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German Hockey Engineering at its Finest

Perhaps the most North American of all the European leagues, Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga meshes modern innovation with a more traditional athletics model.
2021-10-10_Eisbären_Berlin_gegen_Kölner_Haie_(Deutsche_Eishockey-Liga_2021-22)_by_Sandro_Halank-055

Much of European hockey personality derives from the cozy marriage of idealized and often aging rinks with the kinship among supporters and the personal relationships with their clubs. When thinking of European hockey, there’s the romanticization of rinks like those in Kladno or at Helsinki Ice Hall, HIFK’s concavely roofed version of Moose Jaw’s colloquial ‘Crushed Can.’

Those types of rinks do exist in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga, the third-most highly attended hockey league in the world, but the DEL has emerged as a circuit whose top teams play in the types of modern, multi-purpose arenas found throughout North America and whose atmospheres deftly mesh each club’s unique history with a more contemporary focus on fan entertainment. With a per-game average that trails only the NHL and Switzerland’s National League, and boasting four of the 11 largest club rinks in Europe, the DEL’s top teams have comfortably increased the scale of their operations without sacrificing atmosphere or the unique personalities of their fan cultures. 

In a league with larger stadia and loosened rules on import players – up to 11 imports are allowed on a team’s roster, easily the most among prominent European leagues – there exists a route toward success with a greater reliance on star power. And with more seats to fill than the typical European hockey arena, there exists an opportunity to market and sell the team with a much more North American approach.

So, when Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille accepted the role of president of Eisbaren Berlin’s board of directors in 2017, he did so vying to reform the business operations of the fellow Anschutz Entertainment Group-owned team while reviving the on-ice success that had defined the club’s existence since there was still dust in the air from the fallen Berlin Wall. “On the business side, we’re really working on the culture of running the same type of business that we run over here,” Robitaille said.

Just as AHL clubs and prospects benefit from implementing similar structures to those of their parent clubs, the Kings are reforming Eisbaren’s sales operations to match the business culture established at home. 

Peter John Lee’s official title with Eisbaren Berlin reads vice-chairman and senior advisor, but when the doors open on an early-season game night, he’s the Eisbaren’s mayor. Few are hitting the pavement harder. Born in England and raised in Quebec and Ontario, Lee twice notched 30 goals in a six-year, 431-game NHL tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins after he was traded with Pete Mahovlich’s rights by Montreal early in 1977-78. Since moving to Dusseldorf as a player in 1983, he’s spent all but two seasons as a player, coach or executive in Germany’s top league and was the coach of Eisbaren when they were bought by AEG in 1999.

His responsibilities on this night mirror those of his colleagues within AEG Sports and the Kings. Before reconnecting with hockey executives in the team’s private box, he engages with sponsors, partners, season-ticket holders, friends and associates he’s known well before his 2008 induction into the German Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. This all takes place within a club lounge and private spread accessed by escalators and overlooking the ice from behind one of the nets, the latest symbol that the Eisbaren are essentially run on a minimally reduced scale of an NHL team. Only the slightest details distinguish Berlin’s arena operations with those in Winnipeg’s Canada Life Centre, the closest NHL comparable with a capacity only 1,121 seats greater.

Outside, in the Mercedes Platz, fans congregate in a decidedly Western outdoor retail and hospitality space that draws easy comparisons to an L.A. Live district outside Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles. Not for the scale, of course – at 5.6-million square feet, the L.A. Live campus is exponentially larger – but as a shiny and prosperous emblem of gentrification whose borders are easily delineated from the traditionally working-class and much more graffitied neighborhoods surrounding it. In Berlin, that’s bustling Friedrichshain, which like much of Germany when one faces east, retains its eminently charming grit. Beyond the edges of Mercedes Platz is the divided Muhlenstrasse, then the East Side Gallery – the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall – and then the Spree River. The entire neighborhood, whether paved over and dressed up or retaining its punky urban nonconformity, is young and lively.

That East German influence is important. Hockey in Berlin predates the much more recent Berlin Wall. So, too, did the Stasi-aligned SC Dynamo Berlin, whose ashes ultimately bore a reunified and much more accessible Eisbaren club that navigated away from bankruptcy and toward an increasingly stabilized top flight when purchased by AEG in 1999 and through Mercedes-Benz Arena’s 2008 opening. 

The Eisbaren’s developmental structure still retains unique East German traits in which schools at the time featured built-in athletics curriculums funded by the state to facilitate greater Olympic success. As the only club in the 2021-22 DEL hailing from a city once part of the German Democratic Republic, this differentiates Berlin from the rest of the league in which education and athletics are separate entities. Players on Berlin’s junior teams attend a high school not too different from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It’s next to Sportforum Hohenschonhausen, a massive recreational complex that previously fulfilled its mission of training top East German Olympic athletes. 

