This week the Berlin Eisbären celebrated their win in the National Championship playoffs. The shock of losing their crown last year was finally erased. They sit proudly at the top of German ice hockey for the fifth time in seven years. That they have reached this point is not terribly surprising, but it is an interesting story nonetheless.
SC Dynamo Berlin they were the biggest and most successful ice hockey side in the GDR. The trouble is the GDR league wasn’t called “the smallest league in the world” for nothing. It contained two teams. Two bald men fighting a comb doesn’t even do justice to the farce that was the national championship. Two bald, illiterate men fighting over a copy of Vidal Sassoon’s autobiography would be closer.
So as they came out blinking into the post-Wende world of a modern reunited Germany, it is impressive to see them excelling when their namesakes, BFC Dynamo, on the football pitch have sunk to the fifth division, and are less than a shadow of their former selves. But is it the fact that they changed their name a large part of what enabled them to move onwards and upwards into the new professional German leagues? It probably helped, is the answer.
Ice hockey is difficult to compare to football, but the Eisbären faithful are still deeply tribalistic, and they remain the bearers of their heritage, donning gladly the famous “D” badge and wearing the old colours, the Wein-rot. They mostly see themselves still as Dynamo, despite the 21st century, sterilised, palatial luxury of their O2 World environs, whereas the money man who rescued the ailing club knew full well that they could do without the connotations of the clubs former benefactors.
Philip Anschutz is no mug. He part-owns the LA Lakers, and used their Staples Centre home as the model for the O2 World. His designs for the Eisbären were to become the polar opposite, if you’ll excuse the pun, of Dynamo. An international, capitalist dream of a team, but their fans have stayed, and multiplied. They regularly attract 17,000 fans into their home, and this week’s championship confirmed them as being the pre-eminent team in the country, but also the capital city’s second largest sports team over all.
FC Union fans will doubt this, as they do everything with connotations to the dreaded Dynamo, and many will claim that winning the German championship is not that much cop, it is a league riddled with financial problems – but the attendance numbers are fiercely impressive.
Anschutz also doesn’t win things just by throwing his money at them. He is well known for having a strict and firm hand on the financial tiller. Their opponents, the ludicrously monikered Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams enjoy similar, if not exactly comparable, flushness from their connection to their local giant, Volkswagen.
But nobody seems sure if the fans have sold themselves out by accepting their new championships at the expense of their soul (insomuch as supporting a sports team can include the notion of embodying a soul). BFC Dynamo, the football team, briefly became FC Berlin in an effort to free themselves of their inherited enemies. The fans hated it and they quickly reverted back. Last week they were out celebrating reaching the semi-final of the Berliner Pokal, a tournament that would have been seen as below them when they were competing in the European equivalents. Is this integrity (or foolishness) the preserve of the football fan?
In the end it almost certainly doesn’t matter anyway, so congratulations must go the Eisbären this week. The play-off matches were thrilling, and following the penultimate one on the radio with a couple of fans in a far flung Biergarten was as good as being there itself. The tension was overbearing, their passion for the team all pervading. Even if it was like having a Picasso described to you by a blind man. The city was well behind them on this one.