Jeff Tomlinson : Return of the Canadian Berliner

Friday sees the Berlin Eisbären kick off the new ice hockey season under the guidance of new coach Jeff Tomlinson. After three years away from Berlin, the Canadian returns as a local to the city which gave him a new cultural perspective.

Kit Holden
Ick bin ein Berliner - Jeff Tomlinson is back with the Eisbären.
Ick bin ein Berliner - Jeff Tomlinson is back with the Eisbären.Foto: dpa

A decade after he first arrived here, Jeff Tomlinson feels like a local in Berlin. The new head coach of the Eisbären returned to the German capital this season to take charge of a club where he spent four years as player, and six years as a youth team and assistant first team coach. Unabashed, the 43 year old Canadian professes his love for a city which he has come to see as home.

“When I first arrived, I didn’t get the culture. People here are more direct, they say what they mean. Nobody holds doors open for each other. But now I like that.”

No smoke without fire. Tomlinson gets through stereotypes like a builder through teabags, but his observations are familiar. Almost every British – and, it seems, Canadian – visitor to Germany has experienced similar shock at the bluntness of their new neighbours. He stops short, at least, of saying that the trains run on time and the Germans have no sense of humour.

Nor would he, for underneath his impeccable Canadian manners, his patience and his honesty it is clear that the Eisbären coach possesses a keen intelligence. He is open but not naïve in the way he speaks to the media and revels in discussing tactics. The impression is that of a man who neither takes fools lightly, nor goes out of his way to make others look like fools.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine the Canadian being ill at ease when he first came to Germany. Tomlinson was first confronted with the culture shock in the early nineties, when he transferred to ETC Timmendorfer Strand, and later to the Berlin Capitals. 1997, though, saw him escape the German bluntness in favour of the reserved, well mannered nature of the English – a phenomenon he discovered after his first game with new club Manchester Storm.

“After our first game, we came out thinking we’d played really badly, and all the fans came up to us wanting autographs and saying “good effort”. It was strange. Maybe it’s because Ice Hockey is not so common in England, but I think it’s a cultural thing. The British culture is closer to Canadian than German is.”

That was not the only example of British good manners that Tomlinson found – somewhat conversely – in Manchester. Queueing, he claims, was much more familiar to the Canadian in the UK than it was in Germany. Insofar as it is, in fact, common practice. “Here in Berlin, people just crush,” Tomlinson chuckles.

To cast Tomlinson’s cultural observations purely in terms of stereotype, though, would be to do him a disservice. He has not spent the last two decades in three different countries only to emerge with a handful of clichés. It is with the eloquence of genuine experience that the Canadian – who in the last few years has also coached in Nuremberg and Düsseldorf – speaks of the cultural canyon between Berlin and the rest of Germany. “Berlin,” he concludes, “is an island in this country.”

Even if England is culturally closer to Canada than Germany is, moreover, that proved no reason for him to stay. After leaving Manchester in 2000, he spent a decade in Berlin, where, he claims, he found a “family”. Meanwhile, the German cultural oddities have become normality. “Now, when I go back to Canada I think it’s weird.”

So Germanified has he become, indeed, that he has no qualms with telling an Englishman exactly how poor the food is in the green and pleasant land. After bucking at least one stereotype by expressing his love for German cuisine, he declares that “English food is shit. Black Pudding: what the hell is that?”

Perhaps pig’s blood would taste better with a little maple syrup. But with Tomlinson, homesickness seems an alien concept. He is as integrated as they come – a man of the world without the slightest hint of pretension. His German – while retaining a thick Canadian drawl – is fluent, his vocabulary rich.

It is unsurprising, for despite the cultural adjustments, Tomlinson is settled in Berlin in a way he apparently never was in Manchester. The Campaign For Real Ale in British Pubs would surely have thrown in the towel had they been present to hear the Canadian enthuse: “I like English beer. I drank loads of that stuff, Stella Artois, when I was there.”

In Berlin, though, he is indeed at home. The pressure of maintaining the Eisbären’s hegemony on the ice rink may be growing ahead of the season opener in Ingolstadt tomorrow, but Tomlinson could barely seem more relaxed. The queues may be disorderly, the people direct and the doors never held open, but the amicable Canadian Ice Hockey coach is back where he belongs. Slap bang in the middle of Prussia.

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