Days of safari hockey gone

When Maple Leafs and Swiss Bears ruled in South Africa

21.06.2010
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Thousands of fans watch this face-off at the Wembley Ice Rink in the ‘70s.

When millions of sport fans turn their eyes toward South Africa to watch the World Cup, it may be good timing to dig into distant memories of the glory days of South African ice hockey. Former Swiss national players Andy Jorns and Jakob Kölliker talked to IIHF.com about their experiences in South Africa and winning the league title in 1974.

The country’s national team might not have been even close to the upper echelon of international hockey, but South Africa attracted handfuls of skilled adventurers from Canada and Europe to Johannesburg, including two IIHF Hall of Famers.

A few European stars played summer seasons in South Africa back when summer practice wasn’t part of the contract.

The first big name on the African continent was later IIHF Hall of Famer Rudi Ball, one of the most spectacular European players in the ‘30s. Ball left his native Berlin with his brothers in 1933 when the Nazis took over, later continuing his career in Switzerland and Italy. He returned after three years when he was invited to represent Germany at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Patenkirchen. He played for Germany in four World Championships and won the 1930 World Championship silver medal and the 1932 Olympic bronze.

When he moved to Johannesburg in 1948 to join his brother, he became the first international star on the African continent. He played until the age of 42 before he focused on his career as a businessman.

His brother, Heinz Ball, started playing in South Africa in 1936, the year the South African Ice Hockey Association was founded, and the first games involved mostly British and Canadians who lived in the country and loved the sport.

One year later, the Wembley Ice Rink was built in Johannesburg and became the country’s first permanent ice arena with a full-size rink.

With the rink and skilled players from abroad, the number of South African-born players increased and the country debuted in the World Championship C-pool in 1961. Among 20 teams participating in the three tournaments in Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland, the “springboks” finished in 19th place, getting their first-ever victory in the last game against Belgium.

The sport increased in popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s when semi-professional players were acquired from Canada and Europe. An important person for this era was businessman Hymie Sofer, who bought the Wembley rink. He sent scouts to Canada and brought in players from other hockey countries.

Another important figure for the rise of the league was Otto Hertz, the South African Ice Hockey Association’s president in the ‘70s, who was related to the founding family of the  Hertz car rental company which had garages throughout South Africa.

The league started to be filled with Canadians in a team called Maple Leafs  and summer-season players mostly from Switzerland (Swiss Bears) and Austria (Edelweiss) including Olympians Gerhard Hausner, Heinz Knoflach, Josef Schwitzer, Klaus Weingartner and Hans Zollner. German players included other Olympians with goalkeeper Rainer Makatsch and Heinz Weisenbach.

Arena owner Sofer easily filled the Wembley every Tuesday when games were played.

The level was, thanks to the international stars, not that bad for an “exotic” league. At least it was good enough that the reigning champion Swiss Bears were able to beat Eintracht Frankfurt 10-4 in 1967 when the team had a camp in South Africa just one year before their promotion to the highest German league.

Important figures for the link to Switzerland were Swiss Bears president René Burkhalter, a businessman who played in lower leagues and was a sponsor of Swiss club EHC Basel, and later Marco Torriani when he joined the Swiss Bears in 1969.

In the ‘60s before he went to South Africa he was playing together with his brother Romano in Basel, coached by the country’s most legendary player, their father Richard “Bibi” Torriani.

Torriani not only played and later coached the Swiss Bears, he also accommodated some big names of Swiss hockey as a hotelier.

The lifestyle of Swiss athletes was quite different in those days as IIHF Hall of Famer Jakob “Köbi” Kölliker explained.

“I played for EHC Biel and apart from one or two imports we were all amateurs. I just finished my apprenticeship as a typesetter in the publishing company of our club’s president when I was asked to come to South Africa by my teammate Bernhard Burry,” Kölliker said.

“They knew I’d be interested and I just had 24 hours to decide. As a 20-year-old it wasn’t normal to get an opportunity to travel that far. We were kind of pros there. We got some money to survive and to travel, and I did also some work at the office for the Swiss Bears’ president René Burkhalter, who had a tank wagon business. We were just living, sightseeing and sometimes playing hockey. I took a half-year vacation from work to be back when the season began in October. Africa was my summer practice, so to say. I even ended up winning my first senior title in Africa. It was a highlight of my career.”

