Following the German Example – A Good Thing for British Hockey?

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Nottingham Panthers fan and former resident of Düsseldorf Ian Braisby examines if the German hockey fan experience can be transplanted into the UK.

Since the Panthers’ recent game in Hamburg, which saw a wonderful atmosphere from both sets of fans, there has been a lot of talk around about trying to bring some of what happens in German hockey arenas over to the UK. Last night’s home game against Fife Flyers saw an initial attempt by a group of fans to get together in a vacant area of the arena to try and generate additional atmosphere. Hard to say how successful it was, numbers were not huge and, let’s be honest, the game and performance were not exactly the most inspirational, but full credit to them for doing it, and it’s the kind of thing that could grow in future weeks and months.

But what is it that makes the atmosphere so different at German games? How easy is it to transfer it to the UK? And what about the downside? That’s what this article aims to explore.

Firstly, let’s get this straight, there is no doubt at all that watching hockey in Germany can be a fantastic experience. The fans are noisy, with loads of loud chanting and singing, there is often a great atmosphere and, especially in the big DEL arenas, the match-night presentation is spot on. I love watching the DEL, just as I loved watching the old Bundesliga when I lived in Germany back in the 1990s. For people who are used to the UK hockey experience, which is very family-friendly and sanitised in comparison, witnessing a German hockey atmosphere is a wonderful experience and does leave you wishing our hockey could be that way.

However, not all games in Germany are like that. Certainly big games like the CHL are, key domestic fixtures and, of course, derby games. But let’s not kid ourselves, there are plenty of boring DEL games where the atmosphere is no more lively than your average match at the NIC or any other UK venue. So that’s the first thing – you can’t judge just on a few “special event” experiences. Also, just as here, there are different kinds of fans, those who like to get involved and those that like to sit, watch and soak up the whole match night.

Nevertheless, it is certainly true to say that there is more chanting and singing from fans in Germany than in the UK as a general rule. There are a variety of reasons for this. The first is cultural. It may sound like a sweeping generalisation, but there is a much stronger tradition of communal singing in Germany than in the UK. It’s a fact, and is reflected in sport. It’s just part of the culture, from Bavarian beer halls to Rhineland wine taverns to hockey arenas. There are songs and tunes that everybody knows and has sung at gatherings of all kinds since childhood. These are often the tunes that are used in an adapted form by sports fans. Let’s give an example – the build-up to the teams’ entrance in Düsseldorf is not music blasted over the PA system, it is a local drinking/city pride song that is nothing to do with hockey, but every single person in the arena stands to sing it and every single person knows all the words. This kind of thing is common in Germany, but very rare here.

The second reason is that German hockey arenas have terraces, which is something we have never had in the UK. As football supporters have repeatedly complained since the advent of all-seater stadia after Hillsborough, terraces tend to create a better atmosphere. It’s true in football – I think the atmosphere at Bundesliga games is far superior to that in the Premier League – and it’s also true in hockey. Can you replicate that by simply standing in a block? You can try, but terrace culture is something that is hard to create artificially.

Then we need to look at the overall fan and hockey culture in Germany. The first element is that hockey is a far more established sport than in the UK, and many of the teams have been around for generations (in one form or another, even if not as DEL franchises with English names). This leads to a stronger identification between fans and team, and between team and city, all of which breeds a more passionate and vocal kind of support. The use of local or regional songs and even team songs comes in very strongly here. The UK is a big contrast. Even old gits like me have only been watching for 30-odd years, the vast majority of people in the NIC for a much shorter time than that. I’d say there is a much lower proportion of people in German arenas who are there for a pleasant family night out. There’s also a tradition of gathering before games – either in public squares in the city or, as used to happen in Düsseldorf on Sunday afternoons, in the main railway station – for a bit of chanting and singing, before heading off together to the game. This is something else that has no parallel in the UK and to be honest I can’t see it developing, it’s just not “the English way of doing things”.

What you might be seeing from all of these factors is that it is hard to compare German and English fans. Overall, the German hockey fan culture is far closer to what we would be familiar with in football in this country. When we go to play European games against German teams or have their fans visiting, we only see the great support in the stadium, but there is a negative side too. If hundreds of Panthers fans decided to start gathering en masse in the Market Square on Saturday teatimes to chant, sing then march down to the arena, how would this be perceived by the good folk of Nottingham? What would happen to the Panthers’ generally very positive image in the city? More practically, who would pay for the policing that would be needed? I know from experience in Germany that non-hockey folk could find these public fan gatherings quite intimidating.

Then you have the issue of what happens when rival domestic teams play each other. In UK hockey we have banter, we have rivalry but by and large fans of different teams can mix freely with no problems. When Düsseldorf play Cologne (a match that makes Panthers’ claims that us and Steelers is the biggest rivalry in Europe look ridiculous), fans are segregated, with wire around the away blocks to keep them apart and prevent items being thrown. Do we really want that? Yes, DEG (OK, the Metro Stars to give them their proper modern title) vs. Sharks is a bit of a special case and not all DEL games are like that, but there is definitely more “edge” between rival fans than we are used to. And what about the atmosphere inside the arena in those games? Again, football terraces is a fairly accurate comparison. Bad language is commonplace, whether directed at rival fans, players or officials. I’ve seen a young kid sitting on his dad’s shoulders aiming obscene gestures at opposing supporters and getting a “that’s my boy” look from his father, and smiles and congratulations from those around. While I feel the UK’s “family-friendly” approach goes way too far for a sporting event (you’re expected to behave in the same way as you would at the pantomime for god’s sake), I’m not sure I’d want things to be quite like they are in Germany either. Half the crowd would get chucked out under the current rules anyway.

As I hope you can see, as with any issue in life, there are positive and negative arguments. What I don’t want is to discourage anyone who has seen the German fans’ support and been inspired by it to try and create a more passionate atmosphere in our own arena, because I think it’s something we badly need. What I do want is for people to remember that you can’t just transfer things from one country to another, when so many things about the sport and the culture are different. At the same time, we need to remember the things that are great about our club and our domestic hockey – the Panthers’ long traditions and reputation as a loyal fanbase, the great banter and rivalries we do have, and the fact that fans of different teams can mix safely at events like our fantastic Play Off Finals Weekend. What we really need is to take on board the best elements from elsewhere and mix them with what we already have to create something that is distinctively ours, not a diluted copy of somebody else.

Finally, let me say all power to those who want to bring some German-style singing and chanting to the NIC and let me offer a couple of tips from my experiences in Germany. Keep the songs and chants simple, only a few words that are easy for anyone to learn and repeated often, as this is the only way to get large numbers of reserved British people to join in. Using well-known tunes also helps with that – think about how much German “chanting” is basically singing a tune and shouting the team name at the end (as we do with the Great Escape). In other words, to spread around the arena it’s got to be something that is inclusive, not a clique where only the chosen few know the words and tunes. All the best and let’s make the NIC truly a formidable home venue.

Just for your enjoyment, here’s a full stadium drinking song rendition from the last game at Düsseldorf’s much missed old arena (and yes I do know all the words, including the second verse that they don’t sing in this clip!):

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