Many have been waiting for this news in Germany for years. The question about a promotion and relegation system between the top-two professional leagues has been a long-time controversy that divided the German ice hockey community. On Friday it has been resolved as the DEL and DEL2 clubs accepted an agreement to open up the German top league DEL as of 2020/2021.
“I’m overjoyed that both independent professional leagues eventually found a way,” said German Ice Hockey Association President Franz Reindl, who is also an IIHF Council member, and uses the German proverb of “getting the cow from the ice”, meaning to solve a major difficulty, to describe the situation.
“This is absolutely phenomenal for our sport. All hockey fans can now look forward to transmissibility through all leagues. This will also strengthen the sports and infrastructure impulses.”
The clubs from the second-tier league, which for the last few years adopted the name DEL2, have been battling for a promotion and relegation system as it is in place for the leagues below and in most sports in Germany for many years.
“We are glad that after a long time an interconnection between the two leagues will come and of course hope for an important impulse for our sport,” said DEL Chairman Jurgen Arnold.
No more “golden pineapple”
The discussions of making the German top league a “closed society” started when the independent DEL was founded in 1994. In most years promotion and relegation was still in place until 2006 when the Kassel Huskies were the last team to be relegated by the means of sport as last-ranked team of the league and were replaced by the Straubing Tigers. Since then teams from the second tier didn’t have the opportunity to get promoted as champion – unless there was a demand from the top league due to expansion or to replace a bankrupt club.
Having the DEL locked like a North American league has caused criticism ever since among clubs from other leagues, fans and officials especially considering that German sport is dominated and influenced by football, where promotion and relegation is treated as a God-given system. Playing a second-tier league without the possibility for promotion is referred to another German proverb in the country, “playing for the golden pineapple”, for a symbolic prize of little meaning. Strengthening the DEL2 with a promotion and relegation system was therefore a long-time and often-discussed wish.
In 2015 the two top leagues came closer and reached an agreement as of 2017/2018 that would theoretically allow promotion and relegation. However, the terms were difficult to reach as a certain number of clubs would have two years in advance to declare interest, have a big enough arena, enough money and put a financial guarantee of €816,000 that the DEL would accept a race for promotion. Recently six teams were needed and six teams applied but only five of them were found to fulfil all formalities. That was the third straight year the DEL2 clubs received a “Nein” under the new agreement from the league above, twice because one of the clubs’ arenas was not good enough, once because a club’s financial guarantee was not complete.
The DEL with its 14 teams remained a closed society and hasn’t changed much in recent years. In 2011 Frankfurt and Kassel went bankrupt and EHC Munchen was admitted to the league. Initially a “filler”, the team from Munich has won the last three DEL championships rebranded as EHC Red Bull Munchen. In 2013 and 2016 the teams from Hanover and Hamburg respectively folded offering a rare opportunity for teams to earn promotion; Schwenningen and Bremerhaven took advantage.
With today’s agreement that the clubs of the DEL and DEL2 accepted and will be formalized soon, the 2020/2021 season is set to be the first in 15 years where teams in the DEL will have to battle against relegation on the ice and could be replaced by the DEL2 champion.
“We are glad to eventually present a joint result after not easy but always constructive negotiations. The winner of this agreement is German ice hockey because like in all other sports promotion and relegation will add to the excitement in our sport too. This offers the DEL2 clubs not only perspectives on the ice but also financially,” said DEL2 Chairman Peter Merten.
While the agreement and details have yet to be written down, DEL CEO Gernot Tripcke told German broadcaster Sport1 about the format: “We had a theatre every year. Now we have clearness: the last-ranked team of the DEL regular season will be relegated, the champion of the DEL2 will be promoted. We are relieved that the endless discussion is away.”
Beside winning the DEL2, a potential candidate will still have to fulfil criteria to show its readiness for the DEL, have the necessary infrastructure with an ice arena of a capacity of at least 4,500 spectators and deposit a bank guarantee. Potential clubs now have three years’ time to work on this goal. The six clubs that have expressed their interest this year were Bietigheim-Bissingen, Dresden, Frankfurt, Heilbronn, Kassel and SC Riessersee from Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Reportedly all applicants but Heilbronn fulfilled the DEL criteria.
Germany in good society
Most of the top European hockey countries have an open top league with a promotion and relegation system including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland where a promotion/relegation series or round robin is played, and soon Germany.
However, there are also two big hockey countries in Europe that go with a top league that is locked for second-tier champions. Finland’s Liiga became closed as of 2013/2014 when the promotion/relegation series was abandoned but has seen three promoted teams since by expansion or replacement. In Russia the cross-border Kontinental Hockey League is closed and has gone through a reduction process from once 29 to currently 25 teams. The last time a Russian team earned promotion to the KHL the classic way was in 2010 when Yugra Khanty-Mansisk was admitted as champion of the second-tier league. Yugra as well as fellow bottom-dwellers Lada Togliatti were chosen as the two teams to be expelled by a set of criteria for 2018/2019 and will play in the second-tier VHL in the upcoming season.