BERLIN (Reuters) - On ice hockey game days, trams rolling out of smart central Berlin fill up with more and more fans in team jerseys the farther east they go.
The crowd file off at the Wellblechpalast, or “sheet iron palace,” in a working-class district, which is home to the Eisbaeren -- one of the few sports teams in the formerly Communist east to survive after unification.
In the German top division’s tiniest ice hockey stadium, reeking of stale beer and hung with banners celebrating 15 East German and two German titles, fans cheer the team’s predecessors, the Communist club Dynamo, and shout “East, east, east Berlin!”
Times are changing for the Eisbaeren (Polar Bears), however, just as the area is changing. The pavements of the once-drab east Berlin neighborhood are now lined with art galleries and chic cafes that reflect its growing prosperity.
Since the team’s former arch rivals from west Berlin, the Berlin Capitals, folded in 2004, the Eisbaeren have been Berlin’s only top-flight team.
A U.S. investor, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has owned the Eisbaeren since 1999 and is building a new, 14,500-capacity stadium for ice hockey and concerts in an up-and-coming area on the banks of the Spree River, just east of the government quarter.
Ice hockey fans were once found primarily among the working classes in Berlin but the game has caught on with the more affluent in recent years.
Billy Flynn, the team’s general manager for finance, has witnessed the change.
“The new Berliner lives in Prenzlauer Berg (district) and goes shopping in Friedrichsstrasse and comes to the Eisbaeren -- no problem,” said Flynn, a Boston native, ticking off the names of eastern areas which have gone up in the world.
“Where was that wall again?”
When Anschutz’s arena opens next year it will be nearly triple the size of the 4,695-capacity Wellblechpalast.
Fans at a recent home game were skeptical about whether the mood of the old stadium in the Hohenschoenhausen district could be transported west to the new arena.
“I’d like to stay here,” said Michaela Lachmuth, 35, from the eastern state of Brandenburg. “The atmosphere is better. In a big hall you lose something.”
Many fans had got to know their neighbors by standing at roughly the same spot in every game, said Uwe Busse, 48, also from Brandenburg. He has been attending games since 1996.
Busse’s spot is next to one of the fan drummers in full team regalia, each with their own corner of the stadium, who take turns leading chants.
“It’ll be a while before the mood is the same,” he said.
The new arena would add seating to appeal to fans from affluent suburbs, Flynn said. Now, most of the spectators stand for the matches.
Another fan, Wolf Kindt, 27, predicted that the team would find it difficult to keep their long-time supporters and attract new ones.
“The combination of both is hardly possible. But they’ll try everything they can,” said Kindt, who grew up in west Berlin and attended his first Eisbaeren game in 1992.
Kindt said it still bothered him to hear fans yell slogans from the Communist east.
“I can’t get used to the fact that they shout ‘Dynamo’ and ‘East Berlin’. Nobody wants to hear that,” he said.
The Dynamo name is linked with Stasi chief Erich Mielke, who oversaw sports in East Germany.
Mielke, a hockey fan, intervened to keep the Dynamo Berlin club afloat in the early 1970s when the sport was seen as too expensive and not a source of Olympic medals.
The East Berlin Dynamo team and one other East German team from Weisswasser made up the smallest professional ice hockey league in the world between 1970 and 1989.
After the Berlin Wall fell the team continued briefly as EHC Dynamo before being renamed the Eisbaeren in 1992.
As cultural institutions from the former east disappeared, the team became something cherished to hold on to, said fan Dagmar Miede, 42, of Berlin.
“The Ossis stick together more than the Wessis,” said Peter Ganz, 45, using German slang for residents of the former east and the former west.
Told that some west Berliners were becoming fans as well, Garz laughed.
“Then they’re turning into Ossis too,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon