The GDR Objectified is pleased to have contributed a piece to the Sunday, November 9th edition of the Toronto Star on the remarkable career of East German hockey icon Dieter Frenzel. You can read this article at:
For more detail on Dieter Frenzel’s career, below the first of two blog posts on the subject that will appear on the blog over the coming days.
With the start of this year’s NHL season now upon us,
here is an incredible hockey story with a GDR angle.
It’s almost too amazing to believe, but it’s all true!
In the 1980s, the Edmonton Oilers were hockey’s gold standard. Between 1983 and 1990, the team built around young phenom Wayne Gretzky played the game with a level of skill and intensity that rivals usually found impossible to match and were rewarded for it with pro hockey’s biggest prize, the Stanley Cup, a remarkable five times. It’s hard to imagine anyone who was playing the game in those days not wanting to be on that team (well, at least anyone who wasn’t from Calgary!).
Given this, you would forgive Dieter Frenzel if he were bitter about having had just such a chance taken from him by East German authorities. But amazingly, he’s not.
Between 1972 and 1990, Frenzel patrolled the blue line for his club, Dynamo Berlin, and the East German national team. For much of this time, he captained both squads and made a name for himself in the hockey world as a rugged, offensive minded defenceman thanks to a number of standout performances at World Ice Hockey Championships. He left a particular impression with the Edmonton Oilers and in 1983 the team tabled an offer for Frenzel to East German sporting authorities. The Oilers offered the GDR regime a $1 million dollar transfer fee, a considerable sum at the time, and were prepared to give Frenzel himself a three year contract at $1 million a year. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but one authorities refused to let him take. In fact, Frenzel only heard about the offer years later in the fall of 1989 when East Germany had begun to crumble, but more on that later . . .
Asked about whether he has any regrets about not being able to lace up along side the likes of such hockey legends as Gretzky, Messier, Kurri and Coffey, the 58-year old smirks and makes reference to his current occupation, owner of a shoe boutique in central Dresden: “If things had worked out in Canada, I wouldn’t have the chance to sell shoes today.”
A Brief History of Hockey in the GDR: The World’s Smallest League
It’s hard to find anything nice to say about Erich Mielke. As the man in charge of the Stasi, the GDR’s notorious secret police, Mielke was a central figure in the systems of repression that kept East Germans under the thumb of the ruling Socialist Unity Party and a man responsible for considerable human suffering and, in some cases, worse.
But one nice thing you could justifiably say about Erich Mielke is that he did save East German ice hockey.
Sport in the GDR was a highly political matter. For the Party and state leadership, the country’s athletes were considered “diplomats in track suits” whose job it was to buff East Germany’s international image by climbing the podium at such high profile competitions as Olympic Games and world championships. This goal in turn drove the decisions around which sports and athletes would receive state support. Naturally, Olympic disciplines were favoured over all else and resources were funnelled primarily to those where GDR athletes stood the greatest likelihood of winning a medal. After 1969, this practice intensified dramatically with the result that “low reward” sporting disciplines had almost all of their funding eliminated and saw their athletes barred from participating in international competitions.
Ice hockey came under fire as part of this trend. Between 1948 and 1968, GDR ice hockey had developed to occupy a modest, but significant place in the country’s sporting landscape. The sport had two national leagues, a first and second division, with the top tier made up of between eight and ten teams spread throughout the Republic. However, in 1969 the State Secretary for Sport, Rudolph Hellmann, argued that “We need every mark (GDR currency, ed.) to carry out the construction of socialism. In order to run our ice hockey activities each year, we need to spend funds that would buy two deep sea freezer ships. I ask you, fellow sportsmen, what do we need more urgently: ice hockey or fishing ships?” (Michael Lachmann: “Der Staat braucht Kühlschiffe statt Eishockey…” Die Geschichte der DDR-Oberligameisterschaften. In: André Haase und andere: Wellblechpalastgeschichte(n). Die etwas andere Chronik des EHC Eisbären Berlin. Berlin: Jeske/Mader, 1997) This line of argumentation carried the day and the teams were dissolved. Well most of them, anyway.
The GDR’s two top hockey teams at the time were the Dynamo squads in Berlin and Weisswasser. Both were “sponsored” by the Ministry for State Security and its director, Erich Mielke, was a big fan. When he got word of the decision to shut down the leagues, Mielke simply refused to go along with it. And Mielke being who he was, no one stood up to him. So it was that from 1970 to 1990, East German ice hockey was reduced to the two Dynamo teams playing in what has been called “the smallest league in the world” (Die kleinste Liga der Welt, Hockeyweb.de, July 24, 2014).
