by Andrew Kulyk (@akulykUSRT) - posted 3:05 am, February 26, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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