The financial challenges surrounding women’s ice hockey are well-documented and continue to play a key role in just how far the sport can come and at what pace. This can also trickle over into the various national team programs and delimit the opportunity necessary and available to players.
For the better part of the last 25 years, there’s been another option for players on Germany’s women’s national team and this option has been primarily made possible in conjunction with the nation’s military. Loosely translated, this option is known as the German Armed Forces’ Sports Promotion Program. In a nutshell, this program makes it possible for the nation’s top female ice hockey players to be paid as professional ice hockey-playing soldiers.
It is a truly unique opportunity, but one that is limited in number and highly competitive.
“To be selected for this program, you’ve got to be a member of the Olympic team line-up, so to speak. Then one of two things happens,” explains Anna-Maria Reich, a 27-year-old defender who has been part of the program since September 2020. “Either the national team coach approaches the player and offers that player one of the Armed Forces’ Sports Promotion Program slots or you, the player, approach the coach and express your interest in coming into question for the program, should slots open up. At the end of the day, the coach will be deciding which players get to be a part of the program.”
Providing job situations for 938 active-duty athletes, the German military is one of chief supporters of all sorts of athletes who represent Germany at the highest levels, with the women’s national team for ice hockey is one of the newer groups that has gained s prestigious program.
“I came across this program through other players who were part of it,” states 24-year-old Laura Kluge, who only just signed her first contract for the program this past fall. “Once I started playing women’s ice hockey at a higher level, I heard about it from players who were already part of it. At some point, I expressed my interest in being taken into consideration for the program to the coach of the national team and he put me on the list, eventually nominating me to receive one of the slots in the program.”
“I completed my high school studies back in 2017 and I had heard about this program from some of my teammates. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do next in life, so I talked about the program with the coach of the national team and once we determined it’d truly be an option for me, he made it possible.”
Few who are part of the program know it as well as the national team’s captain Julia Zorn, for whom it has been a way of life over the past eight years.
“In Germany, you’ve got the armed forces, you’ve got customs, and you’ve got the police. All of these are official departments that are funded by the government and are departments that offer sports promotion programs. The German Ice Hockey Federation has a certain number of slots allotted to them for the women’s program and just how many spots is determined by the achievement of certain goals.”
“At the moment, we have 16 spots allotted to our national team. In two weeks, our goal will be to qualify for a spot in the Olympics. If we do this successfully, we could gain more slots in the program. Should we not be successful in this endeavour, then we could lose slots, which would be allotted elsewhere throughout Germany’s sports landscape.”
With the Women’s Final Olympic Qualification tournament set to begin Thursday in Fussen, this year’s goal is crystal clear, but other goals are set for other years, as every generation of newcomers could face a variety of tasks necessary to maintain a spot in the program.
Zorn continues, “The goals differ, depending on the phase the team is in. To be selected for the program, a player really needs to be at the right place, at the right time. If a player wants to be part of the program, it will also depend on whether a slot is even open. The contracts are only for one year at a time and thus, you only have one year of planning security. In essence, you have to prove yourself year by year so that the head coach of the national team will decide to continue affording you one of the slots in the program, however many there may be. So, when we look to qualify for the Olympics, we’re playing for more than just a trip to China. We’re also playing for program slots for ourselves and the generations that’ll follow.”
With 16 spots going to the crème de la crème of the nation's top female ice hockey players, the competition is stiff. But what is the program all about? How much of a player’s time is divided up between ice hockey and the military? Do the players have to live on a base? Who foots the bills?
Zorn, who at age 31 has already played the better part of 15 straight seasons in Germany’s top league, explains, “There are five training sessions to be completed. The first one is a basic training session, a type of boot camp, and only consists of athletes from different sports that are part of the program. They could be, for example, skiers, bobsledders, or rowers, male or female. The training is customized for the athletes and there is an opportunity to conduct fitness accordingly.”
“Our five chief training programs consist of basic training, the training supervisor seminar, the lance sergeant seminar, the basic trainer seminar, and the sergeant major’s training seminar. Each training seminar lasts approximately four weeks. In addition, paramedic training takes place once every two years,” explains Eisenschmid.
Despite the military service that is part of the program, the players are in essence being paid to play hockey.
“You’re basically more or less a professional athlete. You’re required to participate in a training session for the armed forces once a year. An exception to this is the year leading up to the Olympic qualification,” Reich points out.
“In that case, it’s your job and duty to concentrate completely on your specific sport and the upcoming event. Otherwise, we’re only really at the base about once a month to sign some documents or, for insurance reasons, we’ve got to submit our exactly documented training protocols and thus, we’re there so that they can be reviewed and accepted by the military. But other than that, about 95% of our occupational time is spent with ice hockey and the goals of the national team and the club teams we play for.”
Kluge is about to get her first real taste of military training, which will take place for her next spring. “I’m looking forward to basic training because various activities such as using a weapon are part of the program and something everyone who’s part of it will learn. I’ll also get a look at all the different things the Armed Forces offer and career paths within the military.”
“While training, activities have consisted of some very traditional military exercises such as marching, various obstacle courses, and the use of rifles,” tells Eisenschmid. “There’s also plenty of time spent in the classroom going through all sorts of military-related issues such as organization and regulations as well as tactical studies. I personally still have to attend two of these seminars, the first of which will come after our Olympic year.”
