The DEL's little engine that could
by Chapin Landvogt|23 FEB 2021
The Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven players celebrate a goal – something they did quite often this season in the DEL.
photo: Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven
Looking at the DEL standings after 13 games, you wouldn't be blamed in the least for any possible double take when seeing a team called the Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven sitting in first place in the league’s northern group, leaving six teams behind it in the standings. 

With nine victories in those 13 games, you may even think the team is a good step above the competition. You’d definitely be getting that impression if you take into consideration that Bremerhaven went undefeated in seven games of a pre-season tournament called the Magenta Cup before ultimately losing in the tournament final by a score of 7-5 to perennial DEL contender Munich.

In fact, if the DEL isn’t a league you find yourself following much, you might be surprised to see a team from Bremerhaven in the league whatsoever.

After 17 games the standings look a bit different with the team dropped to third place but that doesn’t make team’s astonishing season less spectacular.

The reality of it all is that Bremerhaven has been proving the naysayers wrong since the team joined the league in 2016. Already in its first season, the team finished 10th, just making the pre-playoffs, and then advancing to the quarter-finals. It finished 9th the next season, also making the pre-playoffs and then advancing to the quarter-finals. It finished 7th the season thereafter but got knocked out in a hotly contested pre-playoff series. Coming back with a vengeance, it then finished sixth overall, directly qualifying for the playoffs in the 2019/2020 season that ended without playoffs due to the pandemic.

In almost anybody’s playbook, this can be seen as nothing less than immediate and then continued success. Anybody, of course, unless you’re Pinguins sports director Alfred Prey, who hasn’t gotten carried away with Bremerhaven’s impressive DEL track record to date.

“We’re satisfied and thankful that we, as the smallest location in the league, featuring the league’s smallest budget, have been able to spend some time in the same breath as the league’s major players,” states Prey.

“We’re very happy with the fact that we’ve been able to put a team on the ice, year for year, that shows a tremendous amount of character, identifies with the town it represents, and applies the DNA of some extremely hard-working players to have been able to move a few mountains thus far. We can’t allow ourselves to simply get all dreamy about being successful, but rather we’ve got to work incredibly hard to maintain the continuity that has gotten us to where and what we are in the first place.”

Throw everything that’s been achieved together with that attitude and it’s no wonder the team is seen as the league’s little engine that could.

The roots of this growing Cinderella story

So, a long time ago, in this northwestern coastal German town far, far away from the majority of Germany’s hockey hotbeds, the team affectionately known as the Fischtown Pinguins won the 2001 league championship for the country’s second highest men’s league, which was known then as the “2. Bundesliga”. In essence, the team had won the right to gain promotion, which was still afforded in those days.

Alas, a handful of factors, most importantly an arena that didn’t meet DEL standards (Germany’s top pro ice hockey circuit), prevented the franchise from taking that step. The 2013/14 season also concluded with another league championship (with the league being known as the DEL2 by that time), but there was no such option to gain promotion as the DEL had long since become a closed society.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016, when something unexpected took place. The DEL team Hamburg Freezers, located a good stone’s throw away, suddenly shut down operations. The team could not be moved and no new owners or sponsors were found to keep the team in Hamburg. With that, the DEL was in search of a club to replace the Freezers. And that’s where the boys from Bremerhaven came into play.
Bremerhaven players after a win during the 2015 IIHF Continental Cup Final that was hosted by the club.
photo: Andre van Elten
Now, the Fischtown Pinguins had since built a simple, but modern arena that was regularly full and featured a capacity that clearly met DEL standards. A renewed championship had not been repeated, but hosting the Continental Cup was a huge success and gained notoriety for the club, which was a household name and regular contender in the DEL2. Once it was clear that the Freezers could not be saved, the DEL and Bremerhaven came together in making the franchise’s dream of DEL participation become a reality. 

A reality that would also come with a bucket full of last-minute work, as that license was first issued on 16 July, to be exact, a time in which most of the planning for another DEL2 season had already been completed. In fact, most DEL teams would be opening up their pre-season camps already the first week of August.

