The Berlin Eisbären may have placed second in this year's German Hockey League championships, but it's still a big achievement for the former East German team that struggled to survive after the Berlin Wall fell.
Struggling to the top: the Berlin Polar Bears
When the Berlin Eisbären (Polar Bears) won the match that secured them a place in this year's German Hockey League championship playoffs, it seemed as if the walls of the arena tucked away in the East Berlin district of Hohenschönhausen would burst with pride. It wasn't that the fans were surprised that their team made it to the finals. The Eisbären had been riding high all season thanks to a line-up of experienced foreign players and young German talent.
But national success is still relatively new for the former East German team. Today, it's one of the few sports teams from the old GDR that's risen to the top of the league in reunified Germany. In recent years, the Eisbären have even outplayed the West Berlin team, the Berlin Capitals.
"It’s really something that the Eisbären are doing so well now," local sports journalist Klaus Weiser told DW-WORLD. "They’re a bit of a cult team, with a long tradition, they’ve always been really popular in East Berlin. They were the East German champions 15 times, and after reunification when they played nationally with Western teams, they were among the worst, always at the bottom. But the stadium was always full, and the fans have always been behind them.”
Champions of world's smallest league
It’s true that the Eisbären were at the top of their league in East Germany. But that’s not too difficult when the league only has two teams. The lack of funds for hockey in the GDR meant the Eisbären, then known as Dynamo Berlin, faced off over and over against the only other team in the country, Dynamo Whitewater. The players knew each other’s style inside out, down to the way they laced up their skates.
In 1990, following German reunification, the Eisbären placed a dismal 11th in the national league. Five years later, they were in 17th place. Then, in 1996, salvation came in the Bosman ruling, a court decision which allowed the unlimited employment of foreign players. The Eisbären were one of the first hockey teams to take advantage of the ruling, swapping almost their entire team for talented imports from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and North America. That season, they placed fourth.
Billionaire investor, foreign players
The Eisbärens' logo
Another stroke of luck came in 1999, when billionaire American businessman Philip Anschutz bought the team. A short while later, he hired the team’s current coach, Canadian Pierre Pagé, formerly the coach of such National Hockey League (NHL) teams as the Calgary Flames and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
"It starts with a vision," Pagé said. "When Anschutz came here, he first put some order in the financial books, and then started building a foundation for the team. People said it couldn't be done here, because of all the problems in the past. But they were wrong. We respect tradition and history. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Berlin Dynamo, they started the whole thing in 1954."
Pagé says his team has the best, most loyal fans in the German Hockey League. And, in turn, the fans are grateful to him and the Eisbären's contingent of foreign players for giving them back a team they can be proud of. "The foreign players are the very heart of the team right now," said Oliver, a German hockey enthusiast. "In particular, the players from Canada and the U.S. -- those with NHL experience -- have brought over a lot of know-how, they’ve lifted the quality of the game, and that’s reflected in the growing level of public interest in the sport."
The Eisbären are attracting more fans now that they’re winning games. But their fan base will always be rooted in East Berlin, with the people who understand what the team has been through.
While the Eisbären have learned how to succeed in the new Germany, many of their East Berlin fans are still struggling. "A lot of the fans here are unemployed," said one devoted follower. "Going to a game offers them an escape from everyday life. You can just forget about your problems for a while. It's a different world inside the arena."