This is a structure unique to the Eisbaren and an aspect of German hockey that strays away from a North American model rather than toward it. Adler Mannheim is another behemoth of a German hockey brand with an origin predating Dynamo Berlin’s and only one fewer championship than the Eisbaren’s DEL-record eight. Like other top German clubs, they play in one of Europe’s largest and most modern multi-purpose rinks in SAP Arena, whose namesake global software developer is headquartered a half-hour away. 

Based in southwest Germany, Adler Mannheim – the Mannheim Eagles – do not base their developmental program on the state-sponsored model. This more familiar European model has helped deep-pocketed Mannheim amass a golden generation of young German breakthroughs in Tim Stutzle, Moritz Seider and Leon Draisaitl. 

The esteemed Jungadler Mannheim youth program, sustained through a foundation created in 1999 by billionaire SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp, is as representative of the scale of top-flight German hockey as there is. As Mannheim’s physical footprint has expanded to incorporate two additional ice sheets and ancillary training and conditioning areas, it has done so with the North American outline in plain view. German hockey legend Marcus Kuhl, a 1980 and 1984 West German Olympian who emerged from a playing career to become a visionary developer as Mannheim’s GM and the architect of its youth system, constructed a developmental partnership with Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs 13 years ago in which prospects, coaches and executives from each club would attend and help orchestrate camps at the other’s facility. “(Burke) was the guy who brought us over and helped us out and explained to us everything,” Kuhl said.

Toronto’s suburban Ford Performance Centre, Kuhl noted, had a clear influence on Mannheim’s operations, and Burke’s hockey structure is used as a template toward more acute coaching specialization. “Goaltending, defensive-zone coaches, forwards coaches,” Kuhl said. “We’ve focused more on the (conditioning) side the last five, six years. The young players from age 10 and up are growing faster, and we have them in more personal programs.”

Just as figures like Dave Farrish and Derek King represented the Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies on the ice at Mannheim camps, L.A. executives have also enjoyed an exchange in which Eisbaren players attended Los Angeles development camps, while their coaching staffs participated in off-season coaching sessions managed by former Kings coaches Darryl Sutter and John Stevens. Before the pandemic, the Kings and Eisbaren would send developmental convoys in each direction several times a year, part of a rhythm accentuating the more regular conference calls and Zoom sessions. “The last four years, maybe five, we’ve found a really good way to communicate as a group where we have weekly calls, we share knowledge on players,” Robitaille said. 

They also shared a roof during an international window in 2018 when the Eisbaren travelled to California for an exhibition against Los Angeles’ top farm club, the Ontario Reign. More than 100 Eisbaren fans made the cross-continent caravan to solidify the fraternity. 

Unique to the histories of many hockey and football clubs in Europe, or even their Dynamo predecessors themselves, there is no partisan social focus or cultural association within the Eisbaren. Rather, there exists regular communication between the fan clubs and the team itself in an outreach program unique to each season. 

Often associated with breast cancer fundraising in minor league and junior hockey, the Eisbaren’s Pink in the Rink Night allows the supporters to choose, with the team’s input, which foundations to support through raffles and pink jersey sales. Throughout 2015, during the height of the European refugee crisis, the groups united to enable a refugees skate after practice, and to this date, fan clubs still raise money for immigrants’ school supplies and essentials. “We have our fans, who are probably the most socially engaged fans in basically all over Germany, so they have ideas about diversity,” said Eisbaren managing director Thomas Bothstede. “Refugees are welcome, and we’re trying to help them. That’s what our fans are doing together with us. In the winter, they’re collecting with us. Coach (Serge) Aubin and I drove around with fans basically from home to home collecting winter stuff, and then giving it to the poor.”

Throughout this late September derby versus Grizzlys Wolfsburg – the team Berlin defeated in an empty arena four months prior to claim their eighth championship – a Dynamo flag was waved in the Eisbaren supporter’s section along with flags of various fan clubs. A pride flag hung from the railing behind the goal Berlin shot at twice, and the team wore rainbow-striped commemorative jerseys in warm-ups, which would be auctioned off to fund ongoing community outreach. No volatile fan behavior indicated that the federal election drawing worldwide attention was to be held the following day. “Certainly, what Berlin has going, we feel like every time we go there, we’re learning something as far as fan participation,” Robitaille said.

For many associated with a maturing DEL, the feeling has always been mutual. 

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