No playwright, not even the young boxing enthusiast Brecht, who moved from Augsburg to revolutionize the theater world in East Berlin, would have dared this draft. Totally over engineered. But that’s the plot: On the 42nd matchday of the Germans ice Hockey Liga (DEL), the Eisbären Berlin, the record champions and defending champions from the east, will play in Friedrichshain against the Augsburger Panthers, one of five permanent founding members of the league. It is the 113th duel between the two clubs. “If someone had told me in the summer that we were one place behind Berlin in mid-January, I would have gone for it,” said Augsburg goalkeeper Dennis Endras. The problem: after two thirds of the season, the polar bears are 13th in the table, ahead of Augsburg and bottom Bietigheim. And because two teams from the DEL are likely to have to be relegated this season, this duel is a key game between good and bad. Berlin won the first duel 3:2.
A drama from three perspectives.
Lothar Sigl, 65, is the managing partner of the Augsburger Panther. In the 1980s, the innkeeper and his clique were in the Curt Frenzel Stadium week after week, and when the Augsburger Eislaufverein (AEV) went bankrupt, the innkeeper took over the business in 1987. Sigl first led the traditional club from the third division into the second division and in 1994 into the newly founded one DEL. Now, 36 years after Sigl’s entry, Augsburg could be relegated to the DEL2 as another founding member of the league after Krefeld last season. It didn’t look like that at the start of the season.
Under new coach Peter Russell – the first Scottish head coach in DEL history – the Panthers started with three defeats and three wins. Not satisfactory, but not worrying either. However, by the time the Germany Cup was taken off in November, they had suffered nine defeats in a row. Main shareholder Sigl gave an interview on the club’s website, the separation from Russell seemed inevitable, he said: “In the end, the coach is the weakest link.” But he left Russell in office. “It was with great conviction that we decided in favor of him in the summer, and we’re not throwing everything overboard just yet.” Perhaps it also played a role that the Swabians, as the Scot Russell stated with amusement at the beginning of the season, were “perhaps even more stingy” than his compatriots. The day before Christmas Eve, however, it was premature for Russell. Kai Suikkanen, 63, a firefighter from Finland, took over – after Mark Pederson, Serge Pelletier and Russell, the fourth head coach within a calendar year in Augsburg.
For a club that made it to the final in 2010 under Larry Mitchell (seven years in charge) and into the Champions League for the first time under Mike Stewart (four years), an alarming turnover. “Someone always makes a mistake and then we collapse like a house of cards,” says Sigl. Most recently, the Panthers even gave up projections of three or four goals several times. “You all want that,” says Sigl, “you can’t blame anyone for that.” And there are still 19 games to play, there are still 57 points to be won…
And what if it’s not enough? Sigl avoids the word descent. He says: “Then it was an accident. And we will do everything we can to repair it as soon as possible. I don’t want to leave the farm like this.”
Benne Kopp, 54, is chairman of the 1st AEV fan club and a member of the fan advisory board. His e-mail address contains the year 1878 – the founding year of the Augsburg Ice Skating Club. He has been going to the stadium for 40 years, he knows the times when the AEV was lost in the Oberliga, but also when the club was in the final of the German championship. In 2019 they toured Europe in the Champions League. And wherever they went, they left a trail of affection. Die-hard Northern Irish fans in Belfast spontaneously fraternized with the singing and partying Swabians, the Swedes in Luleå didn’t even know what happened to them when 1000 Augsburgers took over the acoustic sovereignty in the Coop Norrbotten Arena. “We had great times,” says Kopp. “And we’re going to get out now.” The loyalty of the fans is statistically verifiable. Augsburg has the highest stadium utilization of the DEL, more than 85 percent. Three of the last four home games were sold out – despite ten defeats, some of them grotesque, in 18 home games. Defeats like those against Nuremberg, when the Panthers led up to 23 seconds before the final siren. Then they conceded the 3:3 and after five (!) seconds of overtime the 3:4. Or the game in Wolfsburg: The Panthers led 4:0, 5:1, 6:2 – and caught 0.4 seconds before the end to make it 6:6. Against Iserlohn, the Panther fans were silent until the first commercial break. A banner read: “Earn this curve!” Kopp says: “The active scene, all fan clubs, wanted to set an example. It was our last chance.” The followers are still loyal, “that will not change”.
And what if it’s not enough? “The word with an A doesn’t appear among the fans,” says Kopp. “I’ll never put that in my mouth.”
Dennis Endras, 37, is an idol in Augsburg. In 2010, the Panthers made it into the DEL final for the only time with the goalkeeper, who came from the second division. When Endras returned in the summer after eleven years in North America, in Finland and in Mannheim with two German championship titles, the euphoria was great: Many in the Curt Frenzel Stadium are still wearing jerseys from the 2009/10 season with the Endras name. On this Thursday afternoon, the native of the Allgäu is sitting on the bus to Berlin and says: “I see nothing.” That would be a horrendous description of the overall situation, but Endras means nothing literally: “We’re driving through the pampas right now.” He always flew to Berlin with Mannheim, the seven-time champion. But Endras knew what he was doing in the summer, he wanted to settle down at home for the time after the last leg of his career. Now, he says, many are afraid of the future. “There’s a lot of heart and soul in it, with the spectators, the people in the club, the players. If I have to play somewhere in front of 1,500 people, then my heart bleeds. Augsburg belongs in the DEL.” There is a lot of encouragement from the league, from colleagues and competitors, almost always saying: It would be a shame if… But everyone can read the table: “It’s no coincidence. You can say the word relegation.” They would all like to stay in Augsburg and continue playing in the DEL. “But the pressure isn’t getting any smaller.”
And if it’s not enough in the end? “That’s the big question,” says Endras.