I have been a citizen of Germany for just over 5 months now, and in that time I have been consulting with one of Europes biggest ice hockey teams, die Eisbären Berlin, who compete in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. After spending the last 7 years with my hometown hockey team in Belfast, I can’t help but make comparisons. So hopefully in this blog I will help explain both the obvious and the not so obvious differences between the two leagues.
The on ice product is actually very similar. Britain has done nothing but improve over the years, and Germany has struggled with the creation of the KHL and the rise of many other major leagues around Europe. From my vantage point I can see that the British league is most definitely on par with the DEL-2, able to compete with them each year in the Continental Cup, and the likes of Brian Stewart, Brett Jaeger, Brendan Cook, Tyler Plante and Jeffrey Szwez able to compete in both leagues.
Each year we see teams from the EIHL compete with the top flight Germans in the Champions Hockey League. Now, comparing the EIHL with the DEL just because they got a few wins under their belt is a bit more of a stretch. Yes, both Braehead and Nottingham have defeated DEL opponents in the last 2 seasons, but there are a few factors that play into this. Mainly that both teams have only been together for a few weeks, and that injury-free rosters are a huge plus. And while I’m not trying to demean the performances of any EIHL team, the reality is most European teams actually change the style and tempo of play for the CHL for the reason that import limits are so much stricter in other European leagues.
The main differences between the leagues though is off the ice. And there are so many ways this differs, so I think the best way to compare these is to make a list with a description of just what the difference is.
League Operation – Most fans of the Elite League will agree with this straight away, but I don’t think you realise just how much of a difference there is between the EIHL and the DEL in terms of behind the scenes operation. To compete in the DEL you need to buy a one off license which comes in at a rather costly €800,000¹. Obviously the EIHL cannot charge anywhere even close of half a million pounds per team – they probably cannot even raise that combined. But the key here is to get some input from each team to help cover operating costs such as league travel, logistics, and the ever hot topic of officiating. This fee, combined with the television deal covers everything the league needs to run successfully. And, if a team needs/wants to leave the league for whatever reason, they sell their license and get their money back. This cash then helps set them up to continue operating as a DEL2 team. Best way to explain this is if Manchester had to purchase their EIHL license from Hull – Hull would then use that cash to help continue the Stingrays in a lower league until such a time as they were ready to move back up. But instead the Stingrays simply lie fossilised at the bottom of the Humber.
Officiating – Admittedly I haven’t paid much attention to the Elite League this season, but every week my twitter is filled with complaints about officiating. The reality is Tom Darnell, Mike Hicks, Dean Smith, Stefan Hogarth and the rest of the crew are all there is in Britain, and they are actually very good by IIHF standards. I’d even go as far as saying they are better than some DEL referees! The problem is the lack of officials. Britain’s league is seen as semi-pro by most people in the world of hockey, simply because you don’t use the 4 man system. And I know the response to this will always be “we don’t have enough officials and can’t afford the travel” – well, see my first point as to how to help solve that. Also, I told our head coach about the whole Belfast v Edinburgh overtime fiasco back in September, and I genuinely believe he thinks I made it up as some kind of rookie hazing the coach thing. Side note: What are the British officials are doing with the Danish league this year? Why is it not a two way system with their officials helping out the EIHL?
Travel – Every year I always see a couple of people discuss the topic of travel in the EIHL and complain about Belfast and the Scottish teams being too far to travel to. Guess what… every league has some bad travel logistics. All you can do is find a way to make it work. Teams in the DEL bus almost everywhere in their super awesome team busses with amazing graphics plastered up the sides, except us. We don’t even have a team bus. Berlin are the Belfast of the German league. Hamburg and Wolfsburg are in very similar travel situations. There are 7 teams down in southern Germany, and 4 more clustered out in the West, with us 3 up in the north/east. The other 11 teams travel almost exclusively by bus, as the most you will visit an opposing team in the regular season is twice. But the other three teams rarely bus, opting for flights or the slightly longer but less hassle option of trains. Then you have to add hotels into the equation as just like in Britain you can rarely fly commercial after 11pm, and trains would’t get you back to your city at around 2 or 3am, getting you to bed around 4.
