The Buffalo Sabres' 50th anniversary season is about to go global.
The Sabres headed Sunday night for Sweden, where they will spend the week preparing for the NHL Global Series in Stockholm. They meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in games Friday and Saturday, their first international contests since 2011.
"It's great for us as a team and an organization," Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill said. "When we went to the Winter Classic (in 2018 in New York), we certainly enjoyed being on a national stage but in this scenario here, you're representing the National Hockey League overseas. You're going over there and you'll really see how our game has grown the last decade or so."
"The closer you get, you talk to people back home and they're so excited for us to come," said Sabres center Johan Larsson, one of six Swedes on the Buffalo roster. "I look at it that it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to come home and play there in the NHL. To play in your home country is going to be unbelievable."
The Sabres, of course, are now an attraction in Sweden because they drafted Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1 overall in 2018. Dahlin's arrival made it feasible that Buffalo could be involved in international play, but it was a surprise when the NHL opted to pick the Sabres last March to play in Dahlin's homeland in just his second season in the league.
"I was not even thinking about going back to Sweden and play NHL," said Dahlin, who grew up about five hours from Stockholm. "When I heard it was going to be my second season, I was thinking it was so cool. It's going to be super fun and I'm really thankful for the decision to send the Buffalo Sabres over there."
Dahlin and Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman are the headline performers of the trip. But while Hedman is 28 years old and has played in the Stanley Cup final, the Sabres are rightfully concerned about the 19-year-old Dahlin being swarmed by fans and Swedish media.
"He handles it so well, but we'll try to protect him from all the attention when it gets very high," Botterill said. "He's not a person that says no easily and he wants to interact with family and friends and people in the media. Whenever we've asked him to represent the Buffalo Sabres and the NHL, he's always open to do it. But he's going to have a lot going on and watching his time management is going to be key this week."
Love of Sweden
The Sabres love Swedish hockey and for reasons far more than Dahlin. They had 11 Swedes in development camp last June. They have drafted seven Swedes under Botterill and 12 over the last six years.
"I've always enjoyed traveling over in Sweden. They've done an amazing job in the development of hockey players, growth of the rinks," Botterill said. "Every time you go over there for a tournament, it's done right. It's fun traveling around the country. And for our players from there to get to play in front of family and friends is a special opportunity."
The Sabres have picked up many new fans in Sweden since the drafting of Dahlin and Victor Olofsson's fast start to this season is adding more.
"Hedman is a huge star in Sweden and to see him on Swedish ice is very big, but it's even bigger with Dahlin," Linus Hogosson, host of Sweden's weekly "NHL Hour" podcast, said by phone from Stockholm. "That's what the fans are talking about. It stands out with this game absolutely. It has been marketed that way. It has gotten the fans excited for sure.
"I don't think people understood how good a rookie season Dahlin had. That's because I think the Sabres fan base is not that big yet, but that's changing now. Dahlin for sure, a big star like him will generate new Sabres fans. People follow him and that's going to grow even more with these games."
The Swedish players will get the bulk of the attention from the fans, just as Jochen Hecht did when the Sabres traveled to Mannheim, Germany, in 2011 for a preseason game before opening their season in Helsinki, Finland, and Berlin.
Fans sang and chanted in support of Hecht, who was injured and unable to play much but skated to the crowd after the exhibition game to acknowledge the cheers.
"It was a really special feeling and there was a lot of excitement for me to skate around in a Sabres jersey in my hometown," Hecht said when he was in Buffalo last month for the team's Captains Night. "The German fans created a wonderful atmosphere. There was singing and noise for 60 minutes. My teammates were so excited to see the chant and Pommer (Jason Pominville) came over a couple years later in the lockout to play. He remembered what it was going to be like.
"We had Swedes, Finns and they were looking forward to play for their team in front of friends and family. It was a special time to play as the Buffalo Sabres, something we all remember. I'm sure it will the same for the players now."
An iconic venue
The games will be played at the 30-year-old Ericsson Globe, one of Stockholm's most distinctive sports venues. The world's largest hemispherical building, the Globe seats about 14,000 for hockey and features a tram car called Skyview on its outside that allows riders to climb to the top of the sphere for a panoramic view of the city.
"For sure. I have to do that," Dahlin said.
The arena has been the home to Swedish National Team games and those of Djurgardens of the Swedish Hockey League. It is also a popular concert venue.
"It's like Madison Square Garden, a powerful arena," Dahlin said. "You're super excited to play there. I've never been able to. My team (Frolunda) played there, but I've been injured or at World Juniors so I didn't get the chance."
"This really cool for us," Olofsson said. "I've only played one game there. It's going to be special. It's a classic and famous arena, the most famous one in Sweden."
