In Berlin, Ice Hockey Discovers the Price of Profits

It was a cold, overcast evening in Berlin, one of many in any given December in Der Hauptstadt.  But unlike many other Thursday nights, dozens gathered near the Mercedes-Benz Arena for a discussion.  Thursdays are typically free for fans of Eisbären Berlin, the local hockey team playing in Germany’s version of the NHL. Games are typically set up in match days, similar to soccer, with most of the teams playing on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

What brought the fans in to the arena was a special meeting called by Eisbären fan groups, who combine to make up the Fankurve section of the arena, filling up the entire end of the arena with flags, coordinated chants, and, above all: noise. 

The meeting itself was about the status of the beloved Fanbogen, the closest English word being “clubhouse” — an area where people got together to meet before hockey games and grab a beer.  Or it might be where “meet the player” events would take place.  All of this for only 12 Euro a season, one could get access to the heart of Eisbären fandom.  The plan is for the ownership group to demolish the structure for commercial development, but like most things in Berlin, there’s a history to be told.

Eisbären Fankurve in action before a regular season game

Eisbären Berlin has taken many forms over the years. The team started as SC Dynamo Berlin, a division of the East German police behind the Iron Curtain that had yet to divide the city. Founded in 1954, the team predated the Berlin Wall by seven years. As the Soviet grip on East Germany tightened, the importance of sport as a tool of propaganda seen elsewhere in the Soviet foothold became more apparent, and SC Dynamo became one of the best teams (and most heavily subsidized) in the East German hockey league. By 1971, the government funded only two teams to compete in the DDR-Oberliga, East Germany’s version of the NHL. For twenty years, SC Dynamo Berlin faced off against SC Dynamo Weißwasser, a team headquartered on the Oder river bordering Poland in the town of Weisswasser. The “seasons” were as short as six games (1974-75, 1979-1981) before finally settling as a series of series, if you will. The teams three best-of-five series, with the first team to win two of the series was declared the champion. Throughout the entire history of the DDR-Oberliga, Dynamo Berlin had claimed 15 titles. Twelve of which were after the league contracted from its peak of eight teams down to two (Weißwasser accounted for every other title in the league prior to its contraction as well, meaning the DDR-Oberliga in its 38 year history only had two distinct champions. Remember that next time you’re complaining about parity in your favorite sports league.).

As the wall began to crumble on November 9 of 1989, it became clear that the DDR-Oberliga’s days were numbered. After the 1989-90 season, Dynamo Berlin (renamed EHC Dynamo Berlin) and Weißwasser were admitted to West Germany’s 1. Bundesliga, where Berlin struggled, riding the relegation shuttle between the top and second levels of the reunified German hockey pyramid. Dynamo avoided relegation in the final season of the Bundesliga, and became a founding member of the brand-new Deutsche Eishockey League (DEL) which was founded before the 1994 season.

Dynamo rebranded in 1994 as EHC Eisbären Berlin in an attempt to distance themselves from their history and appeal across a reunified Berlin. This was a challenging effort, as West Berlin’s former squad BSC Preussen had been having quite a run of success in the Bundesliga, and also happened to be one of the founding members of the DEL. In the first DEL season, Eisbären Berlin ended up being the only team remaining in the league that didn’t make one of the 16 playoff spots within the 18-turned-17 team league after the team in Munich folded 27 games into the season. BSC Preussen had the best regular season record that year, before succumbing to the eventual champions, Cologne, in the semi-finals.

1995 wouldn’t be much better for Eisbären Berlin, finishing once again at the bottom of the table, 17th place overall and once again one spot out of the playoffs. The only team below them was scheduled to play them in a play-out series, with the loser being relegated. That was former DDR-Oberliga opponent Weißwasser, who had to withdraw due to their own financial problems, once again keeping Berlin in the DEL for another season. The crosstown rivals, now named the Prussia Devils, came in second in the regular season before again losing in the semi-finals to the eventual champions, Dusseldorf.

Wellblechpalast, the home of Eisbären Berlin until 2008. Image courtesy Airwater via Wikimedia licensed under CC 3.0

While the 1995 season saw the Eisbären struggle, a revolution in European sport had happened that would forever change the face of German hockey. The Bosman ruling changed how the various national leagues could limit players from their own country, with the European Union determining that these restrictions violated the EU’s freedom of movement restrictions. This turned various leagues across all sports on their head: up until 1995, the DEL required rosters be filled with mostly German players. After the ruling, any EU nationality could fill those limited-roster spots. Eisbären Berlin saw their opportunity and filled the roster with non-Germans.

From 1996 onwards, Eisbären didn’t look back. Making the playoffs (and a quick first round exit) for the first time in the 1996-97 season after a third place finish, Berlin advanced all the way to the Finals of the 1997-98 season, barely coming short. Despite all that, it was what happened the following year that would shape the future of ice hockey in Berlin.