Dieter Frenzel and Dynamo Berlin
Ice hockey was a fringe sport in the East Germany of the 1950s, but it was no surprise that Dieter Frenzel ended up playing the game. His father Hans was one of the founding members of SC Dynamo Berlin team in 1954 and Frenzel recalls accompanying his father to the rink as a young boy: “I must’ve been about 3 or 4 when he took me for the first time (1956 or 1957, ed.). Of course in those days there were no hockey skates in my size, so I started with a pair of figure skates that had the toe picks ground off. I joined the Dynamo youth teams as soon as I could and made my way up over the years.” (Interview with Dieter Frenzel, April 3, 2014)
Frenzel made his debut with Dynamo Berlin’s first team in 1972 as a 17-year old, three years after GDR hockey had been reduced to just two teams. To fill their schedule, the Dynamos in Berlin and Weisswasser would play exhibition games against club teams, typically from neighbouring East Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia or Poland. However, the highlight of each year were the twelve games the teams played against each other to determine the GDR championship with the winner representing the country in the European Cup, the continent’s highest club competition. Naturally the rivalry grew and grew over the years and Frenzel remembers real enthusiasm from fans: “There was a lot of interest in those games. When we played in Weisswasser [at their open air rink, ed.] there were 11 or 12 thousand fans there. In Berlin, we could get 4 or 5 thousand could into the arena [at Dynamo’s training ground in Hohenschönhausen, ed.]. The games could be very, very hard and things got heated sometimes. That’s the way it is with hockey. When Berlin played against Weisswasser,” he laughs, “it was always a fight to the finish!” And during Frenzel’s time with the team, it was a fight that Berlin usually won. During his 17 years at Dynamo, the team took the title 12 times and even managed a third place finish in the 1984 European Cup.
For Frenzel the European Cup competitions were a particular highlight of his career, “When you think that there were fifty ice hockey players in the entire GDR, it was a super success for our clubs to compete with the best in Europe and finish in the top 8 or 10 as we often did.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014) Over Frenzel’s career with Dynamo, he played 140 games for the team, scored more goals than any other defenceman in club history (62) and in 2004 even had his number 5 retired by the Berlin Polar Bears, Dynamo’s successor club.
As a player with SC Dynamo, Frenzel was essentially a professional athlete but technically he was an employee of the team’s sponsor, Ministry for State Security, an organization which included both the People’s and Secret Police (Stasi). Like all the other players, Frenzel held a police rank as a matter of course (he eventually rose to captain) and while the arrangement may raise some eyebrows today, there are clear parallels between it and how some athletes are supported these days. Indeed in many countries (including today’s Germany) it is not unusual for Olympic athletes to be employed by customs, border security or police forces while they continue their athletic training. Typically, they receive job-related training over and above their athletic workouts with the understanding that they will take on employment within the agency or organization at the end of their sporting career.
Day-to-day life as a Dynamo athlete meant training under professional conditions on the grounds of the Sportforum complex in East Berlin’s Hohenschönhausen district. Here the hockey players would work out alongside Dynamo’s other athletes: “At Dynamo Berlin we had really good shot-putters, discus throwers, boxers, sprinters, rowers, everything. That was one of the good things about the Sportforum: we could watch how the athletes from the other disciplines trained. As a hockey player you need it all: strength, stamina, speed, coordination, so there you could borrow ideas from the others and that was super.”
“We got three weeks holiday a year. Otherwise we worked out six days a week, three times a day,” explains Frenzel. “Altogether, we would train something like five hours a day, but that would include regeneration activities like massage and sauna.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014)
Alongside his sporting duties, Frenzel also pursued college studies in his later years at Dynamo, taking courses in a program for Staatswissenschaft, a kind of practically-oriented political science degree. “It would have qualified me to be a mayor or something like that. It’s always important to keep your head engaged. As an athlete, you have to think ahead. At that point, no one expected the Wall to fall, so you had to see what the options were. But continuing education was typical in the GDR and that was OK. There were players on my team who were studying law or economics, anything.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014)
Retirement Not An Option: 1989 and Ice Hockey in West Germany
By the spring of 1989, Frenzel was beginning to feel the wear and tear of his athletic career. Still on the standard three-weeks of holiday, he went to his superiors at the People’s Police to ask for a week or two more, but they refused.
“So I told them that I was going to retire,” says Frenzel. “But they didn’t want to let me do that either. I stuck to my guns and said, ‘Look, either I get more vacation, or I’m done.’ They agreed that I could retire, but told me that if I did, I wouldn’t get a job with Dynamo. Someone with my experience would normally have gotten work with one of the youth teams or an office job.
When I heard that, I went to the chairman of the Club and said, ‘Listen, I’ve busted my hump for over twenty years, given it my all and my boss at the Police is telling me that there’s no job for me. The chairman listened and said, ‘You’ll get a job, even if we have to make one for you.’ So that was in May ’89 and I retired.
