, to the addition of Poutine to an already amply diverse concession lineup. Heck, for a minute many thought that Celery would win her first ever mascot race! (She faltered to Wing right at the finish line).

Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos accompanied a large contingent of Toronto Blue Jays executives and goodwill ambassadors, and promised that they would be regular visitors to Buffalo throughout the season. “On the drive up here, it’s about an hour and a half drive, and just coming here to see the players, I couldn’t be more thrilled, and the way we are being treated..” said Anthopoulos. “The best way to summarize is we can’t speak enough about the relationship.”

Anthopoulos has reason to be happy. His AAA players were exiled to Las Vegas, Nevada these past few seasons, and having their top affiliate close by solves a lot of travel and logistical issues, not to mention the fan marking synergies that could be built over time in both cities and both stadiums. Last night in Toronto, Buffalo Bisons pocket calendars were available at guest relations stands at Rogers Centre, and marketing reps were offering information on ticket purchases to Toronto fans in attendance. “A lot of our fans have approached me and told me their excited to be able to make the quick drive here and see some of our players, so I think that’s all part of it. Fans from here can come to Toronto to see the games, and our fans can come here to see the young minor league players. It works for both sides.

The Toronto Blue Jays lost their opening two games against Cleveland at home these past two nights, yet Anthopoulos is unfazed, and spoke of the renewed enthusiasm that is happening across Canada for his newly reloaded squad. “You’d love to win, but there are some good things. My biggest concern for my team is the pitching, and from what I’ve seen in the bullpen is the arm strength that has come from everyone of those guys has been great, and the rotation right now everyone is throwing well. I’m not worried about the offense in time it will come, and I know we’re going to hit. Last year the offense started slowly, but we pitched well, and then the offense just exploded.”

As for the atmosphere at Rogers Centre? “It was great. I wasn’t here in the old days but when that place is filled (you feel) the excitement and the buzz.. Sportsnite came out and told us that was the highest TV audience they ever had (for Tuesday’s Opening Night) and you can see it all over the place. It’s great. But at some point you want to deliver and win games.”

The Bisons are at it again on Friday at Coca Cola Field with a 1:05PM matinee. Anyone holding tickets to today’s opener can present their ticket stub and receive admission to Friday’s game for just $1.

Follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT


Zydel announces candidacy for Erie County Legislature

ZYDEL_8280Former Cheektowaga Council Member Richard Zydel today announced that he is a candidate for the Erie County Legislature in the 7th legislative district. He made the formal announcement Tuesday night at an official campaign kickoff event attended by a full house of committeemen and supporters.

Zydel works in the law enforcement field, and is a Supervisory Contract Detention Officer at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia, where he has been employed since 1998. A lifelong resident of Cheektowaga, Zydel and his wife Pamela live in the Cleveland Hill area of North Cheektowaga. They have one daughter, Alyssa, who is 12.

Additionally, Zydel has been involved in community organizations in leadership roles. He served as Vice President and President with the Doyle Hose Company #1 Company and continues to maintain active involvement with the volunteer fire community in Cheektowaga.

In 2007, Zydel was elected to the Cheektowaga Town Board, and served as Chairman of the Youth and Recreation, and Traffic Safety committees, and in addition, provided oversight of the town’s Veterans Affairs Committee and Volunteer Firefighters Committee.

Zydel cited the lack of adequate representation and a loud voice at the county level for the residents of Cheektowaga and South Buffalo as his reason for seeking a seat on the County Legislature.

“Both of the communities which comprise the current 7th district have always had strong and hands on leaders. In Cheektowaga, long time legislators Richard Slisz and Ray Dusza were very active stewards for our town and its interests. In South Buffalo, I can cite the names… Mike Fitzpatrick, Mark Schroeder, Tim Kennedy, Tim Whalen. All these men represented that part of the city with passion and dedication at the county level.”

Continuing, Zydel said, “Today our voice in county government is all but non existent. Ask yourself who your county legislator is, where you might have seen him, and exactly what constituent services does he and his office provide. We need to do better. That is the message I will be taking door to door as I go to the streets of Cheektowaga and South Buffalo this summer.”

Zydel is a registered Democrat and will be seeking the endorsement of the Democratic Party. He served as Executive Vice Chair of the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee from 2006-2007, a post he relinquished when he was elected to the Cheektowaga Town Board.

The 7th legislative district comprises most of the Town of Cheektowaga, excluding the Village of Depew and the Southline neighborhoods, and also includes portions of the South Buffalo and Kaisertown neighborhoods in the City of Buffalo.


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!

Follow the Ultimate Sports Road Trip on Twitter
@akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


One city’s love affair with the Buffalo Sabres

mannheim_sap

In Germany they call it “Echte Liebe”. That means “True Love”.

For the Buffalo Sabres, there has alway been a bond with the crazed hockey fans in Mannheim, Germany. They have watched from afar as their local hero, Jochen Hecht, grew up and fulfilled his dream to be a big league hockey player, and found his fame and fortune in Buffalo.

Then the Sabres visited Mannheim and played an exhibition game in 2011.

