BURLINGTON – It has been a bit of a bumpy road for German coach Peter Kathan and his players here in Burlington. The team has played in three very tight games, coming out on the losing end twice. After a 3-2 win over Switzerland to open the 2012 Women’s World Championship, the Germans lost to Sweden, 2-1 in overtime, and Slovakia, 4-2.
The last loss might have dire ramifications for the Germans. A win over Slovakia would have put them in the quarter-finals—and solidified an impressive showing—but the loss has taken them to the Relegation Round to face those same Slovaks in a best-of-three. The winner stays up and qualifies for Ottawa 2013, with a chance to go to Sochi; the loser is demoted to Division I.
“The first goal here is to stay in the top division, and the second goal is to get to the quarter-finals,” coach Kathan said a couple of days ago. His tune changed overnight.
“The team is much younger now than in 2008 because of the success of the under-18 team in the last few years,” he said with renewed optimism. “We’ve improved step by step. We want to go to Ottawa and qualify for Sochi.”
The Germans’ presence here in Burlington is the result of step-by-step progress. It is the result of time and patience—and an intelligent game plan adhered to in the face of disappointment along the way.
It all began in 2008. That year, Germany won only one game in the Women’s Worlds, finished ninth of ten teams, and was demoted to Division I. At the same time, the team’s U18 program was performing admirably. It finished fifth in the top division in 2008, the first year of the event, and sixth a year later.
But in 2010, in Chicago, the U18 team made giant strides, knocking off Finland in the quarter-finals thanks to an overtime goal from team captain Manuela Anwander, and losing to Sweden for the bronze. Look at that 2010 WW18 roster and the WW roster here in Burlington—you will see nine names on both.
“We have so many players from the U18 in Chicago who are on the team now,” Kathan agreed. Anwander is here, as are Tanja Eisenschmid, Lisa Schuster, and Daria Gleissner among others. The old guard from the mid-2000s is almost all gone—Christina Oswald, Stephanie Fruhwirt, Anja Scheytt.
The other factor that has contributed to Germany’s recent success is the determination and willingness of players to learn and develop outside the country or in ways that are non-traditional. Goalie Jennifer Harss plays with the University of Minnesota-Duluth; Sara Seiler goes to Carleton University in Ottawa; Anja Weisser goes to P.E.I. University in Charlottetown; third goalie Ivonne Schroder plays in Russia.
“It’s much better for our players who can play in North America or elsewhere,” Kathan acknowledged. “Our domestic league is improving every year, but if our players have better competition, they’ll become better. Two players are coming to the U.S. this summer—Tanja Eisenschmid and Marie Delarbre (Delarbre was unable to make it this year because of school exams). The Swiss have six players in North America this season, and we had only three. It makes a big difference.”
Like a good NHL GM, virtually all European teams rely on their goalie for being the best player. Think Zuzana Tomcikova for Slovakia, Florence Schelling for Switzerland, or Noor Raty for Finland. Germany is no different. Both Viona Harrer and Harss can decide the outcome of a game with their play.
“The goalies are 60 per cent of the importance to our success,” Kathan agreed. “We also have several players who are working as soldiers in our sport, as we say, and they have the biggest responsibility to keeping us in the top pool. They have the most experience.”
These soldiers include Susann Gotz, Franziska Busch, Harrer, Bettina Evers, and Nina Kamenik.
In truth, Germany has never been far away from the top level. In 2009, Division I, the team finished second to Slovakia. Both teams had identical 4-0-1 records, but the Slovaks won the head-to-head match 2-1 and earned promotion. Germany wasn’t able to qualify for the Vancouver Olympics, and in 2011 the team won Division I with a perfect 4-0-0 record to make it back to the top.
Now, a critical moment is at hand. The team has a core of veterans, many young players rising to the top, and excellent goaltending. But if these elements don’t come together in the Relegation Round in the next few days, it will mean a trip back to Division I. It will also make qualifying for Sochi impossible.
For Germany, the time is now.