As Cologne’s Kölner Eishockey Club (KEC)-Frauen can attest to, earning promotion to Germany’s top women’s hockey league, the Deutsche Frauen-Eishockey Liga (DFEL), is no easy feat.
Step one: Win the 2. Liga Nord (second league north) championship title. Step two: Be financially prepared to operate a team at the top level. Step three: Get the green light from club management.
This spring, KEC-Frauen was able to achieve each of these steps, a milestone for the club and for women’s hockey in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the province the city of Cologne is located in.
“What’s definitely going to have an impact on the entire development of women’s ice hockey, at least in NRW, through us playing in the highest league now is that it’s not just a hobby sport anymore,” said Gesa Dinges, who has played with KEC-Frauen since 2017.
“It is actually something that is purely based on effort and trying to do your best, and not just meeting your friends on the weekend to play games. I think that is really good for all the teams that KEC-Frauen has because it professionalizes it … I think that’s really cool for all the young players to see that if you really really try and you really really practice, you have a chance of getting onto this team.”
Founded in 1995 as the Cologne Brownies, KEC-Frauen is Germany’s largest women’s ice hockey club with four teams and approximately 80 players between the ages of 13 and 45. The teams are tiered and compete in leagues at different levels. This upcoming season, KEC-Frauen will have teams in the DFEL, 2. Liga Nord, Landesliga NRW, and Bezirksliga NRW.
In 2017, the club joined KEC, leaving behind the Brownies brand and becoming part of a much larger organization that operates youth and men’s teams, as well as the professional Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) Cologne Sharks (Die Haie) team.
“I see a lot of the younger players take it more seriously, or they see themselves as a more professional athlete because it’s in this network, in this fundamentally more structured, more known thing,” Dinges said of being part of KEC.
KEC-Frauen’s top team was able to claim the 2. Liga Nord championship this March just before the season’s abrupt end due to COVID-19. While they weren’t able to play their final scheduled game, in their penultimate game KEC-Frauen obtained enough points to top the standings and be out of reach of the other teams thanks to a 1-1 tie against Grefrather EC.
Having earned promotion to the DFEL, the team then set up a crowdfunding project called “Mission: Frauenbundesliga” using a platform run by Toyota, the DEL Cologne Sharks’ main sponsor, to raise money to cover the higher travel costs associated with playing in the DFEL and to rent more ice time. They managed to reach their target three days before the end of the campaign and raise over 15,000 Euros from over 400 supporters.
The final step was to get approval from KEC club management, which had been an obstacle for the team in the past. This was not the first time KEC-Frauen has earned promotion to the DFEL—they also won the 2. Liga Nord championship title in 2018, but at that time KEC shied away from helping organizationally and financially, and the team was unable to make the jump to the top league. This time however, KEC gave the team their support.
KEC-FRAUEN REACHES DFEL
The team is ecstatic to finally be competing in the DFEL this fall, but are aware of some of the challenges they will face competing against Germany’s best.
“We still have quite a small roster, and that’s scary because of the fitness level we have to achieve not just because we’re playing in the highest league, but also because we’re playing with so few players we have to compensate for the lack of further lines,” said Dinges, who also pointed out that the team is very young.
“A lot of the other teams have a lot of players that are either around my age [28 years] or even older, and they have been playing in that league for at least 10 years. We don’t really have the experience base at this level of playing just because we’re so young as a team.”
Head coach René Nosper has coached KEC-Frauen teams since 2007, and got a glimpse into play in the DFEL last season during a brief stint coaching the new defunct Düsseldorfer EG.
“The speed, the game decisions are faster, so we have to work to be able to play with that. I hope that we can play with the bigger teams and have good games against the smaller teams. [The goal is] getting experience playing in this league.”
Dinges and her teammates are confident that their team spirit and ability to play in the moment will help them in their transition.
“We’re very excited and willing,” said Dinges. “I almost want to say that our greatest skill is kind of that we never thought we would get into the first league … Every game was the maximum so to say. I think that’s essential for hockey, that you see every game as the last game you’re going to play. It actually helped us play with more fun and more desire to win single games and achieve our best capacity every session.”
The impact that having a team in the DFEL could have on the development of women’s hockey in Cologne and NRW is not lost on Nosper, Dinges, and the rest of KEC. They hope that by competing in the DFEL and having multiple teams playing at different levels, more women—both those new to the game and those already competing at the highest levels—will be drawn to join them.
The 2020-21 DFEL season is scheduled to start in mid-October, with exact dates still to be determined.
KEC-Frauen’s DFEL team is looking for an import player to join their defence line-up. Interested players can email René Nosper at [email protected]