Athletes in Exile: NHL Stars Skate Through Lockout in Berlin

By Zeke Turner

As the National Hockey League's latest lockout drags on in America, the players are once again biding their time by playing for teams abroad. Two French-Canadian all-stars from the Philadelphia Flyers, Daniel Brière and Claude Giroux, are handling the puck -- and exile -- quite well in Berlin.

Photo Gallery: Spending the NHL Lockout in Germany Photos
DPA

On Sunday night, one of the best hockey players in the world seemed lost. Claude Giroux, the all-star center from the National Hockey League's Philadelphia Flyers, was standing alone deep inside the O2 Arena in Berlin.

The 24-year-old had changed out of his hockey gear into a suit and was waiting to be led to a post-game meet-and-greet event elsewhere in the stadium. "What's happening?" he asked the promotions director for professional hockey team, who was speaking in German with a television crew. He disappeared to wrangle another player.

Jimmy Sharrow, an American defenseman who plays regularly for the Berliner Eisbären, walked by. Giroux invited his new teammate to come over to his home later that night. They wouldn't be able to watch football, he said, because his apartment didn't have a television yet. Sharrow, complaining that he was hungry, disappeared.

Alone again, Giroux resigned himself to answering a reporter's questions. "It's not that there's less hitting," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE, explaining the differences between the NHL and the German Ice Hockey League (DEL) in a quiet voice. "It's just that the ice is bigger, so we've got more room to skate around."

Asked if playing in Germany, where there's far less money in hockey than in the United States, had made him fall in love with the sport again, Giroux kept his eyes fixed on the corridor's cinder block walls. "I mean, I never really played for the money," he said, "so I never really look at it that way." Then last season's third-highest point-scorer in the NHL excused himself to find out when the team's commercial flight to Sweden was leaving the next morning.

'I Miss My Boys'

As the third NHL lockout in less than a decade drags on as a result of a protracted labor dispute, some of the league's best players have found themselves once again signed to teams abroad. For players like Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Berglund, biding time in Russia and Sweden respectively, it's a chance to return home and play in the leagues they passed up for the prestige of the North American league.

Giroux and Danny Brière, his Flyers teammate, fellow all-star and French-Canadian countryman, both wound up in Berlin playing for the Eisbären (Polar Bears) mainly to stay in shape.

It's hard to imagine either one of them is making much money playing for the team, though. Even the league's best players don't make more than a few hundred thousand euros in a year.

Eisbären manager Peter John Lee said in an introductory press conference for the players on Oct. 9 that he had enough extra funding in his budget to pay them. It helped, he added, that they were both insured in America.

A reporter asked the two players how much money they were losing in the NHL lockout. They both looked at each other and cracked smiles. "At this point, it's not about money," said Brière, 35, the seasoned veteran of the two. "After the last lockout some players have said they lost a lot of money for no reason," he continued. "I didn't see it like that at all."

Brière, one of the highest-paid players in the NHL in 2007-2008 when he made $10 million, has played out a lockout abroad before. During the 10-month standoff in 2004-2005, he played in Switzerland.

"Obviously, I miss my boys, I miss my family, and I miss my friends, but this has been a lot of fun," Brière told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I also really believe that if you come here with a bad attitude, and you don't want to be in one place, it's going to make it a lot tougher," he continued. "If you're positive about it, you can make things a lot easier on yourself."

A Boon for Berlin

Before Sunday's game, Eisbären fans hanging out on the Warschauer Brücke, a bridge near the arena where many meet up before games, said they hoped the strike would never end. "You notice the conditioning that these guys have. It's the real deal," said Benjamin, 26, a waiter from Berlin wearing a blue Eisbären jersey. "It'll be a shame when the strike is over and they have to go away. Then a lot of teams will just be bad again."

"For all I care, the strike can go on until we have the playoffs," he said.

In their first four games, Brière and Giroux have combined for 21 points, including six in their first match against the DEL's top team the Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks). Brière had his first hat trick in their second match.

After the two players' arrival in Berlin was announced, the team immediately attracted some 1,000 new Twitter followers, according to Eisbären spokesman Daniel Goldstein, and fans in Philadelphia and Canada have started streaming the team's games on the Internet. The Eisbären are selling 1,500 to 2,000 more full-price tickets per game than they did this time last year, he said.

On Sunday night, 14,100 fans -- a nearly sold-out arena -- showed up to watch the Eisbären play the Roosters from Iserlohn.

'Here It's Noise All The Time'

Besides the bigger ice surface and the billboard-style uniforms, one of the biggest differences between the NHL and the DEL might be the way the fans cheer. In Berlin, they yell, wave enormous flags, sing team songs and beat drums during the entire game. Most fans have folded paper noisemakers, which they flap against their thighs, creating a constant whooshing sound throughout the game.

"It's like an (American) football game," says Yanick Gareau, 39, a French-Canadian accountant from Montreal, during the first intermission. He was on vacation in Berlin and bought tickets to the game to see Giroux and Brière. The Flyers are his favorite team, and he especially likes the two Canadian centers because they speak French too. "In North America, people are just very quiet and they listen and when there's a chance to score they go 'whoaaaa!' Otherwise it's just very quiet. Here it's noise all the time."

The game was tied 0-0, and the fan from Canada wasn't sure if Giroux and Brière were trying their best. "I think they just want to keep in shape, but I'm not sure if they go 100 percent," Gareau said.

The Third Period

But after the third period on Sunday, nobody would be able to give the two NHL players grief for slacking off. After less than two minutes, Eisbären captain Andre Rankel found Giroux with a pass in front of the goal, and the NHL star slipped it around the Roosters' goalie to put the Eisbären up 1:0. From there it was a blowout. The team scored six more goals before the game's end -- final score 7:1 -- with both Brière and Giroux setting up their teammates for goals along the way.

After the game, Giroux emerged from the locker room in mesh shorts and a T-shirt, still drenched from the game, to speak with reporters. They wanted to know why the team did so well on this night "We're just getting comfortable, I think," he said, wresting his hands on his hips. "Everybody's working well together."

But the truth is that as soon as the NHL lockout is over, the two stars will be on a plane back to Philadelphia. In the meantime, an Eisbären jersey will do.

The young star seemed not too mind, as long as he was playing hockey. But was he feeling homesick? "Well, yeah, I feel like I'm pretty far away," he said. "But it's pretty much the same apart from a few details."

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