Hockey You Don’t Know

- January 20th, 2010

Whatever happened to Paul Gardner, a journeyman centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs and four other NHL teams (and half a dozen AHL teams) during a 20-year pro hockey career in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s?

How about defenseman Mathieu Biron, drafted 21st overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1998 entry draft?

You might remember Clarke Wilm (the pride of Central Butte, Saskatchewan, and named after Flyer bad boy Bobby Clarke) who played defense for the Leafs (and the St. John’s Baby Leafs) between 2003 and 2006 (and for the Flames and the Predators for five seasons before that). Whatever happened to him?

And how about Jason King, NHL Rookie of the Month for November 2003 when he played on a line with the Sedin twins for the Vancouver Canucks?

King scores
Er schießt! Er zählt!

Whatever happened to those guys (you ask)?

I’m glad you asked because I was going to tell you anyway.

They’re all Hamburg Freezers.

No joke.

I didn’t know who or what the Hamburg Freezers were until last week.

I stumbled across the Freezers while I was picking up some paraphernalia of FC St. Pauli, a legendary soccer team I like in the north German port city of Hamburg. Next to the St. Pauli gear I noticed a display of souvenir items for “Hamburg Freezers” with a rather malevolent cartoon goalie mask as their logo.

freezers logo

Had to be a hockey team, obviously, in a German league. I knew there were elite pro hockey leagues throughout Europe where NHLers stretched their legs for a while during the 2004-2005 lockout season.

But I was clueless to the actual teams and their names. Who would call a hockey team the Hamburg Freezers? That’s getting into the goofy-name realm of the Mighty Ducks.

Turns out the guy who named the team also owns the team and — as the 31st richest American alive (according to Forbes magazine in 2006) — Philip Anschutz can name them whatever he wants. I guess he could call them the Hamburg Helpers if he worked out the copyright infringement issues with General Mills.

Anschutz
Anschutz

Anschutz is almost a caricature of the classic gazillionaire American entrepreneur.

The son of a land investor in the U.S. West, Anschutz struck out on his own about 40 years ago, buying up large swathes of ranchland and farmland. He also made big oil discoveries on his properties and was a billionaire by the early 1980s.

Nobody knows for sure, but there’s a good chance Philip Anschutz is the biggest private land owner in North America.

From land and oil, Anschutz moved into railroads and telecommunications, then into showbiz through Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG).

He financed the very successful movie Chronicles of Narnia, among other. He owns the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, where the Academy Awards ceremonies are held, and the O2 arena in London where Michael Jackson was scheduled to put on a series of 50 shows for hundreds of thousands of spectators between July 13, 2009, and March 6, 2010. All the shows were sold out before Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009.

(Here’s a weird bit of trivia: Anschutz, ever the entrepreneur, offered to provide souvenir tickets for the concerts that never happened to fans who waived refunds. About half the 750,000 tickets sold were actually issued as macabre mementos rather than refunds.)

But sports is Philip Anschutz’s current pride and joy. He was one of the co-founders and an early major investor in Major League Soccer and currently owns both the L.A. Galaxy and Houston Dynamo (as well as the Galaxy’s home stadium, the Home Depot Center).

The real kick in the pants is that he also owns the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL plus a share of the NBA Lakers. He owns the Staples Center where they both play and a smattering of minor league teams.

So the fact that he’s a partner in elite Swedish hockey and soccer teams, and owns two teams in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) amounts to little more than chickenfeed for Philip Anschutz, 31st richest American.

Anschutz’s two DEL teams are a study in contrasts. Eisbaren Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears) are the top dogs (or bears) in the elite 15-team DEL. Berlin has won the league championship four out of the past five years and is looking in good shape to win again this year.

The Hamburg Freezers are at the other end of the happiness scale. Apart from their silly name, they’re also near the bottom of the competitive barrel — holding 14th spot in the 15-team league with 42 points (as I write this). Only the Kassel Huskies, with 41 points, are worse. Eisbaren Berlin, by contrast, hold top spot with 82 points.