Then Jason Pominville chose Mannheim as his team when the NHL went into lockout mode.

Bam! Now that love affair is off the charts.

“After every game, two players get set up in the corridors to do autographs. When Pominville had his turn the line went three times around the concourse,” sad Stefan Schaefer, one of the leaders of the team’s booster club, the Adler Fan Projekt.

Our USRT Europe tour has brought us back to Mannheim, where we got to experience their venue, SAP Arena, last year when we covered the Buffalo Sabres’ tour here. Many new fellowships were made as a result of that visit, and Schaefer and 65 of his best friends got to come to Buffalo last February and experience Sabres hockey at its finest.

So how did things go? Let’s just say that Mannheim rolled out the red carpet for the Ultimate Sports Road Trip in a big way.

Scheafer and two other friends, Dominik Kaiser and Anna Chaluppa, met us at the Hauptbahnhof as our train pulled in, and we set out on a walking tour of the city. Contrary to some impressions, Mannheim is NOT some brutal industrial wasteland. It is quite charming actually, much of it rebuilt after the war and downtown is laid out in a well planned rectangular street grid. Besides the main train station, centers of activity include the Mannheim Castle, a sprawling baroque style structure built in 1606 as the residence and headquarters of the Princes of the Palatinate. Today it is the main center of the University. The center square is marked by a huge water tower which is quite beautiful, and this is the spot where Adler Mannheim championship celebrations take place.

This is Mannheim's old hockey barn

This is Mannheim’s old hockey barn

And speaking of the Adler, they used to play in an arena called the Friedrichspark, which is essentially an indoor/outdoor arena, a seating bowl built into a hill, the exterior side walls all open and exposed. The entire place looked like one of those structures at the county fair where one would find the livestock exhibit. A few years back the team moved into the 13,700 seat SAP Arena a few miles out of town. The new building has the look and feel of an NHL venue, and supporters here revel in their title, “Hockeytown”.

For the USRT, there were more surprises on this day. Schaefer and the crew took us into the arena, where we met their radio broadcaster, their famed public address announcer, Udo Scholz, and as we walked around we saw a healthy sprinkling of fans wearing Buffalo jerseys. “Udo”, as he likes to be called, then told us he’d like to introduce us to the crowd at the end of player warmups and would be join him down on the ice.

As in other sports venues, the end zones are where the action is and in Mannheim, the loudest supporters crowd the standing room end zone and sing their songs and wave huge flags. So we had to do it. We had to do something unique to show our love and appreciation for the nice intro.

Showtime… Udo heads out onto the ice, explains our travel project, 122 teams in the 4 major sports, and we step out. That end zone section broke out into a noisy cheer, and fans began shouting, “Let’s Go Buffalo!” For us! We had it all planned out. Peter gestured cupping his ear, asking the fans to be noisier. We held our scarves high up in the air, and did that bow and “Euro” wave. It was a signature Ultimate Sports Road Trip moment and one that we will always cherish.

Yeah that's us on the ice, doing the Euro Wave

Yeah that’s us on the ice, doing the Euro Wave

The game was great, even more so for us when we left our seats after one period to join the end zone supporters for the rest of the game. We joined in the chants, we clapped along to the non stop beat of the drum, perched right behind Schaefer, who is the drum master in the upper deck. The Adler overcame two deficits, and scored three goals late in the third period to win this one, 5-2. Their season ends around March 10 and they are perched high atop the standings for another championship run in the DEL playoffs. (They fell just short last season, losing in the finals to Eisbaren Berlin)

We met and talked to lots of fans. Everyone asked about Pominville. We heard about Jason and the Spengler Cup heroics where the Adler dispatached Team Canada. People wanted to know how Jochen was doing and told us how much he was missed, as he was the mainstay of the team’s first line for much of the season. And of course, fans wanted to discuss the Sabres’ recent stumbles. Yeah they follow us around here, and Mannheim peeps are very invested in Buffalo’s team fortunes.

There would be one more surprise after the game. A whole bunch of us went out to a quaint German bistro (We got there in 8 minutes flat, topping out at 192 Km/ph on the autobahn, thank Stefan). Over beer, authentic German food and great conversation Udo himself showed up. Turns out he owned this place, and he joined up with us, ordering us up wine and schnapps and regaling us with stories of his career in sports. He is in his mid 70s now, and has extensive experience as a public address announcer, having also worked for the FC Kaiserslautern and Borussia Dortmund Bundesliga soccer teams for many years. As we sat there it dawned on us that we’re breaking bread with a true legend. It would sort of be like hanging out and drinking with Milt Ellis and hearing anecdotes of his days with the Sabres.

The day went way too quickly. We parted way with our wonderful hosts. But we did not say goodbye. We said Auf Wiedersehn. Till we meet again. For there is no doubt that our Adler Mannheim friends will be back to Buffalo someday, and there is even less doubt that a return visit to Mannheim will be in the USRT’s future.

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Puck Stop and Play Ball columnists Andrew and Peter are on an 11 day tour of several European destinations, attending sporting events and reporting from the road. Check back for further updates.
Follow on Twitter @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT




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