“It was always our dream to gain promotion into the DEL. We’re so happy and thankful that this is something we’ve been able to experience,” explained Prey, reflecting about the team’s entry into the DEL. “EVERYONE in our team has been working day in and day out right from day one to make this life in the DEL possible and to achieve what’s been achieved to date. I don’t know if we’re always going to be successful with what we do, but I do know that we will always give it our all.”

Rolling up those sleeves and going to work

With a line-up already consisting of players planned for DEL2 play, sports director Prey had his work cut out for him in putting together a team that would immediately be able to compete – and he didn’t disappoint. Keeping a majority of those acquired players and deciding to go with coach Thomas Popiesch, who had only just joined Bremerhaven in January of that year, added a few pieces here and there, many of whom were unknown to the DEL landscape.

The decision to head into DEL action with Popiesch as the coach has proven to be as solid as any, but it also served as an unexpected career opportunity for a former professional player with no prior DEL coaching experience.

“When I came over from Dresden to Bremerhaven within the DEL2, I could never have imagined at the time the kind of ascent and then year-to-year improvement this franchise would take,” states Popiesch in pondering about the journey that the franchise has taken. “The goal was always to one day get the club into the DEL and be ready for that challenge, knowing that the leagues both wanted to reinstate promotion and relegation at some point, but we couldn’t really have dreamed that we’d see our level of success growing like this year for year, being able to, in principle, achieve most all the goals we set for ourselves along the way.”

A handful of the rather unknown new players came, primarily North Americans of German heritage qualified to get citizenship. This can be of heavy significance for the DEL as the league has a limit on the amount of import players a team can acquire and ultimately have in the line-up on any given night. Not all these acquisitions proved to be much more than depth at the DEL level, but a good handful of these players went on to make an immediate impact and became juicy commodities for the DEL market, which has since made a habit of swooping in and raking in talents discovered and incorporated by Bremerhaven with better financial offers. In fact, German-American forward Ross Mauermann is the only such player remaining since the Pinguins’ initial DEL season.

This reality has been one the franchise has simply had to live with for primarily financial reasons, despite there sometimes having been critique for continually going this route, which Prey has had to hear right from the get-go: “You know, when players with dual citizenship play for us, the whining has often been pretty loud. But when these players are then bought away by the more financially capable clubs in the league, then there’s suddenly no problem with that, as the reputation of the object of their desire has already been redeemed by none other than us.”

Over time, the team has continued to successfully find players of this ilk at a season-for-season rate, also having ventured into the Czech Republic and Slovakia to do so. This season’s squad features six such players playing with German passports. Czech-born goaltender Thomas Popperle, for example, has been a mainstay on the team for several years now and has become a key identification figure. The same is the case for Dominik Uher, a former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick who is in the midst of his best-ever DEL season just now. For him, as a player who grew up in the Czech Republic, but has also seen action in the WHL, AHL, and even the NHL, professional play in Germany was always an option he had in the back of his mind.

“Ice hockey is my passion and it’s the sport I love to play. That wouldn’t change if I were playing with a Czech, a German, or even a Chinese passport,” the 28-year-old centre points out. “But it is correct that even as a young kid, I thought about possibly playing in Germany at some point, as a portion of my family lives here. It was always an option and isn’t anything out of the ordinary.”

What has been out of the ordinary is simply Prey and Popiesch’s incredible ability to find such players and successfully incorporate them into Bremerhaven’s family and philosophy. The hit rate has been so high, that it's become downright uncanny and yet, it happens year for year as the team has incrementally made its way up the standings.

“Here in Bremerhaven, we’re living in a cosmopolitan-oriented city. We’re liberal-minded, open to the world, and cordially sincere. Every player who is born with the legal right to German citizenship and who then has it granted, is every bit as German as I am. If you doubt that, then you’ve got to accept that people will feel you’re living 85 years in the past,” points out Prey in explaining his view on player acquisition. 

“But on the other hand, we do have to be very innovative on the player market in order to compete with our budget. Should we one day be in a situation where we can afford and acquire young German players, you’ll see more young Germans suiting up for our team. With this in mind, I’d be remiss not to point out that we currently have integrated three young players as regulars in our line-up, namely defenceman Simon Stowasser (19) and forwards Filip Reisnecker (19) and Luca Glaser (22), all of whom are getting ice time respective of their abilities and aren’t just here to fill some kind of quota.”

