As usual, the summer was full of rumors, speculation and plenty of bad press. Summed up in short: Four teams are history, one of them moved, the other three are gone completely. With one expansion team joining, only 14 teams will compete in the DEL in 2002-03.
Probably the most spectacular incident was the sudden relocation of the Munich Barons to Hamburg. Munich’s ownership, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which also controls the fate of the LA Kings and DEL rival Berlin Eisbären, decided it had seen enough of the Bavarian capital after three successful seasons. They joined forces with Finnish businessman Harry Harkimo and moved the Barons to Hamburg where a newly-built 14,000-seat state-of-the art arena will serve as their new homestead - not before mid-November, though, as the venue is still under construction. Now called the Hamburg Freezers, the team faces the big burden of starting out the season with twelve straight road games.
Although the majority of the DEL owners approved the move, it was heavily criticized. Players, employees and fans had to go through an emotional roller-coaster ride and several weeks of uncertainty before Anschutz finally condescended to publicly confirm the relocation. Moreover it will be interesting to see if the move really pays off. Installing a hockey team in Hamburg, which could be considered the capital of Germany’s hockey wasteland, could be even tougher than establishing the NHL in the Arizona desert.Ingolstadt in, Berlin, Essen and Oberhausen out
Three other teams have disappeared totally: The Berlin Capitals
, just inches away from filing bankruptcy a summer ago, were sent to division two after losing a hard-fought, seven-game relegation series against the Schwenningen Wild Wings. Just shortly after the athletic demise, the club suffered the long-expected financial collapse and had to withdraw the team completely.
The Essen Moskitos
, better known for monetary mayhem than on-ice extravaganza, were kicked out of the league, too. But after a successful lawsuit against its relegation last year, the Moskitos are confident that another court battle might enable them to re-join the league in 2003.
Last but not least, the Revier Löwen Oberhausen
decided to cease operations after a month-long struggle. The management of their old home OberhausenArena was not interested in extending the lease. So the Löwen went on to search for a new venue but couldn’t come up with an affordable alternative.
Small-market team ERC Ingolstadt
, which is located about fifty miles north of Munich, joins the DEL as an expansion team. As winners of the second division, Bremerhaven initially was the number one expansion candidate. They were not ready to get promoted however, which paved the way for Ingolstadt to finally realize the long-planned move to the top division. Formerly known as the Panthers, Ingolstadt had to drop its nickname because it is already being used by DEL rival Augsburg Panthers.Hottest title contenders: Cologne, Mannheim
So for the first time since the 1998-99 season, only 14 teams compete for the DEL title.
The top two title contenders are last year’s finalists, Cologne and Mannheim. Despite their surprise championship, the Kölner Haie
received a major overhaul from new head coach Hans Zach, who has guided Team Germany to three consecutive top-eight finishes at international competitions. Zach kept a couple of key players around, like Dwayne Norris and Alex Hicks, and added quality veterans like Shane Peacock (Munich) or Robert Hock (Oberhausen) and a bunch of promising youngsters, led by Andreas Morczinietz (Augsburg) and Eduard Lewandowski (Berlin).
Vice champion Mannheim Adler
also made a transition and said farewell to several veteran players. They also lost young defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who decided to head overseas and join the Philadelphia Flyers organization. New faces in town include three of the best German players on the market: Defenseman Sascha Goc, who ended his stint in North America and will be re-united with younger brother Marcel, and forwards Klaus Kathan (Kassel) and Thomas Martinec (Iserlohn). Defender Nick Naumenko (Portland/AHL) is expected to produce from the blueline while Mike Kennedy (Munich) brings DEL experience and creativity to the offensive unit.Berlin, Nuremberg, Düsseldorf… set to challenge the top two
A couple of other teams might turn into serious contenders, too. After the relocation of the Barons, the Berlin Eisbären
now seem to enjoy top priority in Anschutz’s European portfolio. Taking advantage of a raised budget and a world-wide scouting system, head coach Pierre Page was able to bolster his squad with a couple of promising names. The arrival of defensemen John Gruden (Grand Rapids) and Ricard Persson (Ottawa) and forwards Mark Beaufait (Houston) and Kelly Fairchild (Hershey) could help lift last year’s playoff participant to the next level.