But I said to myself, ‘you’re 35′, stay in shape’, so I kept working out a bit. And then things started happening in the GDR, with the demonstrations and that sort of thing. Then came the Wende and as things were progressing [in the fall, ed.] I started getting these phone calls from the other side [West Germany, ed.]: ‘Could you imagine coming to play for us? We know you’re retired, but we’d like to have you join us.’ This went back and forth for a while, so I went back to the Club chairman and told him that I had this interest. And he could see the writing on the wall and said to me, ‘Listen, this here [the GDR, ed] isn’t going to last too long, let’s see if we can make this happen.’
. . . So the owners of the West German team [EC Ratingen] came to East Berlin to negotiate a deal, they had to get the GDR hockey officials to sign off on the transfer. So they negotiated a transfer fee and a deal on how my salary would be paid. It meant that the GDR hockey federation got most of the hard currency, but the team owner and the Dynamo chairman both knew the GDR wasn’t long for this world, so we signed it.”
But when Frenzel appeared to add his signature to the contract that made him the first East German athlete to legally be allowed to play in the Western world, he was in for a shock. “When I signed the transfer documents, an official from the Ministry of the Interior told me that the they had received an offer for me from the NHL in 1983. I was absolutely stunned.” (Bild Dresden, January 3, 2011) It was an offer from the Oilers, but as Frenzel relates, the extent to which he had been robbed of the chance of a lifetime wasn’t clear to him at that point: “I didn’t really know anything about the NHL then. We couldn’t see those games in Germany at that time, so I had no idea of the importance hockey had, especially in Canada. Of course to have played for a team like the Oilers would have been the greatest experience any hockey player could wish for, but I only realized this after I went to my first NHL game years after the fall of the Wall.” (email from D. Frenzel to author, Oct. 23, 2014).
That Frenzel could’ve thrived in the NHL game is not put into doubt by those who saw him play. Joachim Ziesche, the only East German inductee into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame and Frenzel’s long time coach with both Dynamo and the national team, states that Frenzel “was one of the most talented defenceman of his time, not just in the GDR or Germany, but in all of Europe.” (phone interview with author, October 29, 2014)
Jim Corsi, now the goaltending coach with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, frequently tangled with Frenzel and the GDR team at World Championships in the 1980s when he played goal with the Italian national team. He is convinced that Frenzel would have had no difficulty making the leap to the NHL: “I can see why [the Oilers] were interested in him. Frenzel may have been a total unknown, but he was as strong and solid as any top NHL defenceman. He had that Denis Potvin-type of shot, was a great puck mover and he skated like the wind. There’s no question in my mind that he’d have fit in with the ’83 Oilers.” Indeed, Corsi recalls warning new players to the Italian team about Frenzel when facing the GDR team. “I told my teammates, ‘They’ve got a guy who should be playing in the NHL.’ And after we played them, everyone would agree.'” (phone interview with author, October 29, 2014)
But in November 1989, there was no time for Frenzel to dwell on the opportunity missed and instead he headed West to play in the West German Hockey League with EC Ratingen. “As an ‘import’ player” he adds with a shake of his head.
Frenzel would end up playing three years for EC Ratingen in both the 1st and 2nd divisions of the German hockey league. He tacked on three more seasons with other clubs before retiring from his playing career in 1996.
The story of Frenzel’s chance with the Oilers circulated through German hockey circles as a rumour for many years. In 2010, two friends of his took it upon themselves to see whether they could find out if the story was true. They contacted the Oilers and the team’s then general manager Glen Sather and he confirmed that the the Oilers had indeed been interested in adding Frenzel to their lineup. As a sporting gesture, Sather agreed to get an Oilers’ jersey signed by all of Frenzel’s “would’ve been” teammates at their next reunion and a couple months later Frenzel was presented with this one-of-a-kind jersey to mark the chapter in his career that should have been.
After retiring as an active player, Frenzel coached until early in the 2000s after which time he turned his attention to business. He’s continued his links to Dynamo’s successor club, the Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears) and in addition having his #5 retired by the club, he occasionally laces up the skates to participate in oldtimers’ games with former teammates and the like. During our conversation, he makes frequent reference to friendships he still has with old teammates and opponents around the world, from Canada to Russia and beyond, so it’s clear that hockey and the experiences Frenzel had playing the game continue to be an important part of his life.
Next week, GDR Objectified will look at Dieter Frenzel’s accomplished international career as a key member of the GDR’s national hockey team.
Special thanks to Dr. Berno Bahro at the University of Potsdam
for his assistance in the researching of this post!