Construction site German hockey

Old DEB vs. DEL conflicts overshadow national team’s success

23.05.2011
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Will Uwe Krupp become Uwe Krupp’s successor? This any many other questions remain open while Germany’s hockey powers need to negotiate about a co-operation contract. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

Germany’s national team has enjoyed substantial success in the last two years, but due to conflicting interests German hockey remains a work in progress. Former – and maybe future? – national team coach Uwe Krupp is caught into the middle of the conflict between the DEL league and the association.

Germany has been the hockey nation with the biggest turnaround of fortunes in the last two years. The national team was virtually relegated in 2009 (saved by a regulation), but went from 15th to fourth place one year later on home ice.

Germany’s “fairy tale on ice” began when the national team surprisingly reached the quarter-finals where it beat its archrival Switzerland 1-0 before challenging Russia in a 2-1 semi-final defeat and Sweden in a 3-1 loss in the bronze medal game.

This year in Bratislava the Germans made the final round again and finished the 2011 IIHF World Championship in seventh place.

What both years have in common, is that while the national team took care of the positive headlines with their performance, there was lots of trouble back home.

Last year, Germany’s top league initially didn’t accept several clubs for the 2010-2011 season due to financial or formal non-fulfillment of the criteria. The case against the Kassel Huskies ended in a legal battle that kept ice hockey in the headlines for the whole summer, and not in a positive way.

Only shortly before the beginning of the season did the league win the case, and its clubs eventually knew the number of teams and the schedule.

This year the conflict between the German Ice Hockey Association (DEB) and the German Ice Hockey League (DEL) came to a low point as the co-operation contract expired in April.

The co-operation contract serves as a peace treaty that integrates and regulates the league’s place into the rest of the German hockey landscape. It gives the top league access to the player pool from lower leagues and youth clubs, to referees and international transfers while the league contributes money to the DEB.

The problem associated with the absence of a co-operation contract is that the league has a majority-rule structure and its decisions are often the sum of the various clubs’ self-interests, and not necessarily what others within the country’s hockey family would perceive as the best for German hockey as a whole.

Most German hockey observers would agree that the positive impact of the successful national team is not realized well enough within the league despite the fact that an average TV audience of 1.17 million watched Germany’s quarter-final game at the recent World Championship, while league games are mostly limited to pay-TV – and thus out of reach for most sport fans.

However, the crux of the matter is not the co-operation in general, but the regulation of promotion to the DEL and the relegation down to 2. Bundesliga, the second-tier league.

The DEL has become well-balanced to an extent where many clubs would feel endangered were there the possibility of relegation. Only few clubs, usually the top contenders, claim that the absence of an annual relegation battle is one major reason for decreasing attendance figures.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport recently decided that the DEL is free to choose the number of teams – currently 14 – and the criteria for adding new teams. The verdict means that the champion of the second-tier league, Ravensburg Towerstars, won’t earn promotion.

Recently, the DEL has only granted promotion if other teams went bankrupt such as Duisburg, Frankfurt and Kassel in the last two years.

A regular promotion/relegation system (as in most hockey leagues or in German football) could only be implemented in a new co-operation contract with the DEB and this is one of the main reasons why no agreement has been reached yet – the other being that the DEL asks for more influence within the DEB and national team matters.

“They [the DEL] sit on a high horse and look down on the rest of German hockey with a grin,” Volker Schnabel of the Bietigheim-Bissingen Steelers and a representative of the second league told a local newspaper. “It’s a farce. If it stays like this it is shattering and harmful for Germany hockey. Clubs in lower tiers would only play for pride’s sake.”

Uwe Harnos, the president of the German Ice Hockey Association, hopes that this bone of contention can be solved.

“We need a permeable league system [with relegation/promotion] in German hockey and not a closed shop like the current DEL format. If this continues, we lose the most basic incentive in sport,” Harnos told Frankfurter Allgemeine. “A system with promotion and relegation is part of Germany’s culture of sports. Fans want it, that’s a provable fact. The sport side must work first before the event can work.”

Recently Uwe Krupp, who has led the national team since 2005, was caught in the middle of the conflict as well.

Krupp announced a long time ago that he will accept a job offer from his hometown club Kölner Haie. The former top team from Cologne has been struggling in the last few years – something the two-time Stanley Cup winner wants to change as a head coach and team manager.

Krupp’s move into league hockey seemed to end his career as a national team coach because Harnos excluded the option of hiring a part-time coach who’s also under contract with a club team.

There’s just one problem, which actually is a major one: There are not that many top candidates around who know German hockey that well and who are able to fill that position. Krupp’s assistant, Harold Kreis, is under contract in the DEL (Adler Mannheim).

Ralph Krueger – the German-Canadian who represented Germany as a player and was Switzerland’s head coach from 1997 to 2010 – would be a top candidate, but not before his contract as an associate coach of the Edmonton Oilers is due to expire after the 2011-2012 season.

Due to the situation, a dual mandate of Krupp doesn’t seem out of the question anymore.

“We haven’t talked about it,” Krupp said at the end of his World Championship campaign. “We will have to speak about everything after the World Championship. We’ve had extraordinary performances for the last two years, but I don’t think that this is our normal standard. It will be very difficult to reach the top eight next year. There are several construction sites in German hockey.”

The co-operation contract is one of them, but it’s not the only thing that bothers Krupp.

“We have to continue reducing the import contingents. That’s the right path,” Krupp said.

The DEL opened the borders in the ‘90s making many squads look similar to North American farm teams. Meanwhile the contingent has been reduced step by step, last year to ten imports, next year to nine. 63 per cent of the players were German last year according to the DEL.

Whether Krupp remains behind the national team bench along with his work in Cologne heavily depends on a new co-operation contract, and on his new club. Only a new agreement and a green light from Kölner Haie and the league would allow for a seventh year with Krupp as the national team coach.

“We will try to find a solution in our negotiations with the DEB, where having a say on [national team] matters will be a central issue,” DEL chairman Jürgen Arnold told Eishockey News.

Meanwhile Harnos remains positive when talking about the negotiations with the league.

“I’m sure that the partners in the DEL have the same goal. We want a different perception of German ice hockey. And this we can only reach together,” Harnos said.

“We cannot think like ‘Who can survive longer without the other?’ That won’t bring us a step further. And after the 2010 IIHF World Championship on home ice and the results in Bratislava I’m fully convinced that the DEL representatives understand that the value of our sport depends a lot on our national team.”

MARTIN MERK

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