As NHL hockey settles into a shortened season, life is getting back to normal for European hockey teams, many of which had NHLers playing for them during the lockout.
The Berlin Polar Bears (Eisbaeren Berlin) are hoping for their seventh Deutsche Eishockey Liga championship since 2005, and they still have a roster full of professional Canadian players and staff to help get them there.
“Canadians contribute a lot,” says Jamie Arniel, originally of Kingston, Ont. "We have a lot of good players from Canada and a lot of top German players, so the mix is perfect."
Two players from the Philadelphia Flyers, centres Claude Giroux and Danny Brière, suited up with the Polar Bears during the recent NHL lockout. Giroux is the Flyers' captain while Brière is an alternative team captain.
Now they're back in the U.S., starting their own short season.
"They were great guys, they showed the guys what it's like to be an NHL player. They work so hard, it was a great example," Arniel said.
Drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2008, Arniel is a nephew of former NHL player and coach, Scott Arniel. He signed with the Polar Bears last summer.
“It’s always a goal to play in the NHL, but I’m not thinking about that now. I’m here to play and better myself and win a championship.”
The Polar Bears have won the elite-league German hockey championships more times than any other. The team won the Germany ice hockey cup in 2008 and the European Trophy in 2010.
That success is one reason it was an easy decision for Vince Malette when he got the call three seasons ago from team manager Peter Lee, himself a former Ottawa 67s player and coach.
“It was a great opportunity and I really enjoy it,” Malette said after a practice on Thursday.
“We have import players who play really well, good German players. We’re always looking for top Canadian and American players. Many have played in the NHL and this gives them more exposure so maybe they can get back to the NHL.”
The Polar Bears have a loyal — and loud — fan base. Their average attendance is 14,000, one of the highest in Europe.
“The fans are a lot different than in North America,” said Mark Katic, originally of Timmons, ON and drafted by the New York Islanders in 2007.
“Everyone comes a couple of hours before the game, they’re singing and beating drums throughout the game, they don’t stop chanting and jumping the whole game. They even have a song about the Ice Bears, which they sing before the game.”
And while that can be distracting, especially on away games, it’s something goalie Rob Zepp thrives on.
Zepp is from Newmarket, ON. He has dual Canadian and German citizenship, so he has also plays on the German National Team. He just returned from training camp for the qualification tournament for the 2014 Olympics.
“It’s been a lot of fun. There’s been a lot of success in the team, a lot of pride in organization so it feels like a family and winning is part of the tradition for us. The Canadians play a big role,” he said.
Zepp, his wife, and two young children go back to their home in Canada every summer, but they consider Berlin their home away from home.
“My goal and dream has always been to play in the NHL. I’m definitely disappointed that I haven’t had that opportunity but to come here and win championships and play in an elite league and travel the world, I’m very grateful and fortunate to have those experiences," he said.
“To play in front of more than 14,000 people, a sold-out arena every night and to hear them screaming, I feel blessed. It’s not the NHL but it’s Germany’s NHL.”
The Polar Bears team is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, which also owns the Los Angeles Kings.