COLOGNE, Germany – Hockey fans in Cologne have reason to be happy as they look forward to world-class hockey when the 2010 IIHF World Championship comes to town in May. But among that anticipation, dark clouds are gathering over Cologne’s 18,500-seat Lanxess Arena, the largest arena used in European hockey.
Kölner Haie, of the German Ice Hockey League (DEL), was one of the top teams for years, even decades. When they moved into the new arena in 1998, they set a record average attendance of 13,400, which was a European record until 2003.
Things changed dramatically in Cologne in the last two years. In 2009, Kölner Haie went from second to 15th place in the 16-team league and have had to fight this year to earn a playoff berth. They’re currently in tenth place and average 9,954 fans, about half the capacity. That’s not enough for the eight-time champion to reach their goals – on the ice, and in the books.
Before 2008, the club made the playoffs 27 straight seasons. But several transfers and coaching changes weakened the team.
Because the fall in the standings had consequences on the club’s finances, Kölner Haie applied for short-time compensation from the authorities and this year they were close to apply for insolvency proceedings. The sharks’ longstanding patron Heinz Hermann Göttsch didn’t want to pay the bills by himself anymore last year, but a new investor group brought in reportedly €2 million to save the club and to play the 2009-2010 season. But it’s not enough.
The club currently has €1.5 million debts and needs €500,000 to cover the costs for the rest of the season – and to avoid insolvency. That’s what the club made public to show that it’s red alert in Cologne. In the case of insolvency proceedings, the club could be excluded from the league for next season or even for the playoffs.
“It was good to communicate the hard facts. Everybody understands now that we need help. We’re still alive, so we have to fight,” Kölner Haie CEO Thomas Eichin said to Rheinische Post.
The news hit the people in the city hard. Kölner Haie is not just a sports team. Almost 70 fan clubs exist. And in Höhner’s song Viva Colonia, Germany’s party hymn number one that has been played nationwide weekend after weekend for seven years now, the group makes clear that Kölner Haie is one of the sport teams that belong to Cologne lifestyle same as carnival and the landmark Cologne Cathedral.
Fans are collecting money for the club right now and have sold thousands of red t-shirts with the slogan “We are sharks!” Local celebrities and numerous pub owners show their helpfulness as well as the local football team 1. FC Köln and their players. Hockey player Andreas Renz posed between both club mascots, a shark and a goat. More than €40,000 has been collected through an online petition on www.rettet-den-kec.de. The local authorities were asked to help find new sponsors. And kids have stopped by the club’s office with their piggybank.
“Ice hockey as a sport is deep-rooted in Cologne and the Cologne people,” said Mayor Jörgen Roters. “There’s an enormous interest in the long-term existence of the club and great fan support. The brand Kölner Haie may not die and we will do everything to help the club find new sponsors.”
“Everybody is asked to help that this traditional club doesn’t disappear,” Lukas Podolski, a star on the German football national team and of 1. FC Köln, told Bild. “For me, Cologne without the sharks is unthinkable. Already as a little kid I enjoyed watching hockey games.”
Days after the financial situation became known, 18,523 fans came to the Rhine derby against Düsseldorf to show their solidarity. Unfortunately for the home team, they lost the game 4-3 and just 6,983 spectators came to the next game that ended with the same score against ERC Ingolstadt.
Kölner Haie needs to finish in tenth place to at least qualify for the pre-playoffs – two best-of-three series between the teams ranked sixth to tenth. If the club doesn’t make the quarterfinals as planned in the budget, it will lose even more money.
That’s where the club can find the potentially biggest income: wins. “If we win many games, our problems will be solved automatically,” Eichin said.
The playoffs have already started for Cologne because every lost game can potentially end the season – and in the worst case even more than that. But the fans and the people in Cologne are ready to help the club find their way back.
- Eisbären Berlin is on the top of the DEL standings with a whopping 111 points in 51 games – 22 points more than the Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg and the Frankfurt Lions. Berlin is looking for their fifth championship in six years and for their third consecutive title.
- Adler Mannheim is the hottest team. The 4-1 victory against Düsseldorf was their eighth consecutive win. Mannheim is on its way to a direct qualification for the quarterfinals.
- Horst Köhler, the President of Germany, will be the patron and honorary chairman of the 2010 IIHF World Championship. “Our Federal President becoming the honorary chairman sends out a remarkable message on international level,” said Franz Reindl, the general secretary of the German Ice Hockey Association and the 2010 World Championship Organizing Committee. “If we want to continue bringing sporting highlights to Germany, it is very important to be able to count on support from our country’s highest representative for an event like the IIHF World Championship in Germany.”
- Cologne is the home of national team coach Uwe Krupp. Krupp was born in Cologne and played four years for Kölner Haie. He temporarily moved back from the U.S. for the 2010 IIHF World Championship. Germany will play its games in Cologne apart from the opening game against the U.S. in Gelsenkirchen.
- Thomas Greilinger is still on top in the scoring race with 67 points (35+32) in 50 games. The 28-year-old national team player, who staged his comeback in 2008 after a three-year break due to injury, is also the best goal scorer.
- The first import players follow after Greilinger with Frankfurt’s Canadian winger Jeff Ulmer and Hanover’s Tore Vikingstad. The Norwegian Olympian has a telling name in the league as “Tore” means goals in German.
- Jean-Sébastien Aubin is leading the goalkeepers stats both in save percentage (92.5%) and goals against average (2.37). After 12 years as a professional player in North America including 219 NHL games, the Montreal native transferred to Düsseldorf last summer.
- This year, more eyes will be on the race for the 2. Bundesliga title than usual. Because there are only 15 teams in the DEL after the bankruptcy of Duisburg last year, the league is willing to accept the second-tier champion if it fulfils certain financial and arena criteria. Two former DEL cities are on top of the race and both announced their ambitions to join the DEL: Munich and Schwenningen.