Coach Popiesch adds: “Right from the beginning, we wanted to have a good mix. We knew we wanted to incorporate a few Scandinavians who play that European ice hockey. We wanted to look at players from places like Slovenia or in general the Austrian hockey league to see if we could find some Czechs who have grown up playing here in Europe and are used to that Central European kind of hockey. We wanted to round it off and support them with players coming from North America, because we felt this would be a very good mix of player types. I believe we’ve, for the most part, been successful in doing this.

“This decision to go this route was fully intentional, because we felt players from Scandinavia and Central Europe are generally good at working within a system while North Americans coming from the ECHL or even AHL tend to play a bit more freestyle, but it’s good for a team to incorporate these elements, especially when a strong structure is in place. They tend to quickly adjust to that and can move with it productively.”

International flair proves a winning recipe

Adding to the internationalism has been the tendency to find impact players from Denmark and Norway as well as Slovenia, which has become one of the management’s preferred plucking grounds. That all started with forward Jan Urbas, who was acquired for the 2017/18 season and went on to contribute 25 goals and 48 points in 57 games, including a PPG pace in the playoffs. He has only continued to be one of, if not the, top scorer on the team ever since. A season later, he was joined by fellow countryman Miha Verlic, who has improved in a scoring capacity year for year and currently leads the team in goal scoring with eight goals and 15 points. This season, the duo has been joined by feisty KHL veteran Ziga Jeglic, who leads the team in scoring points (19) and penalty minutes (31).

This goldmine of Slovenian impact players has definitely played a key role in Bremerhaven’s success to date and has become a bit of a trademark for the northern coasters.
Miha Verlic is one of the successful players from Slovenia who came to the North Sea town.
photo: Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven
Nicholas B. Jensen was the first Dane brought into the fold for the 2017/18 season and the defenceman would spend two seasons with Bremerhaven before heading to Dusseldorf for greener financial pastures. The qualities he possessed were basically first replaced two seasons later by Norwegian defenceman Stefan Espeland, who promptly became one of the league’s highest scoring defencemen and now patrols the blueline for the financially stronger Eisbaren Berlin.

That Scandinavian element has not gone forgotten though, as the team now features two Danish players, and both have become immediate contributors. One of them, namely defenceman Anders Krogsgaard, who spent season together with Jensen in Esbjerg right before the latter first made his way to Bremerhaven, didn’t have to think twice about taking up an opportunity with Bremerhaven.

“It was always my plan to get a spot in the DEL one day. I truly believe it’s one of the strongest leagues in all of Europe and I was thrilled to get the chance to play in Bremerhaven,” says the 24-year-old defenceman, who knew about the team and its evolution before coming here. “There’s a lot of talk between the players and they share their experiences and opinions when you’re looking to make a step like the one I’ve made in coming here. After everything I had heard about the team, I felt confirmed in my decision to sign here and it has proven to be a very good decision.”

For him and his teammate Niklas Andersen, with whom he has been teammates for many years in Esbjerg’s program, the league also presents a new career challenge and is a career step that has paid off well for past Danish players and their ambitions to be in the national team. “The hockey played in Germany is very fast, just like in Denmark, but it’s a much harder game and the players are much more ready to use their bodies. It’s a more physical game, for sure. No doubt about it, it’s something I’ve had to get used to, but that went pretty quickly, and it’s helped add a new dimension to my game.”

The internationalism present in the club isn’t something that’s phased him or been a hurdle to overcome. “I know Bremerhaven was always put together very well in the past and always managed to be very competitive throughout the years,” he continues. “And when good players from anywhere join together in a team with the same goal, then the nationality plays no role whatsoever. At the end of the day, you have to get the puck into the net more than the opponent does. It’s as simple – and well, sometimes as difficult – as that.”

This sentiment is verified by one of the team’s most international members, hulking 200-cm German-Canadian Christian Hilbrich. Born in Gentofte, Denmark, the 28-year-old once captained Cornell University, having spent portions of his life living in Frankfurt, Germany, and grew up in a multilingual household where he spoke plenty of German. The second-year DELer sees the team's unity, coherence, and internationalism as integral parts of its success.

