It will be the fifth time in five years that a Swedish SHL team will be participating in the final. In fact, Frolunda Gothenburg has been the dominant club on this stage, now making its fourth final appearance.
Alas, for Red Bull Munich, the path to the final has been nothing less than dramatic, to say the least. After finishing the six-game preliminary round play with a 4-2 record against the Malmo Redhawks, TPS Turku, and Yunost Minsk, Munich kicked off the playoffs against EV Zug, a team that took them to their limit, but which they beat 3-2 and 2-0. Their second-round opponent was the very familiar Malmo Redhawks, which they beat 2-1 at home and then tied 5-5 in Malmo, with a late third-period goal sending the game to OT – and Munich to the tournament’s final four.
There they faced off against their chief sponsor’s associate franchise, Red Bull Salzburg. In Germany the two clubs went scoreless in playing a 0-0 tie. The match ball then took place across the border in Salzburg, Austria, where Munich put up a 3-1 victory, punching their ticket to the final. Amazingly, Munich had managed to gain the upper hand in each series while on the road. That’s where they’ll now play the CHL Final in a winner-takes-all summit in Gothenburg on Tuesday.
With excitement growing in lieu of this historical moment for the tournament and the DEL, IIHF.com chatted with one of the Red Bull’s premier players, German national team forward Frank Mauer. Here’s what he had to say about a number of topics as the big event approaches.
Congrats! You and Red Bull Munich have made it all the way to the Champions Hockey League final. What do you think your achievement means for the DEL and German ice hockey in general?
For us, and I think for the entire DEL, it’s been absolutely fantastic reaching this final. The extra value of the CHL can be seen in the enhanced attention that we’re getting for having made it to the final of this international event.
You can also see it in how much the fans of other teams around Germany have gotten behind us and are rooting for us to go all the way in the CHL. We’ve constantly gotten that support, even when we’ve been playing on the road.
This is great opportunity for German ice hockey to position itself on the international landscape. And this is an opportunity we definitely, definitely want to make use of.
In light of the team’s experiences in CHL competition the past few years, did you enter this season thinking you’d find yourself in the final?
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but we were a real good team in recent years and yet we were defeated along the way. We were beaten by teams we felt were beatable. We often felt like we should have gotten further. We knew we could have gotten further.
This year we knew we wanted to do better and we took the steps necessary to make it happen. We had a lot of very, very close games along the way and things have been extremely tight throughout the playoffs. We beat Zug in two very tight games to kick off the playoff round. But I’ve definitely noticed that we’ve wanted more at every step of the way. I mean, once you find yourself being one of the last eight teams, you don’t want to settle for that. You want to go all the way. Now we’ve improved from game to game and we’ve faced and beaten some top-flight opponents. That was so much fun to test our metal against such strong teams.
For us in the locker room, it’s not a surprise that we’ve gotten this far. We always believed in ourselves. However, we are aware that for many on the outside, especially internationally, it may be a surprise that we, as a German DEL team, have made it to this final.
And we have no problem with continuing to be a surprise.
The last few teams were very difficult opponents coming from some very formidable leagues. Zug, Malmo and Salzburg all have top programs and it demanded everything of us to beat each of them. We knew it’d be some hard work. All three of these teams can really skate. They all know how to play ice hockey.
At the end of the day, I think the combination of that necessary bit of luck and our sheer will to keep going on and win this thing has been the difference for us. In each round, we managed to get to the next round while on the road. That means that we’ve showed that we also have the ability to win on the road when the pressure is highest. This kind of fortitude was something we’ve proven to ourselves now repeatedly and that is one of the most absolute difficult aspects of such a tournament.
You’ve played a ton of hockey over the past 30 months. Three championships, men’s World Championships, the Olympics, CHL for several years now… How difficult is it to find the energy and motivation to keep on going with the constant demand to win?
It can be tough and especially when you’re playing in two leagues in parallel, in our case in the DEL and CHL. A prime example was our euphoric victory in Salzburg, which thrust us into the CHL final. We played in the DEL the very next day and we had big problems playing that game, one we otherwise feel we would have won.
There are other differences. The style of game is different and within the DEL, we know the teams and everything’s familiar. Exactly the opposite is the case in the CHL. But yes, we’ve been coming from some very emotional victories in the CHL in recent months and then keeping ourselves fresh and focused and ready for the challenges of our league play. Often playing just a day or two later has been quite a challenge and hurdle to overcome.
Nonetheless, we’ve come to specialize in dealing with this. And we’ve done that with success. We’ve had some real difficult games along the way, in the DEL and the CHL, but have found different ways to win and have found different heroes who have stepped up to the plate along the way.
