It seems that every four years my interest in ice hockey is renewed because of the olympics and the NHL players who take part in it. This year’s olympic competition was no exception and although I wasn’t able to watch as many games as I would have liked to have the final was enough to get me interested in the NHL again. of course visiting Toronto also helped a lot.
So when I read what Patrick of NPB Tracker had to write about a swedish player who will join the Edmonton Oilers for the next season, I realized while writing a comment that german ice hockey is in a rather pitiful state at the moment and that I might as well write a post about it here.
Ice hockey in Germany has a long tradition and I have been fortunate enough to be born in a city with a great hockey club which won eight championships in its history. The Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks), or the Kölner EC (KEC) as they were known before, are in a desparate situation at the moment and seem to be the blueprint of what is going on in german hockey at the moment. They are on the brink of bankruptcy, owing money to a lot of people including their own players. And they are not the only club which is struggling to survive right now. Ho did this happen? Well, let’s go back a few years.
As you might know professional sports in Europe is organized slightly different than in north america. Over here we have a system of relegation and promotion which means you have to earn your spot in the top leagues every year. Now this might have a few disadvantages as, say, you don’t have the certainty that the club will play in the first division for the next season if they play bad. Which leads to a lot of contract issues with players who don’t want to play in the 2nd division. In fact in soccer a lot of players have contracts which are only valid for the 1st division which makes them free agents if their team gets relegated. On the other hand this systems allows every club in the country to work its way through from the very bottom to the very top. The north american professional leagues are a very distinguished circle with exclusive members which means that a lot of cities in the country won’t get the chance to have a big league club. That’s not happening in Europe. Here even the smallest village might have a first league club. Now, that’s on paper, chances for something like that happening ae very, very low. But, still, there’s the chance.
With this in mind let’s take a look at wha’s happened in Germany over the past 30 years. In the eighties the powerhouses of german hockey came from the west. Cologne and Duesseldorf’s DEG were basically dominating the league, winning eight out of ten championships in ten years between 1984 and 1993. Players like goalies Helmut de Raaf and Beppi Heiss, defenders like Uwe Krupp and Udo Kießling, forwards like the Truntschka brothers, Peter Draisaitl and Didi Hegen, were representing the backbone of the german national team which had its finest hour during the 1992 olympics in Albertville when they played Team Canada in an exciting game which went into a penalty shootout which Germany lost with the puck just running out of stream on the goal line at the final penalty.
At that time it was a common sight to watch canadian or american born players with german ancestors come over to Germany and play for the country of their parents or grandparents. That was because of a limit of foreign born players on the teams so the clubs had to be creative to fill their rosters. And this all changed with the so called Bosman ruling. Jean-Marc Bosman was a rather mediocre soccer player in the belgian league who wanted to transfer to another club when his contract axpired in 1990 but his wish was rejected and so he went to court. To cut a long story short, this changed the face of professional sports in Europe. From there on not only were players allowed to change teams as free agents after their contracts expired, but from then on clubs were also allowed to use as many foreign born players as they wanted to. That led to a lot of clubs preferring complete players from foreign countries over german youngsters who hand’t established themselves in the top leagues yet.
The german ice hockey federation tried to adapt to the changes by establishing a professional league just like the north american ones in Germany, so so called Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). In it teams were freed from the looming danger of relegation. The clubs also took up funny names which sometimes sounded rather silly. Teams like Cologne and Mannheimer ERC (then known as Adler Mannheim) were fortunate enough to have an animal as their symbol long before that requirement.
But somehow from the 1994/95 season onwards things gradually went downhill. The last champion from the old league, Hedos München (then known as Maddogs München) had to file for Bankruptcy shortly before the end of the year. Each season ther seemed to be at least one team which was in financial troubles and slowly people turned away from the sport. The power centre shifted from the west to the south and the east with Mannheim (five championships) and Eisbären Berlin (four championships) winning nine out of 15. Cologne and Duesseldorf had their fair share with the Haie winning in 1995 and 2002 (that time around with a promising young russian player named Sergeij Berezin) and Duesseldorf taking the 1996. But even the DEG weren’t exempt from financial problems and so the glorious club from Duesseldorf had to pull out of the DEL in 1998 for financial reasons, but they came back two years later.
A lot of clubs from the south weren’t able to compete with the bigger markets in the north and so teams like Riessersee, Schwenningen, Landshut or Kaufbeuren were left out of the picture in favour of new franchises in cities like Hamburg or Hannover. There were good times however, e.g. when the NHL had its lockout a lot of NHL players came over to Europe to stay in shape. That led to rising attendances in the stadiums with players like Jean-Sébastien Giguère (Anaheim Mighty Ducks), Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey Devils) or Ty Conklin (Edmonton Oilers) taking the ice in Germany.
But this wasn’t enough to fill the big arenas that had been built in the meantime for the long run. Cologne has the biggest arena of them all with 18.000 seats but their attendance rates have been on the decline over the past years just as it has been for almost every club in the DEL. Only in Berlin where they built a new arena for 14.500 people are they able to fill the seats continuously, but even the Eisbären are not a sure bet, dropping out of the playoffs in the quarterfinal this season.
So, with attendance rates going down this leaves less money for the clubs to spend. There almost no revenue from TV money as there are no games shown on free TV. Everything was moved to pay TV which just doesn’t give the sport enough publicity at all. And when there hockey on free TV it’s disgraceful performances like the one we’ve seen during the 2010 olympics in Vancouver which was the worst outing of a german national team ever. What makes things even worse is that this team had the most NHL players in german history and still they weren’t able to achieve anything.
Right now a lot of fans are staging protests during games to raise awareness that if everything goes wrong the whole sport will be in ruins in the near future, but it seems noone is paying any attention. The Kölner Haie are lacking around 500.000 Euro and at the moment the next season is all but certain. In the city there have been numrous actions to counter this development like selling special “saviour” shirts where the proceeds will go directly to the club, but that’s just a small amount of money.
This season’s final will for the first time not feature one of the powerhouses from either Mannheim, Berlin, Duesseldorf or Cologne. Instead Hannover Scorpions (yup, they are named after the hardrock band) swept Ingolstadt and they are now waiting for either Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg or Augsburg Panther. Although I think it’s a good thing that a league s competitive and there’s a chance for every team to reach the finals, the attendances in those cities are just not as big as they are in the traditional cities. And television won’t be interested in a championship series between those teams simply because noone would care.
One thing that clubs could do though is to go back to local talent which might not be as polished as players from abroad, but they are a lot cheaper and the identification with their respective clubs would be a lot higher than the other way around. I just hope the Haie won’t have to call it quits for the next season.