BAD TÖLZ, Germany – As the European Women’s Champions Cup’s final tournament
starts on Friday, IIHF.com has a look behind the success story of German host ESC Planegg.
Looking at the standings of the German women’s hockey league over the last few seasons, the name of ESC Planegg is easy to find. Just start at the top and look no further. One week ago, the “Penguins” won the German championship for the fourth consecutive time (fifth overall).
If you look at a map of Germany and try to find Planegg, however, you may need more time and good eyesight. The hometown of this successful women’s hockey team is a village of 11,000 located just southwest of Munich.
If you are interested in watching the Penguins, don’t even try to find the ice rink in Planegg – there is none!
“We have to practise in Grafing, 55 kilometres east of Planegg, or in Bad Tölz, 55 kilometres south,” explains club president Klaus Wüst. “The home games take place in Grafing, too. For bigger events, we have to try to get ice time at the Hacker Pschorr Arena in Bad Tölz.”
Bigger events like this week, when Planegg hosts the European Women’s Champions Cup (EWCC) finals featuring Tornado Moscow Region, the Espoo Blues, AIK Stockholm and the German hosts.
This will be Planegg’s second appearance in the EWCC final tournament after a fourth-place finish in 2012.
How is it possible, that a team from a small town with no local ice rink can become and remain so successful?
Wüst is the ideal eyewitness to the evolution of the team – he has been the first and only president since the club was founded in 1990. Continuity and step-by-step progression are his secrets.
“I am not the only one from the founding crew who is still part of the organization,” says Wüst with the smile that covers his face each time he remembers the beginning. “We were a couple of guys who wanted to establish a new hockey club. To gain members, we offered skating lessons for kids on Sundays at the Königsbrunn ice rink. After the practice we went with them to the local indoor swimming pool near the rink.
“But then we realized that parents used us as inexpensive childcare allowing them to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon. Some days we had to take care of 40 kids – none of whom became a club member. As we began to discuss new ideas, one guy suddenly asked: Why don’t we start a women’s hockey team? Everybody asked us if we had lost our minds but we believed in the idea. It took a long time until you could call what the girls did on ice ‘playing hockey’.”
In 1992 the team started to compete in the Bavarian league. Two years later they had been promoted to Germany's highest league. In 1999, the team won the first medal (3rd place) in the national championship.
The head coach was 25-year-old Michael Lehmann, a hockey talent whose career was cut short by injury. He became an important part of the program’s continuous development. With third-place finishes in the German championship in 2002 and 2003 and the success as winner of the German Cup competition in 2005, Planegg became a new force in German women’s hockey as the only club able to compete with OSC Berlin for the championship.
“In 2008 our efforts were rewarded for the first time,” Wüst remembers the first national championship, “and we showed everybody who called us stupid in 1990 that we had done the right thing!”
Since 2011, Michael Lehmann has coached the team to three more championships. His successor, Brian Ashton, continued this legacy with another title this season.
This is the bright side of the story, but there is another side as well.
“To develop the team from the beginning to this point and to maintain this level in the future requires a lot of work in our free time. And you definitely need money, especially when you have to survive as a team with no real home,” Wüst says.
“We have to pay each minute we are on ice in Grafing and Bad Tölz as we are not a local team there but only guests. In addition, we have to pay the gas and leasing rates for our two little team buses, the equipment, fees for the associations and the referees at the games. And when the EWCC tournaments are elsewhere in Europe, we have additional travel costs. And that is just to name the big bills.”
And as for player salaries?
“Nothing,” says Wüst. “We are not permitted to contribute financially to players. That’s a big problem for us when we want to recruit North American players, who can help us on the international level, to join our team. We are in competition with many other European teams but they can offer these players money just to play hockey. We can only offer help to find them a job here.”
This is difficult even for low-income jobs because of labour regulations for non-European citizens and the language differences.
“The result is a budget of about 65,000 euro for the season that we have to raise,” Wüst calculates. “We get some contributions from the council of Planegg and the rest must be covered by sponsors. And as women’s hockey is not a popular sport in Germany, not televised in Europe, it is difficult to convince companies to sponsor a team at this level.”
At least Wüst can count on another type of sponsor.
“Without the help of the players’ parents, friends or people who work for the team to enjoy the sport, we would not be able to run the season. And I am very happy that all these people support the management and the team so much with their hard work. Their compensation is the gratitude of the players. Women’s hockey teams in Europe work mostly like a family. If they want to do something big, everybody pitches in for the cause. And the better the family members work together, the better the final result will be.”
Wüst is not only the figurehead of the Penguins family but also the most active leader: as president, as manager, as the jack-of-all-trades, even as driver of one of the team buses to the practices and road trips.
“We received positive feedback as hosts of the EWCC semi-final tournament. That made us proud and it proved that I can trust my Penguins family. As a result, I was encouraged to ask the IIHF whether we could host the final tournament as well. I am convinced that every family member will do their best again this weekend to run an excellent tournament and to offer the teams the opportunity to enjoy the finals and to present their best hockey,” says Wüst and looks forward to the continuing progress of the ESC Planegg-Würmtal women’s hockey team.