Thats just the DEL. Jokerit is a KHL team based in Finland, and they started their season with a 4 game, 8 day, 14.000km road trip to some of the furthest teams in the KHL. They had to pay over a quarter of a million pounds sterling for a charter plane alone, and complications with Chinese airspace added about an extra hour to and from Vladivostok, as well as a fuel stop and crew change in Novosibirsk on the way back from Habarovsk.
The National Hockey League also has their problems as the Atlantic Division actually has the entire Metropolitan Division geographically separating the six northern teams with the two Floridian teams.
Side note: I started writing this blog a few weeks ago, and since then its come out about the possibility of a KHL team in London. Eisbären Berlin and Kölner Haie were approached by the KHL in 2008, and both rejected as they didn’t think it would be successful. Thats two of Germanys biggest terms with regular 14.200 and 18.500 sellouts of die hard hockey fans. That was also 8 years ago, and still no German team has joined the league, and it doesn’t look like any one is interested in doing so within the immediate future. A brand new franchise would be incredibly hard to sustain, not just financially, but logistically as mentioned above, and also in terms of fan base. Could you guarantee enough ticket sales to create enough revenue to maintain a healthy bank balance? Realistically Sheffield and Nottingham are the only two viable options, and even then I don’t think this would work very well.
Import Limit – The DEL operates a strict import policy. It currently sits at 11 imports, with 10 being allowed to dress for a game, and thats it. If someone gets injured you can’t just replace him and when he gets better you have two guys battling for one roster spot. Theres no healthy scratches. Theres no one month injury cover contracts. Once you have used an import slot, its done for the season, and that includes season ending injuries as well. Most teams only sign 10 imports, leaving one spot open for an emergency goalie should it be necessary. If you use all 11 import slots you better have confidence in your backup goalie to play 2 games a week should your starter get injured, and your third string goalie better be ready to see a game or two every month, and number 4 on your depth chart then has to take the load of the remainder of the DEL-2 season.
Dual nationality does however count as a German passport, i.e. Daniel Heatley with Nurnberg. This goes back to my point at the beginning about the CHL. Teams cannot afford injuries of any kind. To lose an import in a side competition is a catastrophic loss, and losing a national team player is even worse as they are pretty much irreplaceable. Yes, every DEL team has a fantastic junior system with good players they can call up at a moments notice, something Britain doesn’t have. They will rarely more that 8-10 minutes, but they don’t just fill the bench while every other guy gets double shifted, they do actually see some ice time. (See 17 year old Maximilian Adam who is one of Germany’s 35 NHL Draft eligible players in 2016 who was called up this weekend to help fill in for injuries to 3 of Eisbären’s top 6 d-men, and seen approx. 5 mins of ice time in a special teams heavy game.) I don’t even know what the import limit is in Britain now, but I’d suggest it is dropped to 8 or so, with British passports counting as non-import players.
Fans/Atmosphere – German sports fans are like nothing I have ever experienced. The atmosphere in Berlins fankurve makes even the best Elite League fans look like they are part of a funeral procession. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get goosebumps at every game at the Mercedes Benz Arena. From the opening song ‘Hey, wir wollen die Eisbären sehn‘, to the entrance and introduction of the players, the ‘Dynamo’ chants, and the famous ‘Ost Ost Ost Berlin’ at the halfway point of every game. Not to mention the banners and flags, as well as the pyrotechnics at the end of the intro video! It may sound like it may never work in Britain, but I happen to think it would. The standing terraces are a hot topic in the UK for obvious reasons, but each teams fan section has strict rules as to how things operate. Flags cannot be waved while play is ongoing, no flares inside stadiums, drums are fine, and banners displaying any political messages must be authorised by a ‘fanbetruer’, a representative for the team who works to organise the fan section. Also, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a couple of ‘scheisse scheisse’ chants when addressing the opposition and their fans, but that would lower the PG rating which most British hockey teams are aiming for.