A busy week
The Lightning arrived Sunday after wrapping up a three-game trip to the New York City area Friday night in Long Island and got their first practice in. The Sabres arrived around 10:15 a.m. Monday Stockholm time (4:15 a.m. in Buffalo), and headed right to the rink for an afternoon youth clinic and 3:30 p.m. practice (9:30 a.m. Eastern time).
The Sabres will be off Tuesday and Tampa Bay will be off Wednesday. Both teams will then have public practices in the arena Thursday afternoon.
The morning skates on Friday will start at 4:30 a.m. Buffalo time. The games are at 8 p.m. Friday night and 7 p.m. Saturday night in Stockholm, making them matinee starts of 2 and 1 p.m. respectively, back home. Friday's game is on NBC Sports Network while Saturday's game is on MSG, with the Sabres' television crew doing the call from KeyBank Center.
Both games will be available across North America. Sportsnet is showing them in Canada while NBCSN and the NHL Network are splitting the games in the United States.
"The league sets it up really well for us," Botterill said. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, there are opportunities to enjoy the city and be with family. Thursday is going to be a fun open practice. Those are things that will a different experience for everybody and our guys will really enjoy it.
"The Swedish, Finnish, Czech players have sacrificed so much to get to this point that being able to spend a little bit more time with their families this week is something special. But once you get to Thursday, Friday, there's going to be a new focus on heading to game day and what we have to accomplish over there."
The Sabres' Swedish contingent includes Dahlin, Larsson, Olfosson, Marcus Johansson, Linus Ullmark and defenseman Lawrence Pilut, who was recalled Sunday from Rochester. Tampa Bay's lone Swede is Hedman, the 2018 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman. His status was cast into doubt when he missed the last two games of Tampa Bay's trip to New York with an upper-body injury suffered in the opening game against the Rangers.
"We're hopeful for the games in Sweden and so is everybody in the country of Sweden," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said before Friday's 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders.
Cooper was optimistic about Hedman's status after that game, but less so after practice on Sunday.
"I think we are all hopeful, but he is going to have to get on the ice pretty soon if we are going to see him," Cooper told reporters covering the Global Series.
"It is what it is," Hedman said after the workout. "I'll do whatever I can in my power to be back, but I'll just focus on the process and take it day by day.
Hedman and Olofsson are from Ornskoldsvik, an Eastern coastal city more than 300 miles from Stockholm, and trained together over the summer. Ullmark is from Lugnvik, less than an hour away.
"He's obviously a great guy to look up to, and you're trying to catch him in workouts and everything," Olofsson said of Hedman. "He's been a great sparring partner for me. He's been here for a long time and he knows everything."
The NHL in Stockholm
This is the sixth set of NHL games to be played in the Globe, a run that started in 2008 with a season-opening series between Pittsburgh and Ottawa. Other two-game series were held in 2009 (St. Louis-Detroit), 2010 (San Jose-Columbus) and 2017 (Ottawa-Colorado). In 2011, the New York Rangers opened their season against Los Angeles and Anaheim.
"It means a lot to Swedish people," Olofsson said. "It's obviously great for the kids over there to watch this game live. It's hard with the time change. It's not like you can stay up and watch a lot of games as a kid."
By many accounts, the New York Rangers rate as the No. 1 team in Sweden because of the presence of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers roster also boasts Mika Zibanejid, who scored the "Golden Goal" for Sweden in overtime to beat Russia in the gold medal game of the 2012 World Junior Championships in Calgary. Larsson was the captain of that team.
Fans in Sweden closely follow the Vancouver Canucks because of the Sedin twins and current sensation Elias Pettersson, and have long been interested in the Toronto Maple Leafs because they were the club of Swedish legends Borje Salming and Mats Sundin.
"San Jose got a lot of new Swedish fans when Erik Karlsson signed there," Hogosson said. "You can get up about 4 a.m. here and watch their games. It's much harder for a team like Buffalo playing at 7 o'clock Eastern time and being at midnight and 1 a.m. here.
"But I've been surprised so many men and women are up during the night watching the game live. I don't know how they manage to do it. The Sabres fan base is small, but very knowledgeable and diehard."
Johansson got the chance to go home last year when the New Jersey Devils opened the season in Gothenburg against Edmonton and knows the Swedish fans will be into the games.
"You're definitely excited about it, but at the same time we're going there to play hockey," he said. "This group wants to get better every night. We practice hard, play hard and don't look too far ahead. We're kind of in the moment, which helps us a lot.
"It's fun, too. It's not often you get to play in front of family and friends. It's going to be a special thing and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it."