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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!

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


One city’s love affair with the Buffalo Sabres

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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


USRT – heading on that Europe sports trip

Nothing like lighting up a few flares in the stands after a big goal

Nothing like lighting up a few flares in the stands after a big goal

If there was ever a good a time to get away from the Buffalo Sabres and the Puck Stop desk here at Artvoice, it would be now.

Back in 2011, we had the priceless opportunity to travel to Europe to cover the Buffalo Sabres as they opened their regular season in Berlin and Helsinki. We did the exhibition game in Mannheim, Germany, where we got to make all sorts of new friends, and a few months later, we got to welcome them here in Buffalo. The trips to Berlin and Helsinki gave us an opportunity to reconnect with our ethnic heritages (Andrew – German; Peter – Finnish). The games were epic, the crowds different than what we got to experience here in our neck of the woods. We rode the high speed rails, clean, efficient, comfortable and always on time. We got to take in not one but two Bundesliga soccer matches, in Hannover and Buffalo’s sister city of Dortmund. Both were terrific experiences.

On our final day in 2011, after a whirlwind day of sightseeing in Berlin which took us to Checkpoint Charlie, Olympic Stadium, the Reichstag, the Kurfurstendamm and the Berliner Dom, we wrapped it all up at a sports bistro in the city, where lo and behold, the Bills-Eagles game was on live on all the TV sets in the house! We reflected on an amazing 10 day journey, and we said…”we gotta do this again.”

That time is upon us. In mid December, we pulled out sports schedules, assessed the frequent flier points in our accounts, checked vacation and time off schedules at work, and cobbled together an 11 day journey through Europe. This time it will be three countries. We leave tomorrow for Munich, Germany, and this weekend will take in a hockey game of their team, EHC Red Bull München, and then a soccer match featuring their powerhouse team Bayern München at the glitzy Allianz Arena.

Hard to imagine here in Buffalo, but over in Mannheim, Hecht is an icon and local hero

Hard to imagine here in Buffalo, but over Mannheim, Hecht is an icon and local hero

Our Adler Mannheim peeps are already expecting us at SAP Arena in Mannheim on Sunday as we do a return visit. Interestingly, both hometown hero Jochen Hecht and Sabres captain Jason Pominville played for the Adler during the NHL lockout. Had the NHL season been cancelled, we were planning an extensive media visit and interview and you’d be reading Pommer’s story from Germany in next week’s Puck Stop. But gratefully (or maybe not so much) the guys are back here in the USA, and we can just hang out and enjoy a game with friends.

Next we shoot down to Berne, the capital of Switzerland. We’ve been told that Post Finance Arena, home of SC Berne in the Swiss League, is the place to experience hockey in that country. Oh yeah, the locals there heard about the USRT and are extending game tickets, a tour and the VIP welcome.

Two days in Switzerland and its us heading north. Overnighting in Köln, home of Germany’s most famous cathedral, and reconnecting with the Kulyk relatives outside of Dortmund. The next day, it’s the Rail Eurostar through the Chunnel, over to the United Kingdom and on to Manchester. One of the biggest supporters of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres living in England, our good friend Chris Boyes, has lined up a rugby match in St Helens, an English Premier League soccer match in Stoke City, and a hockey game in Coventry.

So there you have it – seven games in three sports in three countries.

Many times people ask us about sports travel, and the questions usually revolve around what are the neatest stadiums, who has the hottest cheerleaders, where does one find the best food. The bricks and mortar are fine, the game day experiences can be extraordinary, but the best part about doing what we do has to do with all the strong friendships and fellowships that are built around these trips.

To give you an example, last year in Berlin we met a guy named Peter Dowling, a member of the US Army then stationed in Korea and on leave. He is a friend of WGR Radio sports announcer Pat Malacaro, who was also on that Europe trip. We all got together, became fast friends and had a great time together during our stay in Berlin. Fast forward to the present – Dowling is still in the military now stationed in Vilsack, Germany about 130 miles from Munich. When he saw we were coming, he and his buddy secured tickets to Saturday’s soccer match. They are coming down to Allianz Arena just to hang out with us.

So city hopping by railroad, sightseeing and architecture, seven sporting events, hanging out with some special people. It should be a great time. We will post updates and send over tweets from time to time. Please follow along. We’ll be back in the B-lo on March 4. By then the Sabres will have righted their ship, no?

follow Peter Farrell on Twitter @pfarrellUSRT
follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT


Adler Mannheim gets their newest Sabre

Jason Pominville is heading to Europe.

That’s the breaking news which our friend and colleague Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times-Herald is reporting today. Pominville is taking his entire family with him and will be playing for the Adler Mannheim of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. Should the 2012-13 NHL season be cancelled, Pominville plans to make the commitment to the Adlers for the rest of this season, according to the report.

So of all the player signings in Europe made during this dreary and depressing lockout, why is this one more significant than most?

Several reasons… Mannheim is the home, and the home team, of Buffalo Sabre Jochen Hecht. The German connection goes further… the Sabres played the Adlers in their home venue, SAP Arena, last fall as part of their excursion to Europe to open the regular season. Buffalo defeated Mannheim 8-3 in an exhibition game played before a packed house of over 15,000 full throated Adler fans that night.

A few months later, Buffalo laid out the red carpet, as a large contingent of Adler Mannheim fans came to our city to cheer on the Sabres.

From our standpoint, here’s the best news:

Your two Artvoice sports writers, that being myself and partner Andrew Kulyk, are heading to Europe at the end of February for a 10 day sports odyssey through three countries. And thanks to the strong bonds and fellowships made with a great group of Adler Mannheim supporters, we are taking them up on their open invitation for a return visit to Mannheim, and have scheduled a game at SAP Arena as a part of the city hopping adventure.

Here’s our schedule:

Fri 2/22 ERC Ingolstadt at EHC Munchen – Olympia Eishalle (DEL)
Sat 2/23 Werder Bremen at Bayern Munchen – Allianz Arena (Bundesliga)
Sun 2/24 Iserlohn at Adler Mannheim – SAP Arena (DEL)
Tue 2/26 ZSC Lions at SC Berne – PostFinance Arena (NLA)
Fri 3/1 Leeds at St Helens – Langtree Park (Super League – Rugby)
Sat 3/2 Watford at Wolverhampton – Molineux Stadium (Champions League)

By the time we get to February, will the NHL season be saved and back on track? Here’s hoping it is, but if by chance its not, the 2013 Ultimate Sports Road Trip to Europe just got even more exciting. And a promise for one very cool Puck Stop column coming at ‘ya come early March, direct from Mannheim, Germany.