Last week I wrote about the club career of Dieter Frenzel, one of the best hockey players to play in the German Democratic Republic. Frenzel was a key player on the SC Dynamo Berlin team that won the East German title 12 of the 17 years he played for them, but he was also the leader of the country’s national team, and his experiences with this team make up this week’s post.
Any visitor to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada would be forgiven for thinking that East Germany had never played a role of any significance in the history of the sport. A stroll through an exhibit on world hockey which presents jerseys and some basic statistics on some of the more exotic national teams includes no mention of the GDR’s accomplishments in the international game. Mentions of the German hockey during the Cold War era are limited to the West German team and when I relate my experience to Dieter Frenzel, he shakes his head: “There were jerseys for a couple of our players there. Joachim Ziesche [the only East German inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, ed. note] gave them to them, so that’s too bad. For almost forty years we were among the top 8 teams in the world and they’ve completely forgotten about us.” (Interview, Dieter Frenzel, April 3, 2014) The issue it seems is that the East German players’ records have never been recognized by the (West) German Ice Hockey Association, now the sole administrator of German hockey records. As a point of comparison, GDR soccer players have had their statistics incorporated into the official record books of German soccer, likely as a result of team members contributions to the country’s 1990 World Cup victory, but nothing of the sort happened for ice hockey. Naturally this is a sore spot for Frenzel: “That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The only place where we GDR players can be found in the record books is with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). That’s it. Not in the German records, not in the other international records. Nothing. It’s as if we never existed.”
Ice Hockey as the Exception: Money Talks
That East Germany did in fact “exist” in the world of international hockey, however, was a more than a bit remarkable. Hockey was not a priority sport in the GDR and this meant that it received relatively few resources. As discussed in last week’s post, this status led to the dissolution of the East German hockey league in 1969, but unlike other sporting disciplines out of favour with authorities, the GDR’s national hockey team was permitted to field a team in international competitions such as the annual World Championships (not, however, the Olympics where chances of a medal we’re deemed too remote to warrant the costs of sending the team). Frenzel explained this reason for this exception to me this way: “When we played at a world championships or in an exhibition game in Switzerland, Sweden or some place like that, the team would receive a performance fee. At a world championships, the winner might receive two million, the second place so much and so on . . . For the state, this was a source of income and they’d take the money to do something else with. Or sometimes, they’d give it to the Sport Association who’d then pass it on to the speed skaters or something like that.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014). So, as was so often the case elsewhere in GDR society, economics dictated the practice and so the national hockey team was allowed to compete outside the GDR’s borders.
Duty Calls: A National Team Career
After making his debut with SC Dynamo Berlin at the age of 17 in 1972, it only took him two more years to make his way onto the GDR’s national team. Between 1974 and 1989 Frenzel travelled the world with the national team playing a total of 296 games (a total second on the GDR’s all-time list behind only his Dynamo Berlin colleague Dietmar Peters). From 1980 to 1990, Frenzel was team captain and twice named to the all star team of B Group World Championships (1979, 1982). During his time with the national team, the GDR bounced between the A and B groups, frequently dominating the lower category but having a hard time establishing itself amongst the sport’s elite nations. The absolute pinnacle of its success in these years came in 1983 when the team managed a 6th place finish at the A Group Worlds in West Germany, a career highlight for Frenzel and his teammates.
In our interview, Frenzel pointed to the challenges that faced the East German team in remaining competitive at the world level. First of all, there was of course the incredibly small player pool upon which the team could draw: “Our problem was that you had to try to ‘make’ talent through hard work. We played in units of five players, with the idea being that we would be more coordinated with each other and we were. I have to say that I logged a lot of ice time, but that was OK with me and my teammates were good at covering for me. I was an offensive defenceman. I scored a lot of goals and others knew that, so if I rushed up, they would cover for me.”
The other issue the GDR team had was its relative isolation from the rest of the hockey world: “With just these two teams, it was like we were in a capsule, and it was the same for the coaches. In terms of getting information on new tactics or watching other teams play so you could analyze their approaches, all of that just didn’t happen.”
To compensate, the team depended being in better shape than their opponents, something that was often the case given the professional training players carried out both in Berlin and Weisswasser. “[Our fitness] was our advantage over the other teams. We were in great shape and that allowed us to do a lot.”
