A winter fairy tale

German goaltender Danny aus den Birken answers questions after a win at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

German goalie Danny aus den Birken looks back

Danny aus den Birken was named the Best Goaltender of the 2018 Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. Now he looks back to leading Germany to a silver medal.

When the 2018 Olympic Winter Games kicked off, few hockey pundits around the globe could have envisioned what would take place at the Gangneung Hockey Centre in Korea. For Germany, it was nothing short of history in the making.

Germany entered the tournament as one of the biggest underdogs, but it went about putting on a display of team spirit and timely scoring that took it all the way to the gold medal game, where the dream of the nation’s first ever gold medal ended when Olympic Athlete from Russia forward Kirill Kaprizov scored the tournament-winning goal on the power play in overtime to give the tournament’s favourite a 4-3 victory, and with that, the gold medal.

Nonetheless, winter sport fans around the world came to see a truly historical event, as Germany took the silver medal. It was Germany’s best finish ever in the history of Olympic ice hockey. For die-hard hockey fans, Germany’s ability to make it all the way to overtime against the highly favoured collection of top-flight Russian hockey players was akin to seeing a gold medal game of David vs. Goliath.

Germany’s path to this magical event began with a tight 2-1 shootout victory in the last game of the preliminary round against Norway and continued with a run that saw the underdog knock off archrival Switzerland, then Nordic ice hockey giant Sweden, and finally Canada, the sport’s motherland and defending champion. The run was unprecedented for a team that hadn’t even qualified for the previous winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and had last won a medal, namely bronze, in 1976.

Without a doubt, goaltender Danny aus den Birken was an essential, if not the most essential, part of Germany’s fairy tale march to the silver medal. Starting with Germany’s game against Norway, he managed to make every ensuing game a one-goal affair, ultimately having been only a good minute away from possibly having won gold.

Here’s our chat with Germany’s silver medal guarantee.

You’re the proud owner of a well-deserved silver medal from the 2018 Olympics in Korea, one that has gained a world of attention. As one of the key players in this historical success, how do you describe what you experienced on the ice in Korea?

Oh wow, how can I possibly describe that?

Looking back at things now, it was like being in a dream world. We had our share of ups and downs in preparing for the Olympics and then in the first few games, but I had a feeling the whole time that we had the right chemistry in the team and in the locker room. I could tell right away that we had a real chance to make something happen. The way we played kept improving from game to game and then everyone on the team was doing his job, especially when it came to defensive assignments. And when we got chances in the offensive zone, we were dangerous.

It was just incredible to be part of this ever-evolving belief in ourselves and the game plan, so I had strong feeling about where we were going in this tournament. And the result led to feelings that were, well, indescribable.

Heading into the tournament, it wasn’t really a given that you’d be the team’s starting goalie at any point. How did this come about and how were you able to muster up the calm demeanour that played such a key role in the team’s success?

This calmness in goal is something I always have. That would be the thing I’d say is my biggest strength. It always has been. I am a very calm and collected person in goal. I seldom get nervous, so that’s really something that’s always been of benefit.

As for how things turned out with being the team’s number-one goalie down the playoff stretch, I’d have to say our coach had his reasons. I certainly wouldn’t have been justified in being unhappy if Timo Pielmeier had played our third game against Norway. He had put in a really strong game against Sweden in our second match-up, where we lost 1-0. But the coach had to know what he was doing and why. And I hope – well, I believe – I was able to confirm his confidence in me when he made the decision to put me in goal.

As the importance of each game grew with every game, how did you prepare yourself both mentally and physically, especially considering how little time you had between each ensuing game?

Every ice hockey player who participates in an Olympics or World Championship realizes that the games are going to be taking place every to every other day. It’s a real grind and can be extremely difficult.

I think it had to do with the team though. We had such a good vibe going. We were like the best of friends going to war with one another and this really pushed all of us individually and gave us the energy we needed to bite through whenever we started show signs of wear and tear from the gruelling schedule. Once we tasted blood against Sweden in the 1-0 loss, that’s when the energy kicked in and kept pushing us along. The adrenaline was there the whole time.

With the aforementioned 1-0 loss to Sweden, every single game was decided by a one goal margin, the majority first in overtime. How in the world does a goalie go about managing that kind of pressure from game to game?

That’s hard to sum up. I’d say that dealing with pressure truly needs to be a strength for any goaltender looking to achieve prolonged successful, or really any success. As mentioned, that’s one of my strengths and it’s something I worked on and developed over a long period of time. I improved on that a lot during my time in Munich, having played for the championship in recent years.

There’s always a certain amount of pressure placed on a goaltender. It simply lies in the nature of the position. If you want to be on top, you have to learn how to deal with it and be strong whenever you face it.

When did the German national team start to realize what it was going to be capable of at this tournament?