Things are done primarily with other athletes, but exposure to career military personnel isn’t missed out on, as Zorn explains, “One of my training programs was conducted together with soldiers who are not part of the program. We also need to visit the military base for the required doctor examinations that are part of every soldier’s life. But all in all, there isn’t a lot of interaction with those who aren’t part of the program. Nonetheless, on paper, you are a soldier and that is your occupation.”
Home office of a different kind
“We do not have to live on the base or anything like that. We can choose to live where we like and generally are there where we’re playing. Thus, the program and military obligations are independent of where we’re living. Any physical fitness obligations are left in our hands as part of our work with the team we’re playing for,” explains Reich, whose husband Kevin is a goaltender for the Ingolstadt Panthers of the German DEL.
The military does assume the costs for getting to wherever the players have to conduct active duty and go through training seminars. Basic training takes place around Hannover, which is quite a distance away from a number of the participants. When it comes to the national team and our travels with respect to the various sessions throughout the year, then travel costs and the like are regulated by the German Ice Hockey Federation.
Zorn adds, “We’ve had players who lived and played in Berlin but headed down to Munich for their military service and training. We earn our paycheck from the armed forces. We are employed by the military. We are socially insured via the military. The armed forces serve as our employer.”
A military career when the active hockey playing career is over?
Naturally, one of the chief program interests for the armed forces is that a few of the athletes they promote and sponsor over the years will see the military as an employment option once their playing careers are over. For the players, it’s always a bonus to know that this door is open at some point down the line.
“There is an opportunity to remain in the armed forces when the hockey career is over. Naturally, it’d be in another function and not in relation to the national team. In fact, there are job positions within the armed forces that have been established especially for high level athletes. One would be as a boot camp instructor, particularly for those in the sports promotion program. Part of the reasoning here is to keep some of these athletes who have been invested in over time on board as part of the military,” expresses Zorn.
Reich adds, “The armed forces certainly do a lot with the hopes of us one day making a career of it. There is a department for career planning with the military and it’s geared towards finding what most fits your profile and career desires. You explore ideas based on what you’ve achieved to date, such as if you’ve already completed your studies. There are many career paths that can be taken within the military and thus, there are a plentiful amount of options for an occupational career once the playing days come to an end.”
It’s an option Eisenschmid has already started mulling over, even if it looks like she’s got plenty of years of active playing ahead of her, “This is something I’ve already been looking into in the course of my training seminars to date and it’s an option that I certainly wouldn’t count out. My focus is on my sport right now and even if I’ve had some discussions with regard to a military career, it’s something I’m first going to really look into when my playing career looks like it’s winding down.”
The Olympic qualification tournament will take place from November 11th to 14th, 2021. The quaint Bavarian town of Füssen will serve as the site of competition, giving Germany home ice advantage.
For participants in the sports promotion program, this qualifier basically means everything.
“The Olympic qualifier is about the most important event there is, because it’s the gateway to being in the Olympics, so it’s ranked way up there when it comes to sporting opportunities of any kind,” Kluge states.
Reich is on her second go-around when it comes to Olympic qualifiers and there’s still a bad taste in the team’s mouth from the last one. “This means a lot to me. A whole lot. I was already part of one such qualification, which took place in Japan, and we weren’t very successful. We got knocked out in the very last game. I can still remember the - well, I’d call it pain - that we felt and that’s all serving as extra motivation here. And now we’re in our own country with friends and family being able to be part of it. It really means a lot! I’ve been part of the national team for a while now, so I can’t really emphasize enough how important it would be to take this next step and earn our way to the Olympics.”
With one of the longest tenures in the national team, Zorn has even more of a score to settle, having suffered through several disappointments.
“This tournament is immensely important to me personally. It’s my third such tournament and we didn’t qualify the past two times. Not making it is really hard to take. You’ve invested four years of preparation and hard work into making it to the Olympics. Then it all comes down to one qualifying tournament or even one game in the tournament, and to have four years of work hanging in the balance carries an incredible weight.”
There are a variety of benefits playing at home and it certainly serves as extra motivation. The team will be hoping for a lot of “hometown” support and the soldiers in the team know that other athletes in the program have expressed interest in being there to support them and watch the games live. Then there’s of course friends and family.
“It’s good for us that this qualifying tournament is being held in Füssen. We know the stadium. We know the surrounding area. We know how we’ll be eating, which shouldn’t be underestimated,” points out Eisenschmid. “Our qualifier in Japan included different customs and eating behaviours than we weren’t necessarily used to, and that after a good bit of travel there. Here at home, we don’t have to make any such adjustments. We’re also hoping for some home rink support and strong attendance. Unfortunately, it has been our experience that we don’t get much of a crowd in Füssen, but hopefully that’ll change in light of the importance of this event.”
For Eisenschmid, who was born in a town roughly 27 minutes down the road from Füssen, there’s a special kind of support right in the team. Her older sister Tanja, who some may recognize internationally for her time at the University of North Dakota, is also a member of the national team. As two of four siblings, family will surely be in attendance to support them, although their brother Markus, a forward for the Adler Mannheim of the DEL, will be representing Germany at the Deutschland Cup that very weekend as well.
Indeed, with Germany’s northernmost neighbour Denmark and southernmost neighbour Austria, this qualifying tournament is just bound to have some extra fire and intensity. Throw in an almost mysterious Team Italy that will likely feature a number of native German speakers, and you’ve got all the makings of a very hard-fought, intense four days of hockey.
Should a trip to the Olympics be in the cards, even more doors will likely be opened for future generations thanks to the German Armed Forces Sports Promotion Program.