Heck, even teams with names like the Grizzly Adams of Wolfsburg and the Iserlohn Roosters are doing better than the Freezers.

The Freezers used to be the Munich Barons (est. 1999), but Anschutz moved the financially troubled franchise to Hamburg before the start of the 2002-03 season.

team photo

So think of the Hamburg Freezers as the Toronto Maple Leafs of German hockey — rich owners, a mixed bag of players, a home in the league cellar … and endless talk of rebuilding. In Hamburg, as in Toronto, hockey hope springs eternal.

So just who are these mighty Freezers?

Most of them, as you might expect are German players, although two of the German nationals on the team were born in Canada and are taking advantage of their dual citizenship to make the DEL roster as German content (hello CFL).

Canadians make up the second largest national group, with five players on the current roster. The U.S. and Finland are each represented by three players.

Forget the Finns, but two of the three Americans might as well be Canadian:

Defenseman Peter Ratchuk was born in Buffalo, played for the Hull Olympiques in the QMJHL and was drafted in the first round (25th overall) of the 1996 entry draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He later signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers and played 32 games with the Panthers between 1998 and 2001 before ending up with his hometown Buffalo Sabres.

When the Sabres sent him down to the Rochester farm club for the 2002-03 season, Ratchuk headed for Europe and has since bounced back and forth between the DEL, the NHL and the AHL. This is his first season in Hamburg and who knows where he’ll be next season. But he keeps hoping and trying. Good on ‘em.

The other sorta-Canadian-playing-as-an-American-on-a-German-team is Jean-Marc Pelletier, the pride of Atlanta, Georgia.

Now I haven’t yet figured out which minor-league team Jean-Marc’s father was playing on in Atlanta in 1978, but goalie Jean-Marc grew up in Saint-Lambert, Quebec.

He was a fairly high second-round draft pick in the 1997 entry draft, being taken 30th overall by the Flyers.

Pelletier bounced around between Philadelphia and Phoenix and their farm teams between 1998 and 2005 before deciding to make the move to Germany’s DEL in 2006.

Are we seeing a pattern here? Guys who are not cracking an NHL lineup but who are too good (or think they are too good) for the AHL decide to end the yo-yo jerk-around by moving to Europe.

There are pros and cons. It’s not la dolce vita, folks. The pay’s not nearly as good and you’ll never be a superstar. But there are perqs.

Firstly, you’re in Europe. Hamburg is a hell of a lot closer to Amsterdam than Corner Brook, Nfld., is to the provincial capital of St. John’s (I’ll tell you later why that matters), the season is shorter and the travel is a lot less.

So the players actually get to have family lives and enjoy seeing their kids and wives during the hockey season while living in an incredibly civilized and livable European city. Not a bad job if you can get it, eh — especially if you’re being paid to play a game you love?

On the flip side, there’s a hockey saying: Playing in Europe is the same thing as telling the NHL you’ve retired. Sounds to me like that’s a saying made up by the NHL front office.

So let’s look at the Canadian players on the Hamburg Freezers now.

The dean of the Canadian contingent (as in the guy who’s been there the longest) is big and tough defenseman Paul Manning, born in Red Deer, Alta., in 1979.

Manning
Manning

Manning has been with the Freezers since their second season in Hamburg in 2003-04, but he was a third-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 1998.

He played eight games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002-03 but the rest of his time was spent riding buses in the minors. So hello Europe.

Fortier
Fortier

Then you’ve got forward — or “sturmer” as the Germans like to call them — Francois Fortier of Beauport, Que., who bounced around the AHL and ECHL before ending up in in Germany in 2002. He’s been with Hamburg since 2005 and seems like a very happy man.

Next comes defenseman Mathieu Biron, of Lac-St. Charles, Que., who was drafted 21st overall in the first round of the 1998 NHL entry draft by the L.A. Kings.

