A year ago at this time, months before Covid-19 changed the world and prematurely ended their season, the Buffalo Sabres were 4,000 miles from home in Sweden. Many of them were investigating this foreign land for the first time, several others were back on home soil.
Sunday marks the anniversary of their opening game in Stockholm. The Sabres played the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in back-to-back games at the Ericsson Globe, suffering 3-2 and 5-3 losses in games that were heavily billed as a matchup of Swedish defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Victor Hedman. November was a difficult time on the schedule for the club, but the memories of the trip remain indelible.
"I felt like that was something that was only going to happen once for me," Sabres winger Victor Olofsson said on a recent video call. "To bring all my family and friends down to Stockholm to watch me live play NHL hockey is something I'm never going to forget. It was just an unbelievable journey for all of us Swedes."
"It was a very, very fun time to get to experience Sweden together with my teammates," added goalie Linus Ullmark on a similar call. "And also to be playing in front of a home crowd and to have all my family there, and not just my closest ones. I had friends there, other relatives as well. Even though we didn't win the games, I'm still going to cherish it as a very positive memory."
It's easy to forget the Sabres hit Sweden ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings. Buffalo was 9-4-2 while Tampa Bay was only 6-5-2 and still teetering after its stunning four-game sweep at the hands of Columbus in the first round of the playoffs seven months earlier.
The Sabres suffered a 1-0 loss to the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center on Nov. 2 and headed for Sweden the next afternoon. The overnight trip got them into Stockholm on a Monday morning and they took the ice for their first practice at 3:30 on Monday afternoon. They had three days of practice and one day off before the Friday-Saturday set of games.
"The flight here was super exciting. I could barely sleep," Dahlin said after the club's first workout. "We're finally here. It's unbelievable to be here with the team. It feels weird but it's really fun to see all the guys walking around on the streets to see Swedish stuff."
"I've never seen 'Ras' so excited," a laughing captain Jack Eichel said that day. "It seems like he had his bags packed in the car the whole day yesterday and he was ready to go. He was moving us along."
Ralph Krueger had coached several times in the Globe, the world's largest spherical building, and was in the stands to see the Swiss National Team earn a silver medal in the 2013 World Championship. He was equally pumped.
"Once we got going, I was very happy to be coach of the Sabres here on the ice in the 'Globen,' " Krueger said after that first practice. "The guys are feeling refreshed just to get a change of scenery and have a challenge that's rare and special in the National Hockey League."
The players were celebrities with the Swedish media the entire trip, with reporters routinely swarming around Dahlin in particular. But fellow Swedes like Ullmark, Olofsson and the now-departed Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson got plenty of attention, too.
It was just more than 30 years ago that the Sabres were involved a real-life spy novel, getting Alexander Mogilny to defect from the Soviet Red Army after it won the World Championships in Stockholm.
• Getting your bearings: You had to be up early in the day to go sightseeing. There was only about eight hours of daylight and a full sunset by 3:30 every afternoon. Both teams were staying with a waterfront view at the opulent Grand Hotel, which routinely housed world dignitaries and hosted former President Barack Obama for a conference a few months earlier. The Grand was located about 1 1/2 miles from the Scandic Downtown Camper – the hotel where the Sabres had their first meeting with Alexander Mogilny in 1989 after he decided he wanted to defect from the Soviet Union.
There’s far more to the subway here than just hopping a train. The stations are art galleries on their own.
• The subway: Players, of course, didn't need to venture onto the pristine Stockholm subway as they were within walking distance of the Old Town tourist mecca. But they missed out. Stockholm's stations were veritable art and sculpture galleries and there were guides available to describe the work in each station. Video game tiles was the theme at the station by my hotel and climbing to the blue sky on the escalator was a motif at the central station near the hotel where most NHL officials were located.
Kings. Queens. Presidents. First Ladies. Nobel Prize laureates. They’ve all routinely walked the same stately staircase I traversed with a small tour group here.
• Best side trips: The Vasa Museum, a 1600s shipwreck that sat at the bottom of Stockholm harbor for 333 years until it was finally raised in 1961, was a recommendation of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The vast City Hall, site of the iconic Nobel Prize banquet each year, provided a spectacular tour that included its famous "Blue Room," the hall where the banquet is held – and where there is no blue to be found because it was named prior to construction and design changes were implemented to not include the color. The name, by then, had become public and simply stuck.