Social Media/Promotional Material – This is more of a cultural thing rather than a difference in the hockey leagues themselves, but I thought it was worth including anyway. Eisbären Berlin are probably the most socially interactive team in the DEL with a over 9.000 fans on Instagram, 13.000 followers on Twitter, and almost 100.000 likes on Facebook. They are still a couple of steps behind some of the promotional stuff the British teams do (specifically Belfast). But to be honest I think this is more a Germanic thing. The country as a whole is very different with social media compared to Britain. It simply isn’t as huge here as elsewhere in the UK, USA, Canada, etc. Even I have I have turned off push notifications from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat on my phone because they were beginning to annoy me. So if its not a text or WhatsApp, I probably won’t see it until the next time I’m sitting on the toilet. But the biggest difference is promotional material such as the excellent videos the likes of Belfast and Sheffield use. Especially Belfast. Not that I’m biased, but seriously Belfast have some awesome videos in their archives. Advertising over here its a bit more mainstream. Huge billboards, printed press, radio and TV commercials, and so on. There’s even a 25ft tall portrait of Micki and Pohly wrapped around the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Ostbahnhof. I just don’t think the Germans have grasped shamelessly hilarious promotional videos yet. Maybe I’ll talk them round to it next year…
Playoffs – Seriously, sort your shit out Britain. 4 victories and you win the “playoffs”? No one takes that seriously. A player actually laughed when I told him that. It needs expanded in some way, and by doing this you will instantly get more recognition as a good hockey league, therefore bringing better players to the league, therefore raising the level of competition.
For those that don’t know, the DEL playoffs start with the top 6 teams from the 52 game regular season qualifying, and the teams ranked 7th to 10th compete in a pre-playoff best of 3 game series. The winning teams then go through to the actual playoffs, a 3 round best of 7 game series using the traditional 1v8 or 9, 2v7 or 10, 3v6 and 4v5 ranking/bracket system.
Schedules – At the time of writing this blog the lowest number of regular season games played by an Elite League team is 34, and the highest is 39. In the DEL the lowest is 39, and the highest is 40. And after tonight this will change so that all 14 teams are on 40 games played. Every team will remain on the same number of games played throughout the remaining 2 months of the regular season. This leads to a much more competitive end of the season, as theres no maths needed to calculate teams catching up points using games in hand. And I remind you this is all for a league championship which is comparable to the NHL’s Presidents Trophy. It gives you top seed for the playoffs, and thats about it. Eisbären’s regular season championship banner doesn’t even hang in the MBA, instead being located in the teams practice facility (and former home arena) the Wellblechpalast. The reason for this perfect symmetry in the DEL schedule is that teams play all their games every Friday and Sunday. Obviously in rare exceptions there are a couple of midweek games. But apart from that, it is pretty much a perfect schedule. Obviously this would be more difficult to enforce in Britain with bigger events priority over hockey games at certain venues, but there still shouldn’t be a 5 game spread throughout the table at any time throughout the season.
In Conclusion – The on ice product is comparable to a certain extent. Obviously the styles of play and team systems used on the bigger regulation ice over here are different than Britains hybrid skill/physicality style of play. And running 4 good competitive lines vs 3 good competitive lines will wear a team down quickly. So while EIHL teams have defeated DEL teams recently, it doesn’t quite mean they are on equal terms on the ice. But the main difference is behind the scenes, as I hope I helped illustrate in this long and rambling blog. Every other league in Europe has a stable structure similar to the DEL, and operational organisation behind it is helping push their individual league toward being more competitive with other leagues throughout the world, including the KHL and even the NHL.
Whereas Britain, well, you have Tony Smith, chairman of “the board” of the Elite Ice Hockey League. A league which will never change as long as he is in charge, kind of like FIFA. To become a better league and to actually be able to compete in the likes of the CHL, it will involve a league wide makeover. Every team needs to buy in to making the league great, and I just don’t know if every team is willing to do that.