But there was a limit to what fitness and good organization could compensate for, and the GDR often found itself at the wrong end of one-sided results when they faced hockey powers such as the USSR, Canada or Czechoslovakia. While well aware of the limitations of his team, Frenzel nonetheless was a fierce competitor and did not enjoy serving as cannon fodder for the big teams. He recalls how in advance of major tournaments the East Germans were often called upon to play exhibition games against both the Soviet and Czechoslovak national teams: “We essentially served as sparing partners for them. I remember getting really angry in one of those games against the Czechoslovaks. It was early in the game and they were already winning 3-0 when I saw their coach stand up and signal the referee [also a Czechoslovak, ed.]. He held up 5 fingers and then 4; he wanted to practice a power play. So the next time one of our team touched a Czech, even a little tap, he got a penalty. The power play had barely started when the coach signalled again. This time 5 fingers and then 3. He wanted a two-man advantage, and so we got another penalty. I was really ticked and went to the ref and ‘What is this sh**?’ He just nodded and said ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Well that was enough for me. I parked myself in front of our net and whenever a Czech came anywhere near me I let him have it with my stick. Some of them probably still have the bruises! (laughs) But you know, I didn’t get a penalty!”
Frenzel brought along a wonderful memento of his career to our interview in the form of a scrapbook which his mother had carefully compiled for him over the years. Filled to bursting with newspaper clippings, programs and photos, as we leaf through the scrapbook, Frenzel filled me in on some his most vivid memories.
60 Minutes of Class Struggle or ‘Meet me in the bar’
As we pass a clipping from a game against West Germany, I ask Frenzel if the players themselves saw these meetings as a “battle of the systems”. “Yeah, sure, we certainly understood them that way,” he starts. “When the World Championship schedule would come out and we were supposed to play the West Germans, that’s when the ‘quote unquote’ ideological warfare would begin (laughs). As part of that we’d get Party functionaries coming and trying to influence us with their politics. For us as players, though, it was hard to actually believe what these people were telling us, because most of these people had never even left the GDR once, you know? So you would sit there and say to yourself, ‘What is he talking about?’ But we certainly didn’t want to lose those games.”
He then adds casually, “What I always enjoyed was the contact with the other players. This was something that happened in my role as captain or sometimes at night when you had a beer together in the hotel.” This comment leaves me more than a little surprised. I ask what about the strict provisions against any contact with foreigners that I knew were in place for other GDR athletes competing internationally? From my readings, I was under the impressions that for Olympic athletes and soccer players any sort of contact was strictly prohibited and penalties for breaches could be severe, but Frenzel tells me that it was different for hockey players: “I sat down with West German players, with the other German players, or the Russians or the Swedes. We were all in the same hotel and that was no problem. After the Wende, I met up with some of these same players and we talked about it and it was the same for them [that East vs. West games got special attention from the authorities, ed]. The Ministry [for State Security] and our team officials told us ‘You have to do this or that’, but it wasn’t just our side saying that, they got it too and that was tough.”
Jim Corsi, goalie for the Italian national team in the 1980s and a frequent opponent of Frenzel and the GDR team, confirms that contact with the other teams was common. “We usually stayed at the same hotel and would often run into each other having beers down in the bar,” recalls Corsi. In fact, Corsi recalls speaking with Frenzel one evening using the little German he had picked up studying the language for a year at university: “I tried to tell him, without much success I think (laughs), ‘You are a top flight player!'”
GDR vs. Canada: “That was honest hockey!”
From time to time, the GDR team would play the Canada at a World Championships. Frenzel tells me that the East German players were always keen for these tests and he was no exception: “I loved the games against Canada, because that was honest hockey. They came at you hard but when you gave it back, they took it and kept playing. I loved playing against them. Also their style of play worked for me and that’s probably one reason that [the Oilers’] offer came.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014) Some of the players Frenzel met at these championships later became friends and our conversation was peppered with references to old adversaries with whom he is still in contact.
