I'm a Canadian so a passion for hockey runs in my veins. I grew up with the hiss of blades on ice, the thrill of breakaways, the smell of wet leather skates in locker rooms after a game. According to the latest figures, there are more hockey players registered in Canada than in any other country in the world (545,363 players, or 1.75% of the population). In fact, as far as I know any Canadian who hasn’t memorised Wayne Gretsky's stats, thinks the Stanley Cup is an festive Scottish drink and assumes that puck is a typographical error, is automatically expelled from the country and sent to live in an uncultured backwater, like southern California.
Even though Germany boasts a few cultural icons greater than the slapshot, hockey does have a place in its society. The first recorded game was played on Halensee in Berlin in 1897, about sixty years after its development in Canada (where an ancient Mi'maq First Nation game had been fused with the Irish sport of hurling). In 1901 the Berliner Schlittschuhclub became the first German association with its own ice hockey section. Nine years later Germany participated in the first European Ice Hockey Championship.
Today the Berliner Eisbären – or Polar Bears -- are the top team in the German league. As SC Dynamo Berlin, the original team was once half of the smallest league in the world (for economic reasons the East German government reduced its league to two sides in the 1980s: Dynamo Berlin and Dynamo Weisswasser). Since the fall of the Wall, the Eisbären have risen to the top of their sport, becoming the German hockey team of the decade, winning six DEL titles, making them the current DEL championship record holder.
Five years ago I took my then-younger son to see his first professional game. The Eisbären had just moved to Berlin's new o2 World, a fantastic, multi-function arena, and the show put on by the organizers, players and fans was pure theatre. High-volume music, light shows and even an indoor fireworks display heralded the entrance of the Eisbären. They team skated one-by-one out of the mouth of a vast, inflated polar bear and onto the ice. The audience called out each player's name, waved vast blue-white-red flags and pounded big bass drums. By contrast the visiting team Düsseldorf's DEG Metro Stars stole onto the ice when no one was looking. They didn't seem to stand a chance.
Unfortunately that game didn't have a storybook ending. When the final whistle blew (or rather when the amplified siren moaned), the magnitude of the Eisbären's loss hit my son. His skating heroes were defeated 7:3. He burst into tears and collapsed against me. Around us in the arena 14,000 grown men, stony-faced women and despairing children were also near tears.
My son was inconsolable on the walk back to the U-Bahn, shuffling forward, hanging his head in shame. On the ride home, he turned away from me and buried his head into the carriage seat.
'Just think how bad the Eisbären players must feel,' I suggested to him. 'They tried their very best and they lost the game. But something good can come for their loss.'
'What?' asked my son in disbelief, his voice muffled.
'The players have the chance to learn from their mistakes, to see what they did wrong, and try even harder next time. Then they can win.'
My son turned to face me. He dried his tears. His disappointment started to lift. My spirits soared with the feeling that my son was taking my words to heart.
'I'd like to come again, Daddy,' he told me. 'But only if you promise me that the Eisbären will win.’
We have been again, many times – and I am pleased to say that the Eisbären have won, most times. Today my son and I are devoted fans, chanting Berlin, Halleluja Berlin after every glorious goal (and keeping quiet after each defeat).