One of those heroes is our team captain, 38-year old Michael Wolf, who is in the midst of his final season. How important is it for the team to send him into retirement with a CHL title under his belt?
Naturally, we’d love to say adieu by helping him go out on a bang with this CHL title. He’s definitely earned it. He’s an incredible human being. The way he treats people and the manner in which he stays down to earth is just phenomenal. At the same time, despite his age, he’s a wonderful role model on the ice. He works hard, he practises hard, he still battles everywhere for the puck and usually wins all those battles, and he scores important goals. Heck, he even gets upset when he fails to score in practice.
That’s the ambition that has gotten him this far. He’s a guy everyone here can learn from and look up to. Everyone in the team wants to see him go out with this title and we’re going to give our all to make that happen.
You coach Don Jackson is quite simply one of the most successful in all of Europe at the club level. In light of his success, how important do you think it is for him to earn this title, one that has eluded him to date?
His hunger for titles is never quenched. He always tells us there is no limit to our success. Some people say that at some point, you just can’t win anymore. Don always places that into question, asking “Who’s saying that? Who has decided how much you can and can’t win?”.
He and his staff work very hard. They analyse things right down to the finest details. They see things most people wouldn’t even think of. They talk to us constantly and widen our hockey horizons, getting us to see and understand the little things that often make the difference. Coach Jackson’s part in our success since he’s been here is absolutely immense. He does his thing and we follow, because we’re completely convinced that what he does leads to success.
This CHL title is hopefully the next step in his story of success and there’s not a one of us who wants anything less for him than for us to take this final.
How has it been for you to play under Coach Jackson?
He’s taken me to the next level. He’s spent the last three seasons forming me into a more effective player. He’s taught me to be more self-critical in the analysis of my game. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a player and have come to see when and where I need to do more or make more effort. He always believes you can be better and I’ve found myself in a constant state of learning about what my capabilities are and what I can ultimately do on the ice and for the team.
As a player, and this is how it is for all of us, he’s got us continually looking to improve ourselves and our games. We’re looking at ways to be the best version of ourselves possible. I’m always looking to be more effective. That I’ve gotten to where I am on such a successful team is in good part due to his tutelage.
This is something I’m very happy about.
Not a whole lot to date. We’ve had so many opponents and we haven’t had to worry about them yet. That is something we’ll be doing very shortly.
Traditionally, you can count on the Scandinavians being very quick and strong skaters, very talented in handling the puck, and very well organized. Specifically, how Frolunda plays, is something I’m not too familiar with yet. We will soon be analysing their team and how they play the game in preparation for the final.
I did have the chance to play against them a few years back when I played for Mannheim and we were involved in the European Trophy. I definitely remember how precise their passes were and how skilled they were in handling the puck and finding each other. We won that game back then, although Frolunda was the better team. Now I’m hoping that this result will repeat itself, but that we’ll, well, be the better team. I feel we can be.
Your Red Bulls have been on a nice little winning streak, having won ten straight games. Unfortunately, you won’t even have 48 hours between your DEL game Sunday and the CHL final Tuesday evening. How is your team going to ultimately prepare for this all-important game?
We’ve had some time this past week to work on some details and get a bit of rest. The game against Dusseldorf Sunday was a big one, but then we have a full day to reboot and get ready for the next task. It’ll be important to have fresh legs. With them comes better concentration. We want to be in the best shape possible going into Tuesday’s game up in Sweden. No doubt about it, we definitely want to win this game. That’s why we’ve used this past week very well in every respect.
In general, we’re feeling very good about ourselves. We haven’t lost in a long time. We’re confident and we want to maintain that confidence and keep it intact for next Tuesday. Combining that with keeping the body fresh will be a huge factor in the final, where we’ll certainly be more than motivated. We want to enter the game knowing we can win, just like we’ve been doing every game recently.
It’s going to be an interesting contest and we’re going to leave everything on the ice. I’m getting excited just talking about it!
John Mitchell and Max Kastner are two important players and both are currently injured. Mitchell has been your top scorer in CHL play. Are either of them expected back in time for the final?
At the moment, it looks like neither will be ready for the game Tuesday. Maxi would be the more likely of the two, but Mitchell is going to need a little while.
But for us as a team, it was never really a problem when players, even such important players, were out of the line-up. Other good players always stepped up to the plate. We’ve also had a lot of younger players step up and show everyone what they can do. In addition, our team unity has never been in question and is one of our major strengths.
So when guys are missing, we’ve always been able to compensate for them and find ways to win. Sure, we sure wish all of our top players could be in the line-up, but it’s a situation we’ve always been able to handle and it doesn’t pose a problem for us.