“To Learn From the Soviet Union is to Learn to Win”
In most matters, the GDR oriented itself on the Soviet Union’s approach, at least superficially. The phrase “to learn from the Soviet Union is to learn to win” was thrown around frequently and I was interested to learn whether the same was true for hockey. Did East German coaches or players model their play or training after the Soviet team? Frenzel shakes his head, “They had a different system than we did. They trained a lot, just like us, but they lived in barracks. If they had a normal home game, they were allowed to spend a night with their families, but they had to be sure to be back at the barracks for breakfast. We didn’t do anything like that. And to try and play like them was out of the question, we just didn’t have the players for that.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014)
Frenzel’s long time coach Joachim Ziesche, however, suggests that there was some affinity between the two teams, at least in the play of their captains, drawing parallels between Frenzel and the Soviets’ Viacheslav Fetisov. “His style of play was similar to Fetisov. He distinguished himself through his a particularly high skill level and an exceptional ability to read the game, to anticipate his opponent’s next move.”
As we flip past a couple of shots of Soviet players in their distinct CCCP uniforms, Frenzel allows himself to offer a couple of candid, matter-of-fact opinions on some of the team: “K. and M. were dirty players. When they figured they could get away with it, they’d spear you in the crotch or give you a shot in the back of your knee.”
Not Exactly Open Arms: Socialist Brotherhood Put to the Test in Eastern Europe
As we leaf past some pictures of encounters with Romania and Poland, Frenzel stops for a second to relate how difficult those games could be. At first I am confused as I think he means from a sporting perspective, but I have misunderstood. “In the 1970s when we played against Poland, Romania or Czechoslovakia, there was a real hatred of us as Germans. The spectators would spit at us on the ice and you’d hear someone shout out things like ‘What do you Germans want here?’ But those were people who’d had family members die in the war. It was nothing to do with us, we were another generation. But that’s how it was.” (Interview, DF, April 3, 2014
Adventures in the East. The Far East.
At one point as we’re going through the scrapbook, some Chinese characters catch my eye as Frenzel flips ahead. I stop him and ask to go back. We do and I point to the page in question. “Oh yeah,” he says, “the China trip. That’s actually a good story.” China as it turns out, competed in the C Group of the World Championships for a number of years in the late 70s and early 1980s. On two occasions they even managed the leap to the B pool, but, Frenzel tells me, the team had a hard time making progress. The only other teams in the region were Japan and North Korea and exhibition games against either were out of the question for ideological reasons. So, Chinese hockey officials hit upon the idea of inviting the GDR national team to come over for a series of exhibition games.
“Of course, the invitation came as a telegram to the GDR Sport Association. Only it was a telegram. In Chinese. So they brought in a translator and he botched the job. Instead of translating ‘ice hockey’, he translated it as ‘field hockey’. The invitation was passed on to the field hockey people and they were just confused and asked the Sport Association, ‘Why do they want us? We’ve never had anything to do with them?’ The Association people said, ‘How should we know but there’s money there for the trip, do you want to go or not?’ Naturally the field hockey people said yes and the trip was set up.”
“So they fly to Beijing and get off the plane with their little sports bags over their shoulders and the Chinese immediately know that something’s wrong. ‘Where’s your equipment?’, they want to know. The GDR team points to their bags and the Chinese say, ‘Oh no! There’s been a mistake! We wanted to invite the ice hockey team!’ But hats off to the comrades there; they didn’t send the field hockey team straight home and even organized a few games for them. At the airport at the end of the trip, everyone was saying goodbye and the Chinese officials thanked the East Germans for coming but said ‘Next year please send the ice hockey team!”
“And so we got to go. We flew into this small town, only 5 million people or so (laughs) and it was just nuts. It was a place where the people had never seen Europeans before so we had mothers bringing their kids up to us just so they could touch us. We had a police escort everywhere we went. They all had Kalashnikovs and if we wanted to, say, get on a bus, they’d clear the whole thing and look for explosives. It was crazy!”
The End of the National Team
Frenzel continued to play with the East German national team until just before its dissolution in 1990. His last action with the team came in the 1989 B Group World Championships in Oslo, Norway where the team finished 5th. For Frenzel, it was a bit of a limp to the finish line and he recalls, “I’ve only got vague memories of it, but I do recall that we played a pretty poor tournament.” (Email to author, October 23, 2014).
Special thanks to Dr. Berno Bahro at the University of Potsdam
for his assistance in the researching of this post!