In the first game against Finland, we simply played too passively and were a bit nervous. We didn’t play the way we knew we could. We then had that good game against Sweden, realizing that we could have actually won it. Then against Norway, we got this feeling like ”Hey, Norway isn’t bad, but we’re truly better. We’re taking this thing.“

Switzerland was up next and we talked about how we had beat them in an exhibition game and knew we could if we just wanted it enough. We kept getting this feeling from game to game that we can win this thing. We had real character and just had so much belief in ourselves and what we could do when we put our minds to it and follow the game plan.

It was a snowball effect. We took on Sweden again and knew we could have beaten them in the first game. We were going to make it happen. We just kept growing and believing in ourselves more and more. Mentally, we adapted a no-lose attitude and rode with it as far as possible, concentrating on those strong team-first principles.

Everyone watching the games could clearly see that Germany was practically willing its way to victory thanks to what looked like amazing team spirit. Do you think the team simply had more chemistry than others, because so many of you have been playing together already in previous tournaments? How do you explain it?

We certainly were able to enter the tournament with a bunch of guys who know each other and have played together at various junctures in the national team or also in club teams. I thought about this before the Olympics and I felt it could be a major factor in allowing us to compete. We got along well, heck, we were like a family. There’s a real long-term core to this national team that is currently intact.

When we played against Finland and even Sweden, we could see that this very factor might have been a disadvantage for them. Or at least a strength for us. No matter how many good players a number of the nations had, and a lot of these guys are playing pro hockey in the KHL, SHL, Liiga, etc., many were put together specifically for this tournament and they needed time to figure things out together. It felt like they weren’t always on the same page. Yes, I’d say that this was an advantage for us that we were able to make use of.

But along with the feelings I mentioned before, the chemistry we were able to throw out on the ice was a key to our success.

Germany’s coach Marco Sturm left the Olympics looking like a “German Herb Brooks“, of sorts. What role did his style of coaching play for Germany’s success?

Definitely a huge role. It began with his process of nominating players to this team and building together a core of players over the course of several years. In his nature, he’s a very calm type of coach. He talks to you or the team when sees something that needs addressing. But he doesn’t flip out. He only gets loud when it’s absolutely necessary. He’s got that instinct for when and where exactly he needs to do something or make a timely decision. He was naturally a huge, huge factor for us.

Had anyone told you before the Olympics that Germany would end the tournament with a 4-3 loss to the Olympic Athletes from Russia in overtime, you surely would have taken that result and headed straight to the bank. Nonetheless, Germany was just minutes away from winning the gold medal before the OAR tied up the game 3-3 with roughly a minute to go - while shorthanded no less. They then went on to win on the power play in overtime. How have you gone about processing and dealing with this incredible twist of fate?

Clearly, had anyone said ahead of time that you’d be taking the Russians to overtime in the gold medal game, you’d have thought they were nuts. I certainly wouldn’t have believed that person. And no doubt, losing that game in that fashion was as tough an experience as any I’ve ever had.

But looking back at the event now, it was an absolutely wonderful story we wrote and a wonderful result for all of German ice hockey. We’re seeing the hype it created back home and how it’s not slowing down. We hope that ice hockey will continue getting bigger in Germany. We’re hoping that more children will want to try playing ice hockey. We’re hoping that inspiring new players to discover the sport will be the effect of this crazy story. I mean heck, this was a really crazy, incredible story and we’re able to truly understand that now in the aftermath by seeing the hype and media presence, at a nationwide level, that has resulted.

We’re talked to on the street by strangers who want to give there congrats or tell us of the emotions they felt while watching us… It’s an incredible feeling of pride knowing what we ultimately achieved. It’ll likely accompany us our entire lives.

Your silver medal was the most prestigious medal Germany’s men’s team has ever won at the Olympics. How were your celebrations after the game back at the “Deutschland Haus”?

The party was crazy. It was a ton of fun. We weren’t allowed to tear down the house, but we left it in need of renovation, so to speak.

It was also special, because we celebrated with the other Germany Olympians, many of whom had watched us play and rooted us on. It was a great time, but it only made the trip home the next day that much more difficult.

What was it like to take part in the Olympics’ opening ceremonies?

That was fantastic. I’d even go so far as to say that that was where the feeling of pride we showed on the ice began. It was great being with the other athletes. Walking in the opening ceremony was a tremendous experience and for any athlete, the Olympic Games are simply one of the biggest things anyone can experience anywhere.

What did you get to experience from Korea itself? Did you try kimchi or another Korean specialty? What did the team get to see?

I sure wish I could have seen a lot more of the country and surrounding area. We were able to see a bit of Gangneung, but the nature of the tournament was such that we were playing every to every other day and our complete focus was on the task at hand. I didn’t get to try kimchi or any of the other traditional foods there. I didn’t get too experimental. That’s probably the one thing I really regret, because we just didn’t get to see much of the country or get to soak in that aspect of the journey half way around the world.

What I do want to say is that the people who worked there were incredibly friendly and so outgoing. They were so cordial and helped us out with any and everything. They were always kind and it really jumped out at us how wonderful of an experience it was to work with them.