The meteoric climb of Eisbären Berlin had been fueled by one thing and one thing alone: debt. In 1999, it all came to a head as the organization attempted to fend off insolvency with debts over 16 million Deutsche Mark, about the equivalent of almost 11 million Euro today. For a team that only drew 126,000 fans on the full season in 1998-99, that means that the team had roughly six times their annual revenues in debt. With a location in one of German’s lowest income cities and aged arena with a capacity of 4,700 people, few were knocking down the doors to assume the debt and fund the team going forward.

Anschutz Entertainment Group saw it differently. A city that was the largest in Germany, climbing itself out of its thirty year division to become the economic powerhouse of a reunified Germany. AEG acquired 100% of Eisbären Berlin and assumed the entire debt load. The club’s financial problems had been solved, but the American company would want a return on their investment.

AEG ensured the team’s success by funding a strong on-ice product. They had experience, being the owners of the Los Angeles Kings, and it showed: over the next five years, Eisbären slowly climbed the ladder before winning their first DEL championship in 2005 and repeated the task the next year. But attendance had hit the ceiling: over 4500 fans per game filled the arena, and there was only one way to increase revenues.

Exterior of the Wellblechpalast in 1997 with faded EHC Dynamo Berlin logos. Image courtesy Hedavid via Wikimedia, licensed under CC 3.0

The Wellblechpalast was everything you’d expect from it’s name. In English, it translated to the “Corrugated Iron Palace” – a name earned by — you guessed it — a roof composed of corrugated iron. It was loud. It was small. It was intimate. It didn’t have luxury suites. Heck, few arenas currently have suites in the DEL, where corporate interest in sport is less pervasive. It was a hockey stadium. No shine, no sizzle, it just… was.  Nestled between the brewery for two of Berlin’s most popular lagers (Berliner Kindl and Schultheiss for those in the know) and a hockey bar serving those very same beers, the Wellblechpalast was part of the neighborhood. Within the larger sports complex, which contained soccer fields, athletic tracks, and an indoor Olympic pool, the arena brought fans in from all over the city to see the Eisbären play.

But like the wave of arena upgrades in the US in the 1990s that brought the end to the “neighborhood arenas” — Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens — time was running out for the Wellblechpalast. The AEG-owned Staples Center provided the blueprint for arenas throughout the US when it was built in 1999. At the same time, AEG was dipping their toes in the European arena space with the acquisition of The O2 in London. Both had made the company money with their inclusion of ample retail and hotels around a multipurpose arena that hosted multiple sports and concerts.

Promotional materials for the NHL Premiere between the Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings, hosted in Berlin’s new arena in 2011. Image courtesy Chris Ford.

In 2008, that wave came to Berlin as O2 World opened its doors. An NHL-caliber arena, the arena hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning in one of the first hockey games of the season. The Lightning took the eventual win on the back of former Eisbären goalie Olaf Kolzig’s 34 saves, but it set the stage for what was to come in the building. By 2011, an NHL regular season game between the Buffalo Sabres and the AEG-owned Los Angeles Kings was part of the “NHL Premiere” games. The arena was perfect for big name events with 14,200 seats: almost three times as large as the Wellblechpalast, but with a large “Fankurve” of dedicated fans standing behind the net filling up one entire side of the arena.

The only people who lost out were those very fans. The move from the neighborhood arena to the large corporate arena came with a few sweeteners from AEG. Room was given to the clubs underneath the arches of the train tracks that bring fans to the arena on gamedays. That solution worked for a short time until a parking garage was built that prevented access between the spot and the arena. Eisbären had another solution ready for their fans: nearly twenty storage units merged into one giant party hall. Like almost every building in Berlin, beer would be flowing through it shortly. With it came an acceptable alternative to the sense of community that existed at the old arena. A meeting place, a place to shoot the breeze over a few beers and solve all of the world’s problems. A place to meet your other family: your hockey family.

As time went on, the Fanbogen became central to the culture of Eisbären Berlin fans. It was where chants and banners were born, where the various children’s clubs let kids meet their on-ice heroes. If the fans of Eisbären Berlin were one body, the Fankurve was certainly the mouth, but the Fanbogen was the heart.

A view of construction throughout Berlin with Mercedes-Benz Arena on the left.
Photo by Tommy Krombacher on Unsplash

Ever since the city reunified, Berlin has been bustling. Cranes dominated the skyline as the Berlin Wall fell, creating miles of available real estate both along the territory of the wall, as well as throughout East Berlin. The opportunity to redevelop a world capital led to massive renovation projects throughout the city. Neighborhoods in the east gentrified quickly, with residents who were used to paying €400 a month for their apartment now staring down a rent charge of €1200 only a few years later. Protests have taken place city-wide, complaining that gentrification is pushing out the original character in many neighborhoods.

