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Europeans relish NHL opening weekend

by Shawn P. Roarke

Mathieu, Marie-Helene and Philippe Gaubin made the short trip across the English Channel to take part in the historic Premiere Series to open the 2007-08 NHL regular season.
LONDON -- The NHL was a big hit this weekend for the fans who flocked to the 02 Arena here to take part in the historic Premiere Series to open the 2007-08 NHL regular season.

In the end, the results on the ice were of secondary concern to many fans, who cared only that the game they love was on their turf. So, perhaps it was poetic justice that the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings split this two-game Southern California showdown magically transplanted to the Thames.

The Kings stunned the hockey world by dominating the Stanley Cup champions Saturday, winning 4-1 behind the brilliance of rookie goalie Jonathan Bernier. Sunday, the Ducks turned the tables, scoring four times on their first 13 shots to take a 4-1 victory of their own.

Philippe Gaubin, from Paris, is a Ducks fan. He was happy his team won Sunday, but he was even happier that the NHL was in Europe. Gaubin made the short jaunt across the English Channel --- along with his mother, Marie-Helene, and his brother Matthieu -- to be a part of history.

“For us to be at an NHL game in Europe, it’s very important,” Gaubin explained of the reason behind the family’s outing. “It’s very, very nice for the NHL to be here.”

Gaubin regularly goes to see Swiss Elite League games and has seen about a dozen NHL games while on holiday in North America; but none meant as much as the two games he took in this weekend.

“We are passionate hockey fans and I have seen games everywhere, but it means so much to be at a NHL game here,” Philippe said.

These games were so important that many fans abandoned their local clubs for the weekend.

Keith and Laura Ritchie, from nearby Sheffield, are passionate supporters “from way back in the day,” of the Sheffield Blades. Saturday night, the Blades were in Basingstoke playing a league game, but the Ritchies were at the 02 Arena watching the Ducks and the Kings.

Andreas Klarstrom and Daniel Almer hail from Sweden, home of the prestigious Swedish Elite League, yet they made the trip to London to see the NHL games instead.

“I think this is amazing,” Klarstrom said as he sat in his lower-level seat Saturday. “I can’t believe I’m going to be watching the NHL in person in a few minutes.”

Klarstrom says he has been a Ducks fan for a decade, choosing the Anaheim franchise because of the presence of All-Star Paul Kariya on their roster at the time.

“I was hoping to see the Ducks one day, but I can’t believe that day has come now,” he said.

Almer is a New York Rangers fan -- because of players like Sean Avery and Darius Kaspairaitis, he says -- and the two friends plan to travel to New York next season to see the Rangers. Neither follows the SEL, believing the game is too slow and not physical enough for their tastes.

Edjis Locmels and Kristaps Kirilovs made the trek from Riga, Latvia, to see these two games, the first NHL contests for both of them. Despite the presence of Latvian Raitis Ivanans on the Kings’ roster, Locmels says he came not because of the presence of a Latvian on the rosters, but because it is an easier and less expensive trip than traveling to North America.

Hockey fans from all over Europe flocked to the 02 Arena this weekend,
“I just want to see a good game, a physical game,” Locmels said before Saturday’s faceoff. His wish came true as both games featured physical play and some highlight-reel performances.

Bernier, 19, stole the show Saturday in his first-ever start. Teammate Michael Cammalleri scored three goals in the two games. For Anaheim, Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller made his NHL debut in Sunday’s win. Corey Perry had a pair of goals Sunday and rookie Bobby Ryan scored his first-ever NHL goal Saturday night in his first game.

But the novelty of these games wasn’t enough for some fans. Both the fan bases of the Ducks and Kings traveled strong for this event. Each group brought a large contingent of supporters. For these die-hard fans, the points were the biggest thing at the end of the day, because, after all, these two games were regular-season showdowns between bitter divisional rivals.

Kings fan Scott Coffman was part of the Kings-sponsored trip, which featured around 200 fans. He came to London with his buddy, Sean Ayers.

“I said to Sean the other day that if the Kings didn’t win one of these games, this would be the worst trip ever,” Coffman said. “To come all the way here and see them start 0-2 and losing both games to the Ducks would have been awful.”

Fortunately for Coffman, that never happened. And, as a result, he, like everyone else this weekend, had a great time as the NHL conquered London.

“I think this whole trip was great,” he said. “I think both teams catered to their fans that came over. This showed that there is a passionate fan base for both teams because of the people that were willing to travel over here for this.

“I got to see something that was very special – the first NHL game in London. The atmosphere was great and the building was great. The whole trip has been great.”

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