MANNHEIM – There are many traditional rivalries in international hockey. Rivalries that started on the ice and due to politics (like Canada vs. Russia or Russia vs. USA), or that are simply rivalries because they’re neighbours (Canada vs. USA, Finland vs. Sweden, Czech Republic vs. Slovakia, Russia vs. any other former Soviet country), but the oldest, and one of the fiercest rivalries, is the one between Germany and Switzerland that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Asking players of both teams, they know what to expect: “ugly hockey”. It won’t be a game for hockey aesthetes like the Canada-Russia finals in 2008 and 2009. They’re going to destroy each other’s game. And although the fans don’t expect many goals, the arena will be full. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a boring game despite few goals. The low margins keep the rivalry exciting and players fight for every centimetre on the ice in a physical game.
Germany and Switzerland share kind of a love-hate relationship. Usually they’re nice neighbours. Swiss shops are full of German products and German TV is more watched than national stations. Germans, on the other hand, enjoy Swiss mountains, chocolate, cheese, watches and, especially in the current Euro crisis, Swiss bank accounts. However, the latter is one of the topics for political tensions between the countries. It’s not a love-hate relationship for nothing.
Still, people usually have a good relationship and the German-speaking majority of Switzerland has more similarities than differences with Germany nowadays. There are border towns where it’s nothing than usual to drive over the border, which often only exists in form of traffic signals, or take local transportation across the border for shopping, dining or nightlife on the other side.
Since the borders became more open as Switzerland became kind of a passive member of the European Union with numerous bilateral contracts, half of the annual immigration to the country is made up of Germans and they might in absolute numbers overtake the traditionally largest minority, the Italians, soon.
Although Germans and German-speaking Swiss speak almost the same language, the different traditions and wording can cause lots of misunderstanding. Swiss don’t cultivate the standard language as much as Germans do. And the lingual interpretation of politeness in forming questions as well as the borderline of usage of the formal “sie” opposed to the matey “du” is quite different.
Still, Berndt and Ueli can go out for a German or Swiss beer after work.
But when it comes to sports, everything can change for a day and two, and Berndt might travel to the SAP Arena in the red-black-gold parts of the venue calling the Swiss a bunch of strange mountain people while Ueli will be in the red-white part cheering for Switzerland and calling Germans arrogant super-power inhabitants.
Not always is the rivalry that exciting. In some sports, like football, the history of scores is rather lopsided in favour of Germany, while in other sports there’s a fierce and well-balanced rivalry, like in hockey.
The words become tougher before the “ugly game”. Germany coach Uwe Krupp called his players “warriors” before the clash against the Swiss.
On the Swiss side of the media world, newspapers suspect long-time coach Ralph Krueger, whose son plays for Germany, for being a spy of the German Ice Hockey Association, also because of the speculation that Krueger could become a candidate for Krupp’s job as Krupp will reportedly rather go back to North America than extending his contract as a national team coach.
The game will be full of emotions, on the ice and in the tribune of a sizzling SAP Arena.
Berndt and Ueli will share teasing for one and two days. And the fan of the winning team will continue on the day to follow. But at the end, both will be friends again and drink a beer together, probably just after the game in the big fan tent where fans from various nations party together.
The oldest international hockey rivalry started on January 1910, in Les Avants, a small village close to Montreux, Switzerland. The IIHF held its first-ever tournament, the European Championship, there. Germany defeated the Swiss 9-1 en route to silver (behind Great Britain). One year later in Berlin, it was 11-0, and the year after, in Brussels, 10-3.
After World War I the teams didn’t meet until 1928 in St. Moritz where Switzerland defeated Germany 1-0 en route to the Olympic bronze medals. The Swiss were one of the dominating teams in Europe of this time and won most games against Germany before and after World War II.
Things changed later. Between 1955 and 1991, Germany won 38 games, losing only seven and having six ties. They won all but one game in 15 World Championship or Olympic encounters in these decades.
The professionalization of sports in general and of hockey in particular developed faster in Germany while Swiss players were amateurs or semi-professional until the late ‘80s.