In the SHL, it’s common to see players 21 and younger playing regular minutes and sometimes even being heavy contributors. Many end up in the NHL by the time they’re 22 or 23. Frolunda in particular has been a factory for young talent in recent years. Munich has seen the Eder brothers (Andreas and Tobias), Jakub Mayenschein, and Max Daubner all get a shot and make healthy contributions, as not a one of them has fewer than nine points this season. How much has this played a role in Munich’s success this season?
They’ve done a really good job. We’ve got a very deep program and there were a lot of injuries at the beginning of the season. That gave these kids a chance to present themselves at this level and they’ve done a great job in proving that they belong. They’ve not only helped us throughout the season, but are making a huge case for being a part of the puzzle in the future as well.
They’ve shown that the coaching staff can feel comfortable putting them on the ice in every situation and that they’re always going to be good for a goal. They work really hard and it’s been fun watching them, because they’ve often been that breath of fresh air that energizes the rest of the team.
This is something I think a lot of DEL teams sure wish they could have. So like you say, this kind of thing may be commonplace in Sweden and a bit of a virtue in that very strong league, but it’s something we’re definitely still working towards here in our club and we all hope will continue to become a regular occurrence in the DEL. It’s a goal throughout the league to have our young German players getting more of a chance and being allowed to develop into solid pros, and then having fewer import players in the league. This will generally be a proven way to improve on the quality of German ice hockey.
You yourself came up with Mannheim and now you’ve been a part of the Red Bull Munich team for each of their last three DEL championships. Your role in those championships has grown season for season and your stats definitely serve as evidence of that. You were also a part of the silver medal winning German side at the Olympics last February. What has been the key to your personal success?
You know, I think I needed a good bit of time to figure out what kind of player I am and can be. It was in my mid-20s that it finally clicked and I had come to learn what I need to do to be a successful hockey player that a team can depend on. I learned how I had to practise, how I needed to eat, how I needed to treat my body, and that I generally needed to work harder. I realized this is what I had to do to play the type of ice hockey I want to be playing.
That’s not to say I didn’t work hard in younger years, but I just wasn’t working with the same focus and in the same goal-oriented manner. I’d also say that I made the right decision at the right time when I chose which club to continue my career with. This helped me take the next step.
I’m 30 now, but I still feel fresh and highly motivated. I’m still hungry and I still want to improve myself. I’m still working out in the winter and the summer. In other words, the desire to improve myself has been the key to my success. I knew I was capable of more and I went out and found out how.
That would just be the cherry on top!
Amongst ourselves in the team, we talk about how this is THE chance to take it all. If not now, then perhaps never. This competition features so many good teams from so many countries, that you never know if you’re ever going to have this chance ever again. A lot of chips have to fall in the right place to get this far. As such, it would be absolutely incredible to be the CHL champion.
One thing we’ve thought about a lot is how we’ve won championships in recent years. We know what it takes to be a champion. The memory of victory and how it is earned is a very fresh and recent one for us. This helps us immensely in answering the question as to what a team needs to do to become champion.
This is something that can be an advantage and we’re hoping it’ll be our advantage Tuesday night.
You know, the Champions League in football wasn’t necessarily a success right from the beginning. It had to make its way to becoming the wildly successful event it is today. For ice hockey, this kind of thing just hasn’t been there. Other sports like basketball and handball have it too.
I myself have participated in the European Trophy and now several years in the CHL. I definitely see it taking steps in the right direction. Things have gotten better every year. I’m not just talking about the structure of the competition and how it’s set up, but also how fans are finding greater interest in it. For example, there’s been a huge wave of excitement in Munich when we moved on to the final four with a 5-5 tie in Malmo. Tickets were sold out for the next CHL game within hours. The fans have come to understand what incredible games these are.
We’ve felt the interest in Munich, but also in other DEL cities, where fans kept wishing us luck and telling us how important it is for the league and German ice hockey that we’ve made it this far. They’re enjoying it. They’re loving how things have turned out. They see how things are growing and becoming better. It’s a setup that will need time, but it has “arrived” as a regular thing on the European ice hockey scene and I’m sure it’s only going to get better and better.
When you were say 16-years old, would you have ever thought your career would turn out the way it has?
No, I can’t say I would have. I mean it’s tough to say, because you always have dreams as a youngster. My dream at that age was to win a DEL championship with Mannheim. This dream came true, even if it took its sweet time so to speak.
But four DEL championships and a silver medal at the Olympics, taking the Russians to overtime in the gold medal game, none of that was part of my power of imagination back at that time. I am really ecstatic that everything has turned out as it has. I may not have done everything the same if I had the chance to relive it all, because mistakes happen along the way. Some you’d make no matter what, because they’re part of the learning curve, but all in all I’m incredibly happy with the career I’ve had to date and how I’ve developed as a player and human being. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And I’ve still got plenty of hockey in me!