Stockholm's 1912 Olympic Stadium was also open to the public and you could walk the track and see the venue where Jim Thorpe became a legend. The Olympic rings are on display and it's still used today for elite track and field meets. Full confession: I visited about three hours before faceoff on the second game day and simply never had time to do a writeup. But it was worth the subway stops and the 10-minute walk through the rain.
On the return home, the No. 1 topic you were asked about – far more than the games – was how good the food was. And it was excellent.
Dahlin said it succinctly the first day when asked by an NHL.com reporter what his favorite Swedish dish was: "Meatballs with mashed potatoes and brown sauce. It's delicious."
The kid knows his stuff. You don't call them "Swedish meatballs" in Sweden, of course. Do we call them "Buffalo wings" here? I was partial to the lingonberry jam that came with them as well. There was plenty of Italian food available as well and a trip to Max Burger, the McDonald's of Sweden, was a requirement.
Let’s get one thing straight right away: You don’t call them “Buffalo” wings in Buffalo, right? So there are no “Swedish” meatballs in Sweden.
Every convenience store and gas station had a huge selection of pastries every day. There were panini shops all over town, including a couple of spectacular ones in the Central Station.
Another key post-trip question: What daring food did you have? There was plenty out there, including meatballs made of ox rather than pork or beef. The only plunge taken was a taste of reindeer meat. Surprisingly good. Tasted like strip steak.
After the morning skate for the opener, there was a visitor to the Sabres' dressing room looking to meet Dahlin. It was Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, the Detroit defenseman considered the best blueliner to come out of Sweden.
"I was shaking. I felt like a child," a smiling Dahlin said. "Yeah. That was cool. He's the best of all time. That's the guy."
Emotion was everywhere both days as the sellout crowd of more than 13,000 did full-throated versions of the Swedish anthem. Ullmark said after the opener it was one of the greatest moments in his hockey career to be wearing an NHL sweater in Sweden and hear the fans sing all around him.
The Sabres dropped the opener, 3-2, getting both goals from Sam Reinhart. After falling behind, 2-0, in the second period, Reinhart's first goal snapped Buffalo's shutout streak at 125 minutes, 3 seconds.
The Sabres lost Vladimir Sobotka on a low hit from Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov late in the first period and Sobotka was done for the season after knee surgery.
Krueger was furious at the unpenalized hit, which was late and did not receive any supplemental discipline from the NHL either.
"Eight eyes," Krueger railed by the bench, referring to the four officials in a rant caught on NBCSN.
Late AND low. Quite a baffling no-call. https://t.co/wcoyY1H3z5— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 8, 2019
The Sabres dropped the second game, 5-3, despite setting season highs with 43 shots on goal and 74 attempts. Olofsson thrilled his home-nation fans with a goal early in the third period to get the Sabres within 3-2 but Tampa scored twice in a 67-second span midway through the period to put the game away.
The crowd was split between both teams, with many of the Swedish fans going for the Lightning and Hedman while more of the out-of-towners cheering on the Sabres. The Sabres' Czech-Slovak Fan Club – yes, there really is such a thing – showed up in multiple team jerseys banging their drum in one end zone to give a European soccer feel to the proceedings.
"It was outstanding in every way except for our results," Krueger said in his final words at the official NHL dais for the trip. "The hospitality was felt by the team the whole time we were here. It was a wonderful experience that we'll look back on with pleasure once these games become lessons that make us stronger in the future."
The two losses and the Sobotka injury contributed to the Sabres' rugged November, which finished with a 3-8-3 record. The Lightning, meanwhile, felt their Sweden trip was where they recommitted to their defensive game after struggling to keep the puck out of their net early in the season.
"This was kind of what our team needed," captain Steven Stamkos said after the second game. "I think we definitely became tighter as a group this trip, and you kind of saw it on the ice with the way we played. If anything, I think we grew a little bit as a team on this trip, and maybe [it was] a little blessing in disguise going on the road for as long as we have.''
By mid-December, Tampa started the first of two 10-game winning streaks – featuring a New Year's Eve comeback from 4-1 down in Buffalo to a 6-4 win. Strangely enough, the Bolts were just 3-6-1 in the 10 games prior to the league's pause but then went 18-7 (including three round-robin games) en route to winning their second Cup. The Sabres, of course, missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
The NHL canceled its scheduled Global Series games this season in Helsinki and Prague. The league is tentatively scheduled to return to Sweden in the 2021-22 season.