The result was that West Germany usually played with the elite nations while the Swiss were mostly in the B-pool. Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Japan or Yugoslavia were more common opponents for the Swiss, who met the Germans rather in exhibition games. In 1974 the Swiss even had to play the likes of Australia and DPR Korea in the C-pool.
When Andy Murray first came to Switzerland to coach Kloten, in 1981, he noted that the players were bricklayers, butchers and clerks, not hockey professionals, as he said to a newspaper some weeks ago. Now, however, they are professionals, as Murray – now a released St. Louis Blues coach and advisor to the Swiss national team – noted.
Switzerland’s improved play versus their big neighbour began at the 1991 Worlds with a historic 5-2 victory in Tampere. One year later in Prague, Switzerland surprised Germany again, defeating the favourite 3-1 in the quarterfinals before finishing in fourth place – the best finish since 1953. The fourth place was repeated 1998 on home ice and never since.
When Ralph Krueger took over the Swiss national team in the 1997-1998 season, he reached a 23W-8L-3T record against Germany, the country he once represented as a player. In six Worlds and Olympic encounters, the Swiss lost only twice when the Krueger team had a two-year crisis and missed the quarterfinals both in 2001 and 2002 after losses to Germany on the opponent’s ice in Hanover and in Jönköping, Sweden, respectively.
It was the time German hockey had an upswing under defence preacher Hans Zach, who left after the 2004 Worlds because he got sick and tired of people criticizing his style in Germany.
Unfortunately for German hockey, Zach’s not-so-exciting game plan proofed to be fitting later. Under the offensive strategy of Greg Poss, Germany was relegated in 2005, same as in 1998 and almost in 2009.
The Swiss National League A (NLA) has become one of the best leagues in Europe meanwhile, as the results in the Champions Hockey League and the forerunner European Champions Cup have shown. The limit of four import players per team on the roster, but usually imports of high calibre, allows Swiss players to develop at an early age at a high level. The only Swiss NHL stars Jonas Hiller and Mark Streit became NHL-ready on home ice and maybe Roman Josi could be the next one to succeed this way.
In Germany the borders were opened in the ‘90s when the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) was created. Suddenly, only few German players could develop to international stars at home despite the more professional image of the league from a marketing perspective. Meanwhile there’s a limit of ten imports per team and the German Ice Hockey Association hopes that the number will be lowered one more time.
German national team coach and former NHLer Uwe Krupp criticized the current situation as counter-productive for German hockey a few months ago and many critics see it as a reason why Germany hasn’t reached the quarterfinals in the last seven years before this tournament, and why the U20 and U18 national teams are too weak to stay among the elite nations.
The setup of the leagues is quite different and despite their cultural link, there’s not much exchange between Germany and Switzerland. This year, there was only one Swiss DEL player and one German NLA player.
The exchange is bigger between the national associations. The fiercest rivals are the most common opponents in exhibition games. Germany and Switzerland had three exhibition games this season; they met three times in 2008-2009, twice in 2007-2008 and four times each in 2006-2007 and 2005-2006. They’re usually joined by the Slovaks as Europe’s big-four nations (Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden) prefer to use the international breaks to have the Euro Hockey Tour among themselves rather than having some variety. Playing the neighbour is a partnership of convenience for both Germany and Switzerland, also in junior categories and women’s hockey.
Under new coach Sean Simpson, who took over the Swiss national team in April, the Swiss had two victories against Germany: 2-1 and 1-0, both times on German territory.
The scores are typical for the recent history between the two teams because in the 36 games since 1997, 26 games ended with a margin of two goals or less, seven games with a three-goal margin and three with a difference of four goals. And 20 of those games had a goal total of four or less.
While the recent history favours the Swiss, Germany leads with a 65W-54L-17T record and 484-394 goals. In World Championship play (including lower pools, without Olympics), Germany still has a 17W-8L-4T record and 103-70 goals despite the Swiss catch-up.
Whatever the score will be tonight, one team will celebrate the first top-four finish since 1953 (Germany) or 1998 (Switzerland) respectively in IIHF World Championships.
And when the players look into their faces for the handshakes, they know that their federations are already planning the next encounters in November.
And Berndt and Ueli can tease each other, again. Teasing is a sign of affection. A wisdom that both countries share.