GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany – While fans anticipate the start of the World Juniors in Canada, six teams are preparing to go up to the top level at the upcoming 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Among the players is Great Britain’s Joseph Lewis, who plays in Germany’s top junior league DNL for EV Füssen, a Bavarian state rival of Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s hockey team SC Riessersee.
The 19-year-old forward is in his third year in Germany, but has lived the rest of his life in Great Britain.
Born in Newport, Wales, Lewis spent most of his junior career in Wales where he played for the Cardiff Junior Devils.
“I got involved through always watching my older brother Nicky Lewis play and when I was around 8 years old I decided to start and never looked back,” Lewis says. “I enjoyed playing in Wales as a junior. I was always pushed by my coaches and allowed to train with older players. This then benefited me from early on.”
When he felt the club dropped in coaching and player talent at a later age he moved to England to play in Swindon for two seasons.
In 2009 he went over to Germany, to Iserlohn, and after the team’s relegation from the top tier he joined newly-promoted EV Füssen one year later. Now in his second year, he even captains the team.
“My previous national coach Jon Rowbotham had spoken to me many times about going abroad to play, and he suggested that I should try Germany as the level was much better than in the UK,” Lewis explains his motives.
He was looking for teams abroad, but as he was too late for a trial camp in Sweden, he joined his colleague Andrew Hirst, who also plays for the U20 national team, for a try-out in Iserlohn – and without knowing a single word of German.
Meanwhile he has adjusted to the lifestyle, calls Bavaria his home and speaks German fluently. This year he even started working to have more to do in daytime besides practising with his junior team, in the gym and sometimes also with Füssen’s professional team.
With 43 points (12 goals, 31 assists) in 23 games the Welshman is the scoring leader of Germany’s top junior league. It’s also thanks to him that his team is ranked fourth only behind the squads of German giants Adler Mannheim (Heilbronner EC) and Eisbären Berlin, and state rival EC Bad Tölz.
“Füssen is beautiful. I’ve always wanted to play in Bavaria. With Iserlohn I came twice to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. That was the first time I came to the south of Germany and I fell in love with the scenery and the whole area,” Lewis said.
“Of course living in a bigger city gives you more things to do, but a small town also has its positives. Everyone knows you and everyone is very friendly. The people are very family-orientated and I have made a lot of friends here. Most of the players here have played together from such a young age that it’s a real family. This is one of the biggest positives about playing in Füssen.”
Garmisch-Partenkirchen has become an important place in Lewis’ career although he’s not playing there. In the 2010-2011 season Füssen sent the city’s team Riessersee one league down in a dramatic two-game relegation battle. And now Lewis is back again, to play in the U20 World Championship’s second tier with Great Britain.
It’s a special place for British hockey. It was here where Great Britain won its only gold medal in an elite ice hockey tournament, at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games. Great Britain ended up as the only undefeated team including a 2-1 win against Canada and a 5-0 blanking of Czechoslovakia.Great Britain’s ice hockey team brought home gold at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Photo: IIHF Archive
“I knew they won one gold medal, but I did not know it was in Garmisch,” Lewis said about what happened more than 75 years ago. “I think many people around in the hockey world have never really thought about this. Even in our country. But now Great Britain’s U20 team are playing in Garmisch the history has been brought up. It would be unbelievable to even come close to anything like that.”
It won’t be easy for the Brits. After the restructuring of the World Championship system, the two formerly equally strong Division I groups have been split into two separate tiers, Group A and Group B. Thanks to last year’s surprising bronze-medal win Great Britain made it to the upper half of the Division I teams and will face strong competition in Group A against Norway, Germany – both played in the top division in Buffalo last year – Slovenia, Belarus and Austria.
“It’s going to be the toughest Junior World Championship so far for us as a country because in this group every team is exceptionally good. I think it will be a great achievement to stay up in the group this year,” Lewis says.
“I think we are definitely the underdogs in the group, but who knows what will happen. Our work effort is the key to winning. Our main goal is to stay up, but a medal wouldn’t be too bad,” he adds with a smile.
The British team met one week ago at a camp in Sheffield including an exhibition game against a club team. For Lewis it was the first time in almost a year he saw some of his lads, and he could only tell them good things about the venue where they will play five games.
“I told them that they will love it because it’s a tourist place because of skiing. And it’s a lot better than places we have been to before,” Lewis says. “Mostly everyone speaks English and we shouldn’t have any problems with the language or food or the hotel. So it will be a successful trip. The rink is a nice one and they will have to quickly get used to playing on Olympic-sized ice because back home the ice pads are a lot smaller.”
For Lewis it will be the third IIHF tournament after representing the U18 national team in 2010 and the U20 national team last year, both times at Division I level.
At the same time Lewis is also playing for his future. As he’s settling well in his new country he hopes to be able to stay in Germany, but the import status doesn’t make it easy for him.
“I haven’t had any talks with Füssen about next year with the men’s team, but it is something I would be interested in because I feel very settled and at home here in Füssen,” Lewis says. “My main goal is to carry on and try and make a good career out of ice hockey in Germany. I want to stay here as long as I can or go somewhere else in Europe and be developed and keep improving. I have a lot of passion for the game and love to be pushed to the extreme.”