What have you done with your silver medal? Keeping it somewhere special?

Oh, I’ve created a little Olympics shrine and I have the medal right there. The shrine holds everything that had to do with the Olympics. My award for being named the tournament’s top goaltender is there. Stuff I got from Team Germany or the passes we wore, as well as a commemorative puck I picked up; it’s all there as part of my shrine and that’s where it’s all staying put!

Will this silver medal have a lasting effect on the status of ice hockey in Germany?

I definitely hope so. That will now depend on the Germany Ice Hockey Federation and the DEL and how they go about using this opportunity to market the sport. This was definitely the right step in enabling a positive effect.

However, we noticed it right away in the first DEL games back home. The hype was immense and at least in Munich, the house was packed. I think some other teams experienced the same thing. I hope it continues. And I believe it can. If we continue to retain the media’s presence, we can enhance the sport’s popularity in Germany considerably.

You’ve been fortunate enough to work with some real class-act coaches. Your current coach with Munich is Don Jackson, who has put together quite a coaching resume in Europe, including your two straight DEL titles. How do you explain his success?

Don Jackson is the ne plus ultra of coaches. For me, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had and I’ve heard a lot of other players say the same thing. In my opinion, he’s clearly the best coach in the league. And now that I’ve seen what kind of success he can generate, it doesn’t surprise me in the least what he did in Berlin and Salzburg before his time with us. The man is just an incredible coach. The way he prepares for every game, the way he handles each and every player. His thoughts on improving and making every possible game as perfect as possible, the system he prepares us for, and his ability to deal with the little things are all outstanding.

As a person, you simply have to like and respect him. He cares about the team and about the individuals. He actively shows his interest in you as a player and in your private well-being. He wants the best for everyone he’s working with. I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there like Don Jackson.

You were part of both DEL titles. You were more of a back-up in the first championship, but you were the undisputed number one goalie in last season’s title. Your team has now finished the season at the top of the DEL standings. What has made the Red Bulls so dominant in the DEL?

We have some very talented players, but the decisive factor is the guy we just talked about, Don Jackson. He always has the team perfectly ready for the tasks at hand and has implemented a system that allows us to flourish. I also have to mention that, much like with the national team, we’ve got a great locker room in Munich and everyone gets along with everyone. It’s a very solid group and we all believe in each other. We are a whole lot more than just work colleagues.

You’ve now come back from this incredibly fabulous and exhausting experience in Korea and are heading straight into the playoffs, the most pressure-filled time of the year, especially for a team that will be shooting for its third straight title. How are you going to deal with this very unique situation?

Well we knew before the Olympics that it was going to be this way, going from such a wonderful experience to the playoffs back home. This let us prepare accordingly. As a team, we Red Bulls have gotten to have a little bit of a break while the teams ranked 7-10 in the league are duking it out in the pre-playoffs. We’re not even sure who we’ll be facing in the first round.

But now we’ve been able to rest up a bit and can’t wait to kick off the playoffs. We’re burning to win another championship. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing in the first or any other round, because as everyone knows, to become the champion you have to be ready to beat everyone. We’re excited to get things going.

In a few months’ time, the next major international ice hockey event will take place in the neighbouring country Denmark. After the huge success of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris and then the silver medal at the Olympics, what are the expectations for Germany this May in Denmark?

The situation at the World Championship differs a good bit from the Olympics and we have to go into things realistically. We know this. We can’t enter the tournament thinking we’re a medal favourite just because of what took place at the Olympics. The format is different and there are more games in the preliminary round. The teams will almost all be enhanced with NHL players, Germany hopefully as well.

Our goal will be to simply concentrate on making the World Championship playoffs. We first need to become one of the top-4 teams in our group. Then we’ll have to see how well we’re doing and what kind of a situation we’re in. This is the most realistic approach we can take. We know what we’re capable of, but we’re not going to stop being realistic just because of what we experienced in South Korea.

Let’s look into the near future after the world’s in May. You’ll be a free agent this summer. Have you thought about where you’d like to play next season? Might you have any ambitions to play in a league other than the DEL, or perhaps on another continent?

To be honest, this isn’t something I want to deal with or worry about at the moment. My focus is on the playoffs right here, right now. I’ll see where I’m at and what the opportunities are this summer, but at the moment the only thing of importance in my ice hockey life are the Red Bulls Munich and the upcoming playoffs.

Lastly, have you gotten the impression that you’ve become a much more recognized commodity as a player after what took place in Korea?

Well, in light of what we did at the Olympics, I guess you can’t really avoid that. The hockey world was watching and many of the people watching are planning for next season. I believe that many were surprised by what took place in South Korea and what Team Germany ended up achieving, so I guess that alone has made me and others more recognized.

I don’t know if that has changed anything or will have an effect on things this summer. We’ll see what happens when the time comes.

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