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It was noisy, confusing, and must have looked a bit like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, only in reverse: I was lying there, face down, in the middle of the ice, completely helpless. The team from the Para-Eishockeyclub Berlin ran around me and repeatedly gave quick orders, which I only really understood when the puck was back in its own goal. Great, somehow I had imagined that my debut in ice hockey would be easier.
The team gave me a warm welcome in locker room 3 at the Charlottenburg ice rink, just behind the Olympic Stadium. It is without barriers. There is no standard in the ice rinks of the republic, on the contrary. However, this is a prerequisite for being able to play ice hockey with a physical disability. The Para Ice Hockey Club Berlin trains here once a week. And it starts right away: the team has an hour of ice at their disposal, every second is precious.
Ice hockey is ice hockey, that quickly becomes clear here. The rules in Paralympic ice hockey are essentially the same as in Olympic ice hockey, two crucial teams make the difference: Paralympic ice hockey is played much closer to the ice. Instead of ice skates, the athletes go on sleds, attached to metal struts and a plastic seat with all kinds of belts for the perfect symbiosis, including two runners. And: instead of one stick, ice hockey players even have two, with special functions. While one side of the stick is traditionally designed for shooting and passing, spikes are attached to the other end of the shaft, with which players can propel themselves forward, using only the strength of their arms and upper body.
Berlin forms a team in the Bundesliga with Freiburg
The city has Gregor Kemper to thank for the fact that there is even an ice hockey team in Berlin. He was very surprised when he did not find structures of the rehabilitative sport developed in Sweden in the crazy capital of ice hockey. He made a deal with his employer, the statutory accident insurance and the German Sports Association for the Disabled: if he succeeded in building an ice hockey team in Berlin, the first set of jerseys would go to the DGUV.
Almost 15 people now train weekly in Charlottenburg. In cooperation with players from Freiburg im Breisgau, the team plays in the Bundesliga against teams from all over Germany. A business that costs money. The association is supported by the Katarina Witt Foundation and Aktion Mensch.
And that is worth it. Physically, but also mentally. The sport is “pure inclusion,” says Kemper, “because you just break down inhibitions in a relaxed way.” Willi Struwe sees it that way too. He lost his right leg in a work accident nine years ago. Since 2017 he plays for the Para-Ishockeyclub Berlin. “I can completely get rid of my physical handicap with sports,” he says. “The way I uncurl a leg and put it to the side of the field, that’s how I do it in my head.” Contrary to the description of the sport as ice Hockey they both lock up. Until 2016, the sport was still called sledge hockey. The World Paralympic Association then decided to name all sports uniformly, in order to better distinguish them from their Olympic partner sport. Gregor Kemper finds that suboptimal: “I think the term sledge hockey is more inclusive.” The core message is lost with the name change, “because sledge hockey is for everyone,” he says.
Germany did not qualify for Beijing
What is special about ice hockey, excuse me, sled hockey: the mass sport and the elite sport are very close. And everyone can participate. “It’s a great start,” says Struwe. “And if you have potential as a youngster, you have a chance to be included in the national team squad.”
Andreas Pokorny is responsible for them. The former ice hockey professional, who won the championship three times with Kölner Haie in the 1990s, has been leading the formation of the best paraathletes for ten years. There are also some players from the Berlin team. Pokorny is pleased to pass on his knowledge and experience. “It’s a great sport for people with disabilities,” he says. “Everything is there: speed, technique, physical effort, you can completely burn yourself out.” That’s very nice.
Pokorny says that sledge hockey in Germany will not go beyond the status of an amateur sport. There is simply a lack of structures and money for this. You can’t keep up with teams from countries like the United States, Canada, or China. Even for the Paralympic Games in Beijing it was not enough for the German team. In the deciding qualifying tournament, they narrowly lost to the final entrants from Slovakia. When Russia was excluded shortly before the start of the games, the German team would have been promoted, but the decision was made too quickly. Disappointment at not qualifying was limited. In addition to sporting success, sled hockey is also about something else entirely: social appeal, team sport, and most of all, fun.
And then it still happens. The puck hits my sled from somewhere and bounces back with a loud bang, right at my teammate. And even when I fall, I see that the net is twisted. Hard to believe, my first assist! Whether it’s supported or not doesn’t matter at this point. The team on the ice cheers, all together. And in a way that’s exactly what it’s all about.