"This is going to be a highlight not only for the hockey fans in Berlin but all of Germany. It will be a great game and, you never know, we just might win.”
-- Peter Lee
With three German Elite League (DEL) championships in the last four seasons and a colorful 54-year history that includes 18 league titles, Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears) is the current standard-bearer for German hockey. The team has finished first or second during the regular season in five of the last six campaigns.
This season, apart from pursuing yet another German championship, the club will be part of international hockey history on two fronts.
On Sept. 28, Eisbären will host the Tampa Bay Lightning
at the O2 World Arena in Berlin. It will be the Lightning's next-to-last preseason game before their participation in the NHL Premiere-Prague games against the New York Rangers
For Eisbären, the game will mark the first time an NHL club will face a Berlin team in the German capital. However, it's not the first time the NHL has come to Berlin. On May 19, 1959, the Boston Bruins
played the New York Rangers
at Berlin Sport Palace. The original event wasn't exactly a smashing success, as only 600 fans came out; the modern event will draw a solid crowd to the 17,000-seat capacity O2 World Arena.
The 2008-09 season also marks the inaugural year for the International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned Champions Hockey League (CHL) in Europe, which for the Polar Bears starts at home Oct. 8. Eisbären will face an uphill climb in the league, having been placed in the same preliminary group as perennial Finnish champion Kärpat Oulu and Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Continental Hockey League.
With its dominant performance in the DEL in recent years and strong ties to North America, the Polar Bears of today have little in common with its forbearers.
Originally founded in 1954 as SC Dynamo Berlin, the club was the East German hockey equivalent of Russia's CSKA Moscow, and won 15 East German championships between 1965-66 and 1988. East German hockey was fairly weak on the whole, though, and a decided step behind the program on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
After German reunification, the team faced tougher competition in the Bundesliga (the predecessor of the DEL), and found itself relegated to the second league. Upon entering the DEL in 1994-95, Berlin struggled mightily for two seasons, before a brief but dramatic upswing in the mid-1990s. But by 1999, the Eisbären were back at the bottom of the standings, and it took several years to climb out of the hole.
The turning point came in 1999 when the Anschutz Entertainment Group (owned by American entrepreneur Philip Anschutz) purchased the team, and former NHL player Peter Lee
became the club's general manager, and later, the CEO. He's been behind the bench as head coach.
The DEL relies heavily on former NHL, minor-league and veteran European players, and the most successful German teams are the ones with an NHL-like mentality. They establish a core of veteran players who have played in the NHL and have a competitive mentality and blend in younger, home-grown talent, and no team in the DEL does it better than Berlin.
In crafting what has become a powerhouse roster, Lee has focused on strength down the middle, signing former NHL players to anchor the center and defense positions. When the Lighting visit, they'll run into numerous familiar faces on a club coached by former NHL assistant coach Don Jackson
"When we look for defensemen and forwards from overseas we look at three things," said Lee. "First, they need to provide us with offense. Second, they should have the speed to be able to play on the bigger ice surface here. And third, we want character players."
The nucleus of the Polar Bears starting blue line is comprised of former NHL defensemen: Deron Quint
(fourth season on the team), Richie Regehr
(first season with Berlin, second in the DEL), Brandon Smith
(second season on the team) and Andy Roach
(who has spent much of his career in Germany and Switzerland and is in his third season with the Polar Bears). Career minor-leaguer Rob Zepp
handles goaltending chores.
Up front, the team has had considerable stability atop its lineup, which is unusual anywhere nowadays but especially in the transitory German league.
The team's perennial offensive leader, left wing Steve Walker
, enters his ninth season with the Eisbären this season after seven seasons in the North American minor leagues, while Marc Beaufait is in his seventh season in Berlin. Former NHL player Denis Pederson
is in his sixth campaign with the Eisbären, while former NHL player Stefan Ustorf
(a native German) is in his fifth season with the team.
The Polar Bears have won their first two games of the DEL season, and while the Lightning should have little trouble dispatching Berlin, it would be a mistake to underestimate the team's ability to hang close on its home ice.
"We are very excited to host an event like this in our new home," says Lee. "This is going to be a highlight not only for the hockey fans in Berlin but all of Germany. It will be a great game and, you never know, we just might win."