Biron
Biron

How the hell does a 21st pick end up playing for the Hamburg Freezers in Germany.

Well, he bounces.

First he’s a throw-in part of the big-package Zigmund Palffy/Bryan Smolinski for Olli Jokinen/Josh Green trade between the Kings and Islanders in 1999.

Then he bounces from the Island to Tampa Bay to Florida to Washington (and, more importantly, their farm teams in Lowell, Springfield, San Antonio, Worcester and Hamilton) for a decade before deciding to cut his losses and head for Europe.

Here comes my fav (as a damned-fool Leafs fan), Clarke Wilm.

Wilm
Wilm

Wilm (named for Bobby Clarke as I told you before) was picked up from the Nashville Predators by the Leafs in 2003.

He had already played four full seasons for the Calgary Flames.

I remember Wilm as a hard-nosed checking centre for the Leafs from 2003 to 2006, but he just couldn’t stick.

In 2006 he followed St. John’s Baby Leafs coach Doug Shedden to the Finnish elite team Jokerit, then moved across the Baltic Sea to Hamburg in 2008.

And now for the biggest Canadian Freezer of them all — Jason King, of Corner Brook, Nfld.

Jason King
King

Forward/sturmer King is the top scorer on the Freezers, who signed him to a two-year contract extension last week.

King was a seventh-round pick (212th overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in 2001 and he had some early success in the 2003-04 season playing with the Sedin twins (they were known as the Mattress Line — get it, two twins and a King).

He was named NHL Rookie of the month for November 2003, but his scoring touch faded and so did his appeal to the Canucks.

The following year, the Canucks demoted him to the Manitoba Moose where he suffered a concussion that wiped out the rest of that season.

After the lockout, King and the Canucks couldn’t come to terms for the 2006-07 season and King skedaddled to Skelleftea AIK in one of the Swedish elite leagues before being traded by Vancouver to Anaheim in the NHL off-season.

King played four games with the Ducks but spent most of the 2007-08 season with their farm team, the Portland Pirates. So goodbye Disneyland, hallo Deutschland.

King spent one season with Adler Mannheim (the Mannheim Eagles) before being lured to Hamburg for this season.

King loves playing in the German league, loves Hamburg, and so does his young family, according to press reports after his contract extension was announced last week:

“Ich bin froh, dass ich auch in den kommenden zwei Spielzeiten für die Freezers auflaufen kann,” King said. “Mein Ziel war es, in Hamburg wieder zu alter Stärke zu finden – das habe ich geschafft. Darüber hinaus fühlt sich meine Familie in der Stadt sehr wohl. Nun will ich unseren Fans meine gute Form auch langfristig unter Beweis stellen und helfen, die Freezers wieder nach oben zu schießen. Ich freue mich, dass ich Teil des Neuaufbaus sein kann.“

Well, I don’t think King actually said that. Many Germans, especially northern Germans, speak excellent English, so I think that quote was probably a translation of something King said in Newfoundland-tinged English along the lines of:

“I’m really happy I’ll be playing here for at least the next two years. I’ve been able to get my game back in high gear in Hamburg and my family likes living here too. I know the Freezers are in a rebuilding phase, but I am confident we will make you proud soon. I’m here for the long haul.”

King, his wife and son (born in Germany) live in Hamburg most of the year but are able to spend a good chunk of the summer with friends and family on The Rock.

Based on the experience of Paul Manning and others, King should have a long, happy (if unheralded) pro hockey career in Hamburg.

I’m running out of space and time and I have so much more to tell you about guys like Hamburg coaches Paul Gardner and Bill Stewart, and Ladies Night and other things.

So there’s obviously a Part 2 here.

I’ll throw in a couple of photos, get this up so you can read it, then add more photos later and give you Part 2 of the Hamburg Freezers in a day or two (and maybe something about FC St. Pauli as well).

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