Although the Nuremberg Ice Tigers
lost two newly-signed key players and head coach Bob Murdoch late in the off-season, they still seem to have the potential to go all the way this season. Last year’s DEL top scorer Michel Picard (Mannheim) and German youngster Christoph Schubert (Munich) decided to head overseas and try to earn a roster spot in the NHL. In addition to that, coach Murdoch finally had to pay the bill for last season’s short and disappointing playoff run and was replaced by assistant Mike Schmidt only a few weeks before the start of the season. Schmidt faces the challenge of forming a team out of a bunch of many talented individuals. New arrivals Terry Yake (Essen), Steve Larouche (Berlin Eisbären) and Rob Guillet (Augsburg) are known for their productivity, let’s see if they can will bite in a Tigers uniform, too.
Expectations are high in Düsseldorf. After barely missing the playoffs last year, the DEG Metro Stars
were able to keep the core of the team together and bring in a lot of new faces like sniper Jeff Christian (Krefeld) that should bring instant improvement. They also put an emphasis on rejuvenating the squad: Defensemen Gerhard Unterluggauer (Schwenningen), Jakub Ficenec (Augsburg) and winger Daniel Kreutzer (Kassel) are all in their mid-twenties, but will play key roles right away
Kassel and Krefeld round off the circle of possible title contenders. Led by the hottest line in the league, the Krefeld Pinguine
were last season’s surprise team. However they lost some of their magic during the second half of the season. Brad Purdie, Christoph Brandner and Patrik Augusta are still around, but it remains to be seen whether their performance can spark the rest of the team again. The Hans-Zach era is over in Kassel and the fate of the Kassel Huskies
now lies in the hands of Swedish head coach Gunnar Leidborg. His approach is very similar to Zach’s and with only two key players (Kreutzer, Kathan) gone, Leidborg could very well lead the Huskies to a fourth straight semi-final appearance.
There is a big question mark behind the new team in the north, the Hamburg Freezers
. After their stunning run for the DEL title in their inaugural year in 1999-2000, their predecessor Munich Barons belonged to the league’s prime the past three years. But the core of the team is gone now. Netminder Boris Rousson and allrounder Andy Schneider are the only two veteran key players who are still around. It has to be seen whether guys like Jeff Tory (Kassel), Ted Drury, Jason Miller (Nuremberg) or Bob Lachance (Lugano) can step into the big footprints left behind by Shane Peacock, Derek Plante, Peter Douris, Mike Kennedy and company. Starting the season with twelve consecutive road games won’t help their efforts either.Who’s in playoff contention?
As every year, the Augsburg Panthers
lost their top players to the wealthier metropolitan teams during the off-season. Key contributors like Igor Maslennikov, Andreas Morczinietz, Jakub Ficenec, Rob Guillet and Marc Beaucage are gone. The Panthers hope their mix of youngsters and imports with no or little European hockey experience will click and develop a spirit similar to last year’s playoff team.
In the meantime, Lance Nethery, who led the Mannheim Adler to three straight titles in the late 90s, hopes to turn the fate of one of the most disappointing franchises of the past two seasons, the Frankfurt Lions
. Nethery brought in several proven veterans, among them former Adlers Jackson Penney, Stephane Richer and Paul Stanton - a philosophy that might get the Lions back into the playoffs next spring. Mid-term success seems to be questionable though, as most of the players are already in their (late) thirties. Playoffs not out of reach for expansion Ingolstadt
While the Hannover Scorpions, Schwenningen Wild Wings and Iserlohn Roosters
might get caught in the struggle against relegation down the stretch, newcomer ERC Ingolstadt
has the potential to become the surprise of the season. Ingolstadt kept nine players from last year’s second division squad and brought in a number of proven veterans. Mike Bales (Belfast) and Ilpo Kauhanen (Kassel) form a strong goalie tandem. Kent Fearns (Munich) and Francois Bouchard (St. John’s) will anchor the defensive unit. Forwards Sean Tallaire (Iserlohn) and Jason Young (Cologne) can put a lot of points on the board. The scoring instincts of former NHLer Jean-Francois Jomphe are well remembered in Krefeld and Mannheim. His engagement is a gamble, of course. Jomphe sat out last season completely. If he can re-discover his old form, though, he is likely to emerge as the offensive leader, who could carry the poised new team into the postseason.