There was a little taste of home here for the Sabres on Monday morning.
Buffalo took the ice for Monday's practice at the SAP Arena and was surrounded by a sea of blue and yellow as fans which made the team-sponsored trip flocked to the open practice. They were joined there by fans of Adler Mannheim, the club team which Buffalo plays here in Tuesday night's Compuware Premiere Challenge exhibition, to make quite the festive scene that was nothing more than a traditional morning skate, featuring line rushes and shooting drills.
Yet, the fans cheered every move, including stickhandling drill in which each player had to navigate the puck through a line of closely spaced pucks. If the player failed, he had to start from the beginning again. The fans followed intently, loudly cheering each successful attempt and groaning with each failure.
"It made for a fun practice and a fun atmosphere," coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's funny how (the stickhandling drill) turned into something that fans kept an eye on. I think it created an extra pressure for the player trying to do it. Some passed the test and some got frustrated. It was fun."
The loudest cheer of the day, though, came in the dying minutes of the session when local-boy-done-good Jochen Hecht joined practice in time for the picture the team took with the 110 or so members of the fan club in attendance.
Hecht was held out of practice as he battles concussion-related symptoms and he won't play in Tuesday's NHL Premiere Challenge exhibition against Manheim, the team for which he turned pro almost 15 years ago. It was a bitter blow for both Hecht and the fans of Adler Mannheim, who have anticipated Tuesday's reunion for much of the past two months.
Despite the profound disappointment Hecht was feeling as he came to grips with the death of his dream to play before the Mannheim fans as a member of the Sabres, he said that Monday's reception by the fans certainly helped his spirits.
"It felt great of course," Hecht said. "Coming here and being able to say hello to the fans that don't get to see me during the summer. They want to show that I belong to them. This is my hometown. I used to be one of them sitting in the stands watching the team."
The practice ended with the fan club members being invited on to the ice for a picture with the team. Forty members of the fan club missed the practice after they were delayed in the United States. They are expected to arrive Tuesday morning. After the picture, the players stayed on the ice and mingled with the fans.
"It tells a lot about our fans that they travelled all this way," Ruff said. "It was nice to give them a little something extra. The 10 minutes of interaction we had on the ice was great for our fans. I think that part of it is really important and I think the players enjoy it too."
Young defenseman Tyler Myers agreed. He stayed on the ice longer than many of his teammates, signing banners and photos and taking pictures with fans.
"Today was kind of cool," Myers told NHL.com. "It was unexpected, for sure. When you get that many fans out there, it makes it a lot of fun. The fans are a big part of what we do. They fuel the fire."