For Kölliker, who played in two Olympics, 12 World Championships, and 213 national team games – a record until a few years ago – and who led EHC Biel to three national titles, it was not necessarily a highlight because of the level of South African hockey, but because of the experiences he had.

It was similar for Andy Jorns, then SC Bern goalkeeper and later also an Olympian. “I just got 3,000 Francs per year from SC Bern and worked as a radio/television electrician,” he said. “The whole trip and accommodation for South Africa was paid and we got 20 Rand per game.”

The games were usually sold out in the arena with about 3,500 fans. “As you see in football now, it’s noisy in South Africa. It wasn’t different in hockey. We had a great atmosphere and there were many Swiss with cowbells and whistles, too. It was really fun and the level was good too. One of the Canadians, Gerry Aucoin, even joined my club team in Switzerland later,” Kölliker said.

“I also remember some exhibition games like in Durban,” said Jorns. “It was an oval rink that was just ten metres wide.”

During the Apartheid regime in South Africa, daily life was different as races were strictly separated by law and only whites were allowed to enter the arena.

“It was something completely new for me. We heard about that before, but coming from Switzerland and thinking that all people are equal, I didn’t want to realize it until I saw it with my own eyes,” Kölliker said. “You were in the middle of this conflict and there was no other system, there was literally just black and white. Black people were treated like rubbish. It really got me thinking.”

“The situation in Johannesburg was quite different than it would be now. There were many European expats in South Africa, maybe 40,000 Germans and 10,000 Swiss, and many were interested in hockey,” Jorns said. “We had much contact with the spectators. There was no TV in South Africa in those days. We always met in kind of illegal private pubs.”

Jorns met his later wife there, who was living in the Swiss expat community, too.

With just one practice and one game per week, the players were not just there for hockey, but to see something new.

The squad visited the Big Hole, the largest hole excavated by hand for a diamond mine, the garden route from Cape Town to Durban, the Krueger National Park, Mozambique, Botswana, and Jorns also added some more vacation days to visit Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and the Victoria Waterfalls.

“I celebrated my 20th birthday there. It was impressive for me to be in the Krueger park. The wildness. The animals. Just being a few metres away from elephants, lions, cheetahs,” Kölliker said. “There were moments in the nights, when we heard all the various noises of the wildness. You’re in a park, but the animals are pretty close.”

South African hockey changed drastically after the ‘70s. With a devaluation of the currency and more rinks for grass-roots hockey, it became rarer for international stars to play an African season in the summer months. And European professional player only have a short vacation nowadays.

There’s no more patron to lure big names to South Africa. Big names who leave for a summer season in the southern hemisphere – like former NHLer and Canadian Olympian Rob Zamuner did in 2006 in Brisbane, Australia, before ending his career – have become a rarity.

There are no Maple Leafs, no Swiss Bears, no Edelweiss in South Africa, no more Hush Puppies, no more Holiday Inns.

The old days of having an ice rink at the Wembley Arena are gone, too, but the memories remain, and the ice hockey program that produces more home-grown players. And maybe some imports from all over Europe, who mostly don’t have much international experience, apart from exceptions like Igor Zajec, a former Croatian and Yugoslav national team player, who played in South Africa for four years in the late ‘90s.

As the 2010 season started, games are played in regional leagues in Gauteng (the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria), Cape Town and Durban.

In 2011, South Africa will again see an influx of international players. The Grand West’s Ice Arena in Cape Town was picked to play host to the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division III. It won’t be future hall of famers from Germany or Switzerland that come, but the national teams from Israel, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. And the host nation hopes to bring its team back to Division II where it played most time of the 2000s.

Meanwhile, both Kölliker and Jorns will go to Africa again.

Kölliker for family holidays in Egypt while Jorns and his wife will begin their anticipated trip around the world with an off-road car in Morocco. But unlike the old days, the ice rinks of those countries are not on the to-do list.

MARTIN MERK


Jakob Kölliker with a souvenir from his season in South Africa.


The Swiss Bears celebrate a victory with Jakob Kölliker (left), Marco Torriani (#9) and goalkeeper Andy Jorns (right).


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