For an Englishman, German football’s Winterpause is a strange and miserable time – a succession of bleak, meaningless weekends spent unthinkingly switching on Sportschau only to be confronted with baffling biathalon highlights. The darkest time of the year is when football is most needed, not only to lift the spirits, but to provide an excuse to slink off to the pub with friends when festive familial duties all become too much. Surviving it in Berlin can be an ordeal.
A friend once assured me though that Berliners have an alternative to sinking into a sportless mid-winter depression: ice hockey, a spectacle he assured me shared much in common with a trip to the football. With the resumption of Bundesliga hostilities still a few days away, I took his advice and sought out Berlin’s Eisbären for their game against Wolfsburg – my first ever trip to watch real live puck-slinging action.
I had seen a little ice hockey on television in my youth, mainly due to my mother’s insistence on watching it on TV when the Winter Olympics rolled around, just in case there was a good fight. Otherwise, ice, to an Englishman, has always had the faint whiff of the kitsch to it. Torvill and Dean’s Bolero from 1984 is our reference point, a fantasy in billowing synthetic fabrics, a 6.0 vision in purple and blonde, made in Nottingham. That Torvill and Dean were robbed of glory upon their comeback in 1994, also seemed to sum up everything I needed to know about on-ice action: Like everything else, it was something Brits could fail gloriously at.
Still, the rest of the world seems to love ice and the very notion of something being “on ice” has become synonymous with a particular kind of brash entertainment, bordering on the absurd, that appeals to humanity’s most basic instincts. I cannot be sure why. Perhaps because ice is elemental. Perhaps because ice is somewhat alien to our everyday lives. Or perhaps because we like to see people in daft costumes grinning manically in an outward show of calm as they careen out of control towards unavoidable collision and possible injury.
Certainly at Berlin’s 02 Arena, an incongruous beauty spot affixed to Friedrichshain’s pockmarked skin, the showbiz factor is ramped up high. Ice! Fire! A giant inflatable polar bear head! Massive video displays! AC/DC! All things that speak to a very primal, unreconstructed part of my soul and urge me to drink over-priced beer from a plastic cup. In the semi-darkness before the opening face-off, I am as excited as a small child and wish I could throw myself on to the ice, limbs flailing in a display of uncoordinated Bambi-like joy. Some 13,500 other people clearly feel the same and are drumming, chanting and clapping raucously from the get go.
Two things should be noted about the crowd, at least in the Fan Kurve where I am stationed. The first, is that the club’s former identity as SC, then EHC Dynamo Berlin is very much in evidence. Burgundy Dynamo scarves and shirts pop out from beneath the gigantic sponsor-riddled Eisbären jerseys worn by most fans. And when a spine-tingling chant of “Dynamo!” is suddenly unleashed in time with a (professional) pyrotechnic display before kick-off, it bursts to the surface, shaking off the shackles of time and space, to loom large in the now, like a collective hallucination or a powerful spirit raised by a séance.
“Those are the club’s roots and it’s extremely important they remain part of our identity,” explains Micha, a middle-aged fan behind me. Together with his wife Katrine, he has been physically coming to watch the club for 20 years, though his allegiance dates back to before the Wende. His pride at the club’s 20 league titles is evident – although his fondest memories are of the club’s derby victories against the now defunct Preussen (later the Capitals), West Berlin’s premier ice warriors. Some refugee West Berlin hockey fans do now make it to the 02 Arena to watch the Eisbären and are welcome, according to Micha. But he would much rather see the spice of the old derbies revived. Champions in five of the last seven seasons, the Eisbären would be a match for anyone.
The second surprising thing about the crowd is just how many women are present (and mercifully not the preening Fashion Week set). Perhaps as many as a third of the crowd are women, certainly a greater proportion than I have ever seen at a football match. Katrine says that is because going to the hockey has always been a family affair. Like my dear wizened mother, she clearly loves a dust up, too. The two girls in front of me meanwhile (who explode every time a home player is sinbinned) chorus unequivocally, that “Fussball ist doof!”
Sandra (21) and Denise (22), reproach football for its mindless fans, soulless clubs and money-grubbing players. Says Denise, “The Eisbären do loads of activities for kids wanting to get into the game and the players are approachable, too. Sure, they earn a decent wage but they’re happy to chat to you if you bump into them in town.” She’s not just here for the awesome action and runaway train impacts then? “Of course not!” she says coyly, a somewhat terrifying glint in her eye.
Perhaps because both have grown up skating for fun, the terraces at the 02 Arena (who knew you could stand at the hockey!) have become their natural habitat. They are absorbed, attentive and vocal fans and frustratingly they can execute all the very complicated clapping patterns that I still fail to grasp by the end of the match. They are also self-confident in the manner of their club, who beat Wolfsburg in a thrilling 6-5 victory that hangs in the balance until the last seconds fall from the mega-scoreboard suspended above the rink.
The Eisbären are a rare species indeed. Genuine winners in Berlin, a city too often a graveyard for ambition, sporting or otherwise. Perhaps they are even the sports club that best represents the future of Berlin – a side unafraid to flex their muscles, determined to win and to make a splash whilst retaining their soul. That they are also an heirloom from the DDR should escape no-one’s attention. Most Ost Berliners feel too little else has been valorised from the home they can never return to. But here, beneath Warschauer Strasse and the stampeding feet of the international mash kid mafia marching blindly through Berlin’s nocturnal utopia, there is vindication and revival and proof that all in united Berlin have a stake in its future success. To paraphrase an Eisbären song, the Hauptstadtclub is back again. And the Hauptstadt should be very grateful indeed.