“It’s always important to have a strong locker room. When a team community functions well together, then success tends to be just around the corner and a logical consequence. I personally believe that the nationality of a player doesn’t play any role whatsoever. Either you can play this game well or you can’t. There are good and bad players in i.e., Germany, the U.S., the Czech Republic, or Russia. A club is obviously very well-advised when it constantly finds just the right guys for the job.”

Putting it all together in a constant move up the standings

Playing in this league has been learning-by-doing right from the beginning, but other than the team’s pre-playoff defeat after finishing 7th overall in the 2018/19 season, there’s been nothing akin to a “step back” in the evolution of the team. Yet the challenges for this team to not only be successful in the standings at some point, but also maintain that success, are truly multifold. The team has an uphill battle on a year-to-year basis in raising the funds necessary to keep the team in the DEL as there are no financial patrons to lean on and every penny needs to be invested in a manner that brings about the largest possible return. At the same time, the town is – despite an ice hockey history dating back to 1943 – stuck in the nation’s ice hockey diaspora, which throws a bit of a wrench into the club’s own initiatives to develop players through the junior ranks.

“Here in the north, competitive youth programs are few and far apart,” explains Prey. “Young players with promise often need to move somewhere else at an early stage to get the competitive development they’ll need to move towards a pro career. We have youth teams in every age group and a DNL-3 junior team. We’re working hard to be able to finally incorporate one of our very own raised and trained players into our DEL team. We’re going to achieve this in the coming years and then we want to build on that. This lack of a feeder system from within has naturally exacerbated our work at the DEL level.”
Bremerhaven goaltender Brandon Maxwell and his teammates defend the net.
photo: Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven
As such, the club has had to find its strength in aspects like those mentioned above, but also several other key building blocks that Coach Popiesch feels must be noted in any analysis about what’s been going on in Bremerhaven.

“A big part of our success is our organization. The work done by Alfred Prey and Hauke Hasselbring, our staff, and right on down to the doctors and physical therapists is incredible and they build an amazing community that allows for players from the outside to come in and find their way into the program without any of the typical difficulties of adjustment. It’s something that’s very important for our foreigners and all our players in general. We take care of them and invest in giving them a feeling of being at home here,” Popiesch explains wholeheartedly.

“A big part of that is also our captain, defenceman Mike Moore, who has been filling this role magnificently since our first season in the DEL. He carries himself and goes about his work as the embodiment of the values we hold dear and exonerate here. He’s incredibly passionate, disciplined, resilient, and ambitious. It’s so good for a team and locker room when you’ve got players who set an example and serve as role models for the others in the team. We’ve been fortunate to have acquired the right players with the right character right from the beginning.”

“Lastly, I have to mention our strong scouting. We aren’t a club that can simply go out and pick up players around the league who have been stars or big contributors elsewhere. We have to filter in our players from certain leagues who we feel have the potential to be considerable pieces of the puzzle for us here in the DEL. We feel we’ve been doing a good job of this in recent years, having taken long looks at the Norwegian and Danish leagues, Slovakia, Austria... We’ve been able to find players who fulfill our character requirements, can fit into our system, and possess the potential to make an impact.”

Summing it up, Popiesch states that “having the right players, the right work attitude, and the ability to convey the values and game plan that the club stands for” are the things that have been the recipe for success thus far – and something the team can continually build on for long-term success.

Taking nothing for granted

Bremerhaven doesn’t yet have a DEL championship to look back upon. There are no celebratory photos or shiny DEL trophies to glance at parading around in management’s offices. The constant improvement and Bremerhaven’s current spot among the top group of the league’s northern teams can’t allow it to deviate from what got it here and what will hopefully lead it to the holy land known as “a championship”.

“We’ve just got to continue working hard, honestly, empathically, and transparently. As long as we do this, we’ll have a shot at a playoff spot, where anything is possible,” utters Prey in full humility. “But we’ve got to remain realistic. For our location on the hockey map, playoff participation itself is almost the equivalent of winning a championship.” 

At the rate his Fischtown Pinguins scored wins to start the season, and with the team and structure they’ve got in place, these words may seem like an understatement.

As humble the organization is, as hungry are the players to do even more in the playoffs.