Germany’s shining silver in the men’s Olympic tournament was the biggest achievement in the nation’s hockey history. Nothing comes even close. To reap future benefits, German hockey must work on two fronts; on one hand to maximize the PR value of the medal and on the other to address the real challenges in German hockey.
It was not a dream. The German national ice hockey team, so formidably coached by Marco Sturm, defeated historic rival Switzerland in the playoff qualification, edged reigning World Champion Sweden in the quarter-final, ousted defending Olympic champion Canada in the semi-final, and in the final against the heavily favoured Russians they were 56 seconds from accomplishing the biggest hockey upset since USA’s 1980 Miracle on Ice.
And with a team comprised solely of players from DEL clubs.
This is exactly how German hockey – the country’s governing body DEB and the top league DEL – should promote and sell the accomplishment when leveraging the silver medal towards politicians, authorities, potential new partners, media and all the way down to German hockey’s grassroots level.
Expose and promote shamelessly the heroes Danny Aus den Birken, Christian Ehrhoff, Matthias Plachta, Dominik Kahun, Jonas Müller, Felix Schütz and the other Pyeongchang medalists, make them available for TV shows, let them sign millions of autographs and induct them to every German sports hall of fame possible.
The average German sports fan isn’t interested and doesn’t even want to be told that Sweden’s team in Pyeongchang carried little resemblance with the Tre Kronor squad that won World Championship gold in 2017 or that the Canadian Olympic team would have looked very different had they been able to select their strongest roster.
There is an old saying in sports that the ones who don’t compete don’t count and the history books from 2018 Pyeongchang will forever display this placing from the men’s ice hockey tournament: 1. Olympic Athletes from Russia, 2. Germany, 3. Canada, 4. Czech Republic.
And the PR work and promotion of this historic achievement should be left to the PR workers and promoters.
But those who are responsible for the development of German hockey should immediately get down to work, discuss and determine a plan with the goal maximize the sportive benefits from the silver medal so it doesn’t become a one-off. Because joy from isolated successes – regardless of how great they felt at that particular moment – can wear off very fast.
The good people who run German hockey need to look no further than to their neighbour Switzerland and their silver success from the 2013 IIHF World Championship in Stockholm. It was an amazing Swiss run in a tournament full of NHL players.
Although it did not have the glitter of the Olympic five-ringed circus, the Swiss performance in 2013 was in some ways even more impressive than Germany’s in Pyeongchang. Switzerland won the eight-team preliminary round by defeating, among others, Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic. They once again defeated the Czechs in the quarters and then blanked a strong USA squad in the semis (the same USA which outclassed Russia 8-3 in their quarter-final) before falling to the host Swedes in the final.
The elation in Switzerland following that silver medal can be compared to how to the Germans feel today. The team was received by the masses at the Zurich airport upon their return from Stockholm and there was even a stamp issued to commemorate the achievement. There was a general feeling in Switzerland that now the country was on equal footing with hockey’s superpowers.
For whatever reason – and this will not be analyzed here – the Swiss national team was not able to sustain or grow on the 2013 success. In the following IIHF men’s events, including the 2014 Olympics, the Swiss placed 10th, 11th, 8th, 11th, 6th and now 10th in Korea 2018. The joy from Stockholm 2013 wore off fast.
Germany should learn from this. One great tournament is no guarantee of continued success. And the challenge with hockey is that there is no resting on the laurels. Coming up in May is the World Championship in Denmark. The teams who failed in Korea will be eager to redeem themselves in Copenhagen and Herning.
So while the PR people and promoters work hard on maximizing the effects from the Olympic silver success, the hockey people must work with reality. The biggest challenge should not be to think short-term and focus everything on a repeat in Copenhagen in May, but rather to address the challenges within the German hockey system – mainly youth development.
Although we all loved the German team in Pyeongchang, it had the average age of 29. Some key players are well in their 30s. Germany needs a new generation of young stars. Thanks to the result in Korea, Germany hopped over Switzerland in the IIHF men’s World Ranking to 7th place.
But among the top eight nations in the World Ranking, Germany is the lone one that does not have a team in the elite pools of either the IIHF’s under-20 or under-18 divisions. In the U20 World Juniors, Germany finished 3rd in Division 1A, which can be translated to a 13th place in the world. And in the last U18 Worlds event on the same Division-1 level, Germany ended up 5th which gives an indication that their junior program is quite a step away from the top nations.
And these are your players of tomorrow.
But for now, the entire German hockey community should be enormously proud of what was accomplished in the Far East. They say that there are bronze winners, but silver losers. The men’s Olympic hockey final was an exception. Germany – and German hockey – were silver winners.
Photo: Seven Red Bull München players, including goaltender Danny Aus den Birken, won silver medals for Team Germany in Pyeonchang. (Tom Hiller - www.ht-solutions.ch)