When Team Canada won the Deutschland Cup in November, three of the players celebrating the victory were former Elmira Sugar Kings.
Derek Hahn scored in the dying seconds of Canada’s 3-0 win over Switzerland in the second round. Jamie Wright logged an assist in Canada’s medal-winning shutout of Germany in the final. And Rob Collins, top scorer for the Mid-Western Junior Hockey League in 1997/98, was also named to the roster but unable to play because of injury.
The team was made up of Canadians playing professionally in Germany. Hahn and Wright are teammates on the Frankfurt Lions, one of 16 teams in the top-tier Deutsche Eishockey Liga, or DEL.
This is Hahn’s second season with the Lions; the 31-year-old forward began his European career playing for Rodovre in Denmark, then moved to Germany.
Born and raised in Elmira, Hahn’s background is German. His last name means “rooster,” and he was delighted to discover a Hahn beer in Germany, complete with a picture of a rooster on the label.
Hahn played for the Kings in ‘96/‘97, the year the team won the Sutherland Cup. He said winning the cup is his fondest memory of his days from the Sugar Kings.
“We had a great group of guys on that team and being from Elmira really made it special,” he said in an e-mail.
Rob Collins was also a member of that winning team. Now Hahn faces off against the centre for the DEG Metro Stars of Dusseldorf.
One of the best parts of playing in the Deutschland Cup was meeting a bunch of other Canadians and finding out where everyone was from, Hahn said. The list of hometowns on the DEL’s rosters reads like a geography lesson: North Battleford, Red Deer, Thunder Bay, Chilliwack, Sherbrooke, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Sioux Lookout.
Fully one-quarter of players in the DEL are Canadian. Clubs are allowed to carry up to 12 foreign players, with 10 playing any given night. There are a handful of Europeans – Swedes, Norwegians, Czechs – and a sprinkling of Americans, but the vast majority of foreign players are Canadian.
The number of fellow Canadians – and the fact that English is common in a city the size of Frankfurt – helped ease the transition, Hahn said.
North American players who cross the Atlantic to Europe have to get used to playing on a larger ice surface (15 feet wider) and a faster, more controlled game with less contact and less dump-and-chase. But hockey in the DEL is the closest thing to North American hockey, Hahn believes, thanks in part to the influx of Canadian and American players.
Some Germans are critical of the number of foreigners in the league, blaming them for a lack of opportunities for German players. But clubs are at a disadvantage without imports; Canadians make up 15 of the top 20 scorers and half of the top goalies in the DEL.
And controversy broke out in November 2007 when the DEL announced plans to reintroduce promotion to the league. Promotion would give the top team in the lower-tier 2nd Bundesliga a chance to move up, by challenging one of the lowest-ranked teams in the DEL. Critics argued the 2nd Bundesliga teams would placed at an unfair disadvantage because they can carry only five foreign players.
Many of those North American players, like Hahn’s teammate Jamie Wright, come to the DEL with NHL or AHL experience under their belts, drawn by the prospect of more ice time and the chance to keep playing longer. There’s also a financial incentive: clubs in Germany and Russia in particular have the deep pockets to lure North American players overseas.
Wright played 44 games with the Calgary Flames in 2001/02, but just four games with the Philadelphia Flyers in ‘02/03. The following two seasons he played only in the AHL.
“I came to Europe because I knew I was not going to get another chance in the NHL and I didn’t want to play in the AHL anymore,” Wright wrote in an e-mail.
Wright is also an Elmira native. He tried out for the Kings as a defenceman when he was 15 and was cut. A week later he was called back to play forward and made the team.
“I think we only won seven games my first year and 14 my second year, but I would say the best memory was the song that was played after we scored. The lyrics from the Oakridge Boys song ‘Elvira’ were turned into Elmira.”
Hockey isn’t the national passion in Germany the way it is in Canada – it lags behind sports like soccer and handball – but the Lions have a dedicated fan base, Wright said.
“The fans we do get are fanatics and are similar to soccer fans: drums, singing and cheering the whole game.”
Although he returns to Elmira every summer, Wright has no intentions of moving back to play hockey.
“My days in North America are done. I really enjoy the European lifestyle and game.”