BUFFALO, N.Y. – Before anyone gets any funny ideas, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff wants to be clear on how he’s approaching the team jetting off to Europe to open its season next week.
“Don’t call it a vacation,” Ruff said.
While there will be time for the Sabres to play tourist during an eight-day, three-city journey, Ruff has spent the past few days emphasizing that this is also a business trip.
“It should be a good trip for us, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
The cross-Atlantic journey starts Saturday, a day after the Sabres close their NHL pre-season at Washington. After a brief stop home, the Sabres will fly to Mannheim, Germany, where they will play an exhibition game against the city’s pro team Adler on Tuesday. Then it’s off to Helsinki, Finland, where Buffalo will open the season against Anaheim on Oct. 7, followed by a game against Los Angeles in Berlin a day later.
Joined by the New York Rangers, the Sabres are one of four NHL teams competing in Europe as part of the league’s bid to expand its brand.
The Sabres are suddenly regarded as one of the NHL’s up-and-coming teams following an off-season transformation. Buffalo added three high-profile players—defenceman Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino—to improve a Ryan Miller-led team that’s not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
The expectations are high in Buffalo, and Sabres players need no reminder of how important it is to get off to a fast start after what happened last year. Buffalo went 3-9-2 in stumbling out of the gate and required a 29-11-6 second-half surge to clinch a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season.
Players are well aware of what’s on the line, and yet eagerly looking forward to what should be a unique experience. That’s particularly true among Buffalo’s two German-born players, Ehrhoff and forward Jochen Hecht.
“It’s a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ehrhoff, who is from the western German city of Moers. He didn’t know about the Sabres playing games in Germany until after he signed 10-year, US$40 million contract in June.
“This was definitely a great bonus,” he added, noting he’ll have numerous members of his family and friends attending both games in Germany.
Hecht is excited to make the trip, too, though a head injury will prevent him from playing in his hometown of Mannheim, and against the team he broke in with as a professional. Hecht only resumed skating with the team Friday since being hurt last week after colliding with teammate Shaone Morrisonn in practice.
Ruff has already ruled out Hecht from playing Tuesday.
The Sabres total six European players, including Leino, who is from Finland, and Austrian-born forward Thomas Vanek.
The U.S.-born Miller is looking forward to the trip, too, having previously travelled to Europe, including Helsinki.
“It’s a good opportunity to go as a group and do something new and exciting,” said Miller, whose only disappointment is not having more time to spend in Berlin. “I think you have to approach it as just another two NHL games in a way, but enjoy the overall experience. Just take it as a lesson of what you should be doing every night: Enjoying it.”
Notes: Ehrhoff provided a laugh when asked where hockey ranks behind soccer in Germany. “There’s soccer,” he said. “Then there’s nothing, and nothing and then hockey’s competing with basketball.” … RW Patrick Kaleta is sporting a cut under his right eye after being checked by Vanek during a scrimmage Wednesday. “He smoked me,” Kaleta said, noting there were no hard feelings. “I’ll be the first one to back him up on the ice whenever he needs it.” … After playing L.A. in Berlin, the Sabres have a five-day break before their home-opener against Carolina on Oct. 14.