|Hübinette and Jonsson with Johan Larsson |
Mikael Hübinette sits in the stands at First Niagara Center, rattling off the names of the players he'd control as a 10 year old in Sweden playing NHL games on his Sega Genesis. Alexander Mogilny
. Pat LaFontaine
. Dale Hawerchuk
. Dominik Hasek
The Buffalo Sabres, he said, were unbeatable.
"You couldn’t lose with that team," Hübinette said. "That's where it all started and it just continued. I'm 32 now."
He's 22 years older, but the passion that was sparked by a video game burns even brighter today. He's watched his Sabres avidly from Sweden for the last two decades, from "No Goal" in 1999 to back-to-back conference finals in '06 and '07 and up until now, with a team working to take great strides at becoming perennial contenders.
On a good week, he says, he'll catch three games live. That's not bad considering the amount of preparation it takes to make room for a game in his schedule. When a contest begins at 7 p.m. in Buffalo, it's already 1 a.m. in Sweden.
But now, for the first time in his life, there's no time difference to worry about. Wearing a Sabres scarf wrapped around a red MODO Hockey jersey – his favorite team in Sweden and the former team of Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark – Hübinette is finally watching from the stands of First Niagara Center.
It's his first trip ever to the United States – one that has been years in the making, but only now came to fruition.
"My son [was born] a year ago and my girlfriend has been home with him. She's going to work now after New Year's. I wouldn't have been able to go after that," he says, laughing. "I saw the time was getting shorter so I had to go."
Once Hübinette's friend, David Jonsson, agreed to come along, the trip was set: The plan was to fly to Buffalo for a game against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 12, drive to Detroit to watch the Sabres play the Red Wings and then return to Buffalo for the next two home games against New Jersey and Anaheim.
What Hübinette and Jonsson didn't expect was that once the Sabres ticket office heard they'd be traveling nearly 4,000 miles to see the team, they'd offer to sweeten the pot a bit. In addition to seeing four games, the two were treated to tours of the Sabres dressing room and a postgame meeting with Ullmark and his Swedish teammate Johan Larsson.
"I got all warm and fuzzy," Hübinette said of the moment he walked into the dressing room. He pointed out the ceiling, with a lit Sabres logo at its center, as an aspect that left him particularly awestruck. "It's amazing, so beautiful. I mean, I've got it as my profile picture on Twitter now."
Their tour of Buffalo extended beyond First Niagara Center. They spent time at (716) Food and Sport at HARBORCENTER, explored Chippewa and had plans to take a trip to the Anchor Bar. The wings, they said, are "much, much better" than what they have at home.
They chose Buffalo out of all the cities they could have visited in their first visit to North America, and Buffalo made it worth their while.
"The town and the people here are so nice," Jonsson said. "We've been taken care of like kings. It's awesome."
The product they experienced on the ice wasn't so bad either. Three of the four games they attended were Sabres wins, beginning with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Kings and Swedish goaltender – and former Sabre – Jhonas Enroth.
Not to mention the fact that they also got to see a game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, one of the League's oldest and most historic rinks. Surely that had to be quite an experience.
"Yeah," Hübinette says, overlooking a crowd of his fellow Sabres fans. "But nothing like this."