NUREMBERG, Germany – In Germany there’s an expression that describes the situation in German team sports very well: “König Fußball” – king football.
In this football-crazed country, almost all attention seems to rotate around the ball. The team sports that follow at some distance are ice hockey with a small edge over handball and basketball.
On Saturday, the German top league combined hockey and football craziness by staging a hockey game where masses of fans tend to go the most: a football stadium.
The Nuremberg Ice Tigers wrote hockey history with the first DEL Winter Game at Stadion Nürnberg, a stone’s throw away from the ice rink the team usually plays.
An announced sell-out crowd of 50,000 spectators came to watch the game against reigning champion Eisbären Berlin – including 6,000 to 7,000 Eisbären supporters who made the 450-kilometre journey to Nuremberg – and to break the single-game attendance record for a league game in Europe that was previously held by Helsinki.
36,644 fans watched the city derby between HIFK and Jokerit at the Olympic Stadium on 5 February 2011. Similar outdoor games in European football stadiums in the last few years were also held in Austria, Sweden and Switzerland.
Germany also holds the all-time attendance record for a hockey game in Europe which was set on 7 May 2010 when 77,803 spectators watched Germany win the opening game of the 2010 IIHF World Championship against the United States at Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen.
Under the rainy skies of Nuremberg with mild +6°C and mist, the Ice Tigers made the most out of the difficult surface and defeated the “Polar Bears” from the German capital 4-3.
Apart from the venue and the weather conditions, also the score resembled football in the beginning. It was 0-0 at “half-time” until the Ice Tigers’ Connor James opened the scoring at 12:42 of the second period with a man advantage. But Florian Busch gained the puck at the red line to tie the game on a breakaway with two seconds left in the frame.
Tim Schüle regained the lead for the Ice Tigers at 2:05 of the third period, but André Rankel equalized again just 27 seconds later.
“The atmosphere here in Nuremberg was unbelievable,” Eisbären’s national team forward Rankel said. “Coming into the stadium was something I will never forget. It was an exciting game with a very high intensity. Unfortunately we lost this special game.”
The teams exchanged more goals in the third period in which the teams, according to old rules for outdoor games, changed sides after ten minutes. At 6:19 Patrick Reimer made it 3-2 for Nuremberg and Jason Jespers extended the lead at 13:47. With Eisbären’s goalkeeper pulled, Travis James Mulock cut the lead but the fans in Nuremberg counted down the seconds without another goal happening.
“It was great fun,” Schüle said. “The weather was perfect for such an outdoor game and a little bit of rain is just part of the experience.”
Also for former Swedish national team coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, who took over the Nuremberg team less than one month ago to replace Jeff Tomlinson, it was a special experience.
“Many people had much joy today,” he said. “It was a special situation and I’m glad we won.”
Also the league was more than happy with its first outdoor game.
“It was very special to experience this goose-bump feeling for a couple of hours,” the league’s managing director Gernot Tripcke said. “They created an event that will be hard to top. The Winter Game premiere impressively showed all doubters the attention our sport can unfold in Germany. We have to build on this.”
Whether the Winter Game will become an annual event in the German hockey calendar or not, Tripcke was not able to confirm at this stage. But after the successful premiere there’s the chance it could become custom to make use of football stadiums during the kickers’ winter break.
“Enthusiasm alone won’t be enough. It needs the right place and a stadium of a certain size,” he said.
And an organizer that is ready to take the financial risk.
“It would be great if we could say in ten years it was in Nuremberg where this success story started,” Tripcke said.
– with quotes from DEL.org, icetigers.de, eisbaeren.de