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TESS VIGELAND: Tomorrow night, a little piece of what used to be East Germany will disappear. The Berlin Polar Bears will play their last regular season ice hockey game in the former East Berlin’s Sheet Metal Palace. They’re leaving their shabby Communist-era digs for a new, modern skybox-filled arena — built by none other than Anschutz Entertainment Group.
AEG owns, among other properties, the Home Depot Center, the Arena at Anaheim, and the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace. Some Polar Bears fans are worrying that American-style sports capitalism may kill off the team’s spirit.
From Berlin, Brett Neely reports.
BRETT NEELY: It’s Friday night and the Polar Bears are mopping the ice with a rival team from the former West. Forty-seven-hundred fans packed into Berlin’s sold-out Sheet Metal Palace.
Most of them are on their feet, body-to-body on concrete bleachers. The place looks like an airplane hangar and smells like an old locker room. But the beer is cheap.
They’re chanting East Berlin! East Berlin! Even though Berlin has been reunited for 18 years, most of the fans still come from the East. And many of them still wear Dynamos jerseys, a relic of the pre-reunification days.
Back then, the Polar Bears were half of the world’s smallest ice hockey league. Just two teams. They owed their existence to the head of East Germany’s feared secret police — the Stasi. He was a hockey fan.
With not much else to cheer for, East German hockey fans embraced the Polar Bears. Longtime sportscaster and former player Lothar Zoller explains.
Lothar Zoller (translation): This spirit is a tradition. About 30 fan clubs have formed around the Polar Bears. And that’s how the spirit evolved.
That nostalgia hasn’t been lost on Anschutz Entertainment Group. The American company bought the Polar Bears in 1999. It also owns ice hockey teams in Germany, Sweden, Great Britain and the U.S.
Anschutz has made the Polar Bears one of the most successful franchises in German ice hockey. So successful, they’ve outgrown the Sheet Metal Palace. When the new season begins in September, the Polar Bears will be facing off in the $200 million O2 Arena. O2 — as in the giant European cell-phone company.
Good-bye locker-room stench. Hello luxury boxes, expensive dinner club, rock concerts and 14,000 seats.
The arena is part of a huge entertainment complex going up close to where the Wall came down.
BILLY FLYNN: We’re going to have penthouse apartments with sundown-over-the river views. It’s going to be a great part of Berlin.
That’s Billy Flynn, the team’s general manager for finance. He compares the new development to The Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, another Anschutz property. The team wants to draw West Berliners, so ticket prices will stay the same — for now. But the number of standing benches — the cheap seats — will be cut by a third.
Flynn insists Anschutz isn’t trying to freeze out the team’s core fans.
FLYNN: They’ll be part of the show, the atmosphere by the Eisbaeren. We’re world famous for that.
But the Polar Bears’ working-class fans are worried their traditions will disappear. Worried enough to stage a three-minute silent protest during a recent game. They want more standing-room bleachers. They also want the Communist-era Dynamo banners to fly in the new arena.
But fans are also realistic about what Anschutz has done for the Polar Bears. Matthias Thailer has been coming to games for about six years.
MATTHIAS THAILER (translation): Without them the success wouldn’t have happened. My God, that’s the way things are today in sports. Nothing happens without money. It’s sad, actually.
Like most fans, Thailer plans to go to games in the new arena. But like many, he’s worried the spirit of the old arena will ring hollow in the fancy new space.
In Berlin, I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.
Naomi Kresge contributed to this report.
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