Germany’s performance in the men’s ice hockey at PyeongChang 2018 captured imaginations and boosted the sport’s popularity back home. Patrick Hager talks us through that remarkable February – and how Germany can get even better over the next decade in an international sport it is not famous for.
It might be a cliché to talk about German efficiency – but sometimes, the clichés are true. “We were almost like robots out there on the ice,” said Patrick Hager, reflecting on his team’s extraordinary run to the final of the men’s ice hockey competition at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “Everyone was staying within the system. It is a classic German thing, we get our system and we stick to it from the first to the last minute. It is what England are always the most scared of when they play our soccer team. It’s not like we are too extraordinary. We have some really good guys. But we were just solid and strong. We had chemistry.
“In any team sport, you can’t win through individuals. You might win a game thanks to an individual, but you don’t go all the way. We were so balanced over the four lines. Nobody was getting mad at each other. Everyone stood up for each other.”
Germany’s journey to winning silver was one of the standout stories of the Games. Ranked ninth in the table after the preliminary matches, it then recorded a remarkable run of results, defeating the major hockey nation of Sweden in the quarter-finals before slaying the ice giants of Canada – reigning champions from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 – in the semis. While Germany could not quite finish the job, losing in overtime to Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR), that amazing February in the Republic of Korea captured the imagination of Germany’s hockey fans – and has given the sport there a major boost.
“I grew up around the game because my dad played professionally too, but of course no sport beats football in Germany,” Hager said. “But it is not small. Hockey is on the map, especially in the south. In the north, handball is popular, and basketball is big, too. So those three sports really are fighting behind football. Where I’m from, Rosenheim, hockey is number one. And over the last decade, we have had nice arenas and more fans for our sport.
“What has also increased the profile and the market of our sport is our young guys getting drafted into the NHL in America and Canada. We’ve had Leon Draisaitl at the Edmonton Oilers becoming the athlete of the year in the NHL, and many people think he is the best player in the world. That’s a big deal for German hockey. Now everyone in Germany knows him so it’s great for our sport to have a role model. We can push forward even more.”
While the absence of NHL players – including Draisaitl – at PyeongChang 2018 clearly affected some of the top nations’ squads, it should not detract from Germany’s achievement. “Sure, because the NHL stars didn’t come, we knew there might be a possibility for surprises before the Olympics, and we made the most of it,” Hager said. “But if you look at the rosters of the likes of Canada, they were very, very good. A lot of players had long NHL careers, or they’d gone to Europe for the year to play so they could get to the Olympics, so they were very tough teams.
“We didn’t think about a medal before the Olympics but what was different was we felt we had a good chance of beating any country on any particular night. We had all played club teams from Finland and Sweden, so we knew their players, and we had a positive attitude. There was a spirit in the team to get more out of ourselves.
“When we lost 1-0 to Sweden early on, we knew we could have won that game if we’d put our chances in. Then we battled Norway to a shootout win. After that, it was showtime. We got better with each game, and we started to feel we could go all the way.”
The wild knockout run began, with the cast-iron mentality standing firm. “We had moments where we would bend a little bit against the big teams, but we wouldn’t break,” Hager said. “We had the right guys at the right moment. Our goaltender was very strong, but the team was balanced from No.1 to No.25. We had that chemistry, built up over years, almost like a club team because we knew each other’s games so well.
“We got a feeling when we started to win. We weren’t satisfied to lose. A few years ago, Germany might have thought: ‘We’ve lost to a big hockey country’. But now we are pissed off to lose. We had a drive. So we had this extra push against Switzerland, Sweden and then Canada. We played an unreal first period, we played some incredible hockey and also had a bit of luck on our stick. We scored a couple of crazy goals and shocked them. Then, in the end, they pushed and pressed, but we got through the time. It was a special feeling, to beat Canada. The locker room afterwards was crazy.”
Disappointment, alas, would follow. “We were riding a wave, and it broke 55 seconds too early in the final,” Hager said, describing the moment when OAR equalised with less than one minute of the third period left, sending the match into sudden-death overtime. “You’ll always look back on losing in overtime. But now, we can remember the semi-final more than the final. We won silver, and that can’t be a negative. We understood what we had accomplished very quickly. That is what sport is all about. You’re dumb if you don’t accept you have achieved something great. They will be great memories forever.”
Hager also believes that the spirit of PyeongChang can be taken forward to Beijing 2022 and future Olympic Games. “When we called home, people would tell us that Germans were setting their alarm clocks to watch matches in the early hours of the morning, or partying through and watching them. We were the first item on the German sports news, when normally hockey is after ten minutes of football.
“Interest is growing. We have new junior programmes, and more young German players are being drafted to Canada and the USA. For Beijing, a lot of guys with NHL experience can be a part of our team and, over the next generation, we can get towards a team with almost all the players being from the top league. Then we might consistently beat the top nations. It’s a process, but it’s moving in the right direction. Nothing is impossible.”
Might they go one better in 2022? It may depend on their star player attending – but the unit, as ever, will be key. “With a player like Leon Draisaitl, a good squad and a good goalie, you never know what might happen,” Hager said. “We aren’t going to say we are favourites, but we aren’t going to be happy to just go and take part, either.”