The AEG will join forces with Finnish investor Harry Harkimo and his Jokerit HC Group. Harkimo is involved in the construction of a 15,000-seat state-of-the-art arena in Hamburg scheduled to open in early November.
“The Barons Ltd. will move to Hamburg,” Detlef Kornett of the AEG said. “With the Jokerit HC Group, we have found a partner that shares the entrepreneurial risk with us. Moreover, the new Color Line Arena in Hamburg will be an extremely attractive venue, which could not have been created in Munich in the short term.”
Harkimo will take over a 30 per cent share of the Barons Ltd.Future of the players unclear
It is still uncertain whether the team will keep its nickname. The future of many players is still in jeopardy, too.
The question remains how many of Munich’s players will actually end up in Hamburg. The Barons did not re-sign many of last year’s key players like Boris Rousson or Peter Douris. Newly signed players like Jacek Plachta, David Sulkofsky, Jeff Tory or Jason Miller are likely to play in Hamburg - in some cases not very eagerly, though: “I sincerely hope it’s not gonna be Hamburg,” one had hoped when first confronted with rumors a month ago.
Star center Derek Plante became the first to leave the sinking ship when he signed with the Zurich Lions only a few days into the off-season: "I think it was a little bit of the uncertainty in Munich," Plante said. "But my wife and I loved our time in Munich, I've got nothing but good things to say about it."
A couple of players like goalie Christian Künast or defender Mike Smazal could follow Kent Fearns to Ingolstadt, 50 miles north of Munich, where a new DEL team will be installed next season.
Veterans Andy Schneider, Mike Kennedy and Derek King, who still had a contract for one more year in Munich, might try to sign elsewhere.
“We have made an offer to all our employees to join us in Hamburg,” Kornett explained.Expectations are sky-high
“Hamburg is a terrific sports market,” he added. “We have high expectations: Sponsors, partners and an enthusiastic crowd.”
Considering that hockey has never drawn much interest in Northern Germany, the investors’ hopes might appear sky-high. But partner Harkimo is full of confidence, too: “The top team from Munich will draw good attendances in Hamburg,” he said. “We calculate with an average crowd of 5,000 spectators in the 30 regular season home games.”
The Barons’ departure ends a successful three-year stint in Munich. The AEG obtained the franchise from neighboring Landshut in 1999. In the rink, the team turned intos an instant success. Munich capped a Cinderella inaugural season by capturing the DEL championship in 2000. After returning to the finals in 2001, the Barons set a new DEL record for the best regular-season finish ever this year before being eliminated by subsequent champion Kölner Haie in the playoff semifinals.Kornett: “Move in favor of the fans”
Although Kornett expressed thanks for the support of Munich’s fans and sponsors. Ironically, these two parties were also the two key areas he blamed: “The average attendance stagnated at about 3,000 per game,” Kornett explained. “We would have needed at least 4,000 to notice a positive trend. Moreover, we could not find a sponsor. There is no further perspective for us in the soccer-town Munich.”
Even die-heart hockey fans were sceptic when the Barons arrived in the summer of 1999. Less than five years before, the Munich Mad Dogs, Munich’s first DEL franchise, had folded due to financial problems - only months after winning the German Championship. Amateur club ESC had become the new fan favorite in town. Many fans remained hesitant, fearing the Barons could be gone as fast and unexpected as they had arrived.
But the Barons departure comes at a point when many felt the team was drawing more and more interest and also on a very good way to establish hockey as the clears number two sport in a soccer-crazy town.
“Our decision to make the move at this point,” Kornett added, “is also in favor of the fans. We do not want an cannot operate an organisation that is in danger of folding during the season.”
A very provocative statement, indeed. In the eyes of many fans and insiders, the Barons management did a lot to put itself in a very unfavourable position, failing to attract major sponsors in one of Germany’s leading business towns in the past two years.
Now the AEG was not ready to fill the hole in the budget any more: “The organisation was not profitable,” Kornett said. “In the past three years, we invested 15 million Euros [about 14 million US$] in Munich. The deficit was enormous. Economically, it does not make any sense for us any more.”League meeting could stop the move
Despite ongoing rumors about the move, most of the fans did not give up the hope. A relocation became more and more likely last week, though, with the DEL’s annual licensing deadline drawing closer. The Barons confirmed that - unlike last year - their accounting records and other documents would be submitted directly by the AEG.
In the meantime, Harkimo publically announced that he had also submitted his documents - which would not have made any sense for a non-franchise holder. Now it’s clear that Harkimo’s letter, containing information about the Barons new home venue, completed the documentation submitted by the AEG.
The only thing that could stop the club from relocating would be a veto from the DEL franchise holders’ meeting. Four of the 14 teams eligible to vote would have to disapprove the move. Munich’s local rival Augsburg and Schwenningen are the two clubs expected to be among the opposition. But even in case of a veto against Hamburg, the Munich Barons would be discontinued.Time of denial is over
It is still unclear when the AEG informed the Barons management about the move. When a local boulevard paper first brought up the story in mid-February, a day passed until the Barons finally denied it amongst rising fan protest on the team’s official web message board.
“You have to call it pervert,” manager Boris Capla then remarked, “what kind of methods are used to drive us out of the city. Speculations about a move of the Barons to Hamburg are pure nonsense.”
But the rumors did not stop. The AEG rejected Munich’s budget plan for the upcoming season while other European Anschutz-owned clubs like the Berlin Eisbären had already gotten green light.
“We will be back in Munich next year. I’m a 95 per cent sure about that,” sports director Max Fedra said after the Barons were eliminated by the Kölner Haie in the DEL semifinals in April.
But his optimism obviously faded with every day of the off-season. “If Anschutz wants us to play in Wuppertal [a provincial town in Northern Germany], we’ve got to move there,” Fedra jokingly said early in the off-season.
With speculation mounting and the budget approval still pending, Fedra even did not want to rule out a move to Hamburg any more.
So today’s press conferences had at least one positive message for Fedra and Munich’s hockey fans: The uncertainty is over.