Three of the most affected districts were in the East, quickly gaining popularity on the global scale for their “grittiness” and “party scene”. Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukölln saw an influx of investment, particularly in the mid 2010s. Rents skyrocketed, with Soviet-era apartment buildings being knocked down to be replaced with high-end apartments. In a city so steeped with history, growth-fueled modernization overlooked any semblance of maintaining the past. Residents hung banners from their apartments that yelled “No chance for investors!” in last ditch efforts to save their building from being turned into luxury lofts.

Most of those who have fought the change in Berlin have lost. The Danish pension fund bought an entire street in Neukölln for just over a billion euro. Other similar projects throughout the city have left many of the residents feeling left behind. Which brings us back to the Fanbogen.

A view of the interior of the Fanbogen. Image courtesy black corner, Twitter: @blackunicorners

The Fanbogen remains one of the last bastions that has been unaffected by this constant drone of development that has occurred throughout the city since 1991. The compromise of a new arena with a dedicated community space allowed the Fankurve to develop their boisterous chants and unify the various fan groups. The benefit to the Eisbären was one of the most dominant fan sections in the league with thousands of standing fans losing their voices in unison. The fans got their communal space and the feeling that despite the corporate takeover of their team, a community remained.

But in Berlin, the city of constant change, that compromise could only last for so long. Building off of the proven success of Staples Center and O2 World, AEG set their sights on Berlin. In 2016, work began on Mercedes Platz, a full entertainment district surrounding the arena. The project mirrors the other two AEG entertainment districts. There’s a music hall, a movie theater, dozens of shops and restaurants, three hotels, and about 100,000 square feet of office space.

Unfortunately, that development overlaps the footprint of the Fanbogen. A new skyscraper is being built and the shipping containers that host the Fanbogen are needed for construction offices. When the skyscraper is complete, there will be no more room for the Fanbogen. There’s little financial justification to keep a club that charges €12 for full season entry, or €0.50 on a per game basis, if you’d prefer. What was originally goodwill extended to the fans by the organization was taken back in a swift act of 21st century unapologetic commerce.

A view of the Fanbogen. Image courtesy black corner, Twitter: @blackunicorners

The fans have reached out to the team to find a compromise. Perhaps a second level could be added to the containers, with the upstairs being the construction office, while the first level stays the Fanbogen, they offer. The compromises were met with mostly silence. While many within the team organization itself are supportive of the various fan clubs, it seems they can’t convince the American ownership group the value of the goodwill. As one Eisbären fan told AMSTS:

“AEG is an American company with American thoughts about fans and fan structure but there is the difference. You cannot compare American audience with European fan culture.”

With nowhere to organize, fans worry that the famous Fankurve will lose its edge. With no obvious location for fan outreach opportunities, fans fear they may end. The NHL-ization of Europe’s second most attended hockey league has fans upset. The up-close and personal experience that many had grown up with has been taken away bit by bit. For many of these fans from former East Berlin, this is one of the last vestiges of their youth, having lost their apartments to the constant change that has consumed their life in the past 28 years.

Meanwhile, The team itself points to its profitability, a tough bar to clear with a top of the line facility in a city that still struggles to make ends meet. AEG’s other franchise in Hamburg was liquidated after AEG was unable to right the financial ship. With annual revenues flat in the DEL across the past four years, ownership teams are trying to find alternatives to generate revenue. The team has extended the eviction date of the Fanbogen to July of 2019, allowing one final season for the fans, but assuring them that this would be the last.

A view of the Fankurve from the glass. Image courtesy Chris Ford

To put this all in the proper context, this isn’t just the team telling the fan club to go pound sand. The Fanbogen is so engrained into ice hockey culture in Berlin that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. This is quite literally the German version of Lambeau Field banning tailgating in its parking lots. It’s Yankee Stadium if they decided to stop selling hot dogs. This is *that* big of a deal to the fan culture of the club.

Fans across Germany have joined in on the protests, with the hashtag #Fanbogenbleibt (Keep the Fanbogen) trending on Twitter during certain matchdays in the past few months. Many of the clubs know that as the higher funded clubs start to move in one direction, so soon will the others in an effort to keep up.

With hockey as Berlin’s last stand against gentrification, it seems that time has finally run out on one of the last bits of the original character that led to the city being known as “poor, but sexy”. But despite the bleak outlook, the Berliners (a people not known for optimism in any sense of the word) remain hopeful. For the Berliners, this is just another example reinforcing the local mantra: Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof. Life is no pony farm1. And so like many other obstacles put before them throughout history, the Berliners will fight to keep their tradition, even in the face of insurmountable odds.

Editor’s note: We have reached out to AEG for comment weeks ago and have not yet received a reply. If we are provided any additional information we will update this piece.

  1. Life ain’t easy, that is