With no Newfoundland Growlers hockey to be played this season due to the Coronavirus pandemic, fans in Newfoundland and Labrador have been following their favourite Growlers as they ply their trades in other cities in the ECHL and in other leagues around the world.
It’s probably safe to say that there have been more than a handful of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have a bigger interest in German hockey at this moment in time, thanks to a couple of native sons and former Growlers who are setting the DEL2 on fire.
St. John’s natives Zach O’Brien and Marcus Power both decided to take their talents to Landshut in the heart of Bavaria in southeast Germany this season and once their season began, the duo simply took over the league and currently rank first and sixth in league scoring, with O’Brien leading and Power trailing by just a few points.
In spite of the ever-present pandemic, O’Brien admits it’s been a fun and interesting year.
“The season has been great so far,” O’Brien said from his apartment in Landshut.
“I’m happy to be playing because for a while there, we weren’t really sure if there would be any hockey at all this year. To be able to come over to Germany with Marcus to play hockey is pretty cool. We talked about playing overseas together when we were younger and for it to actually happen is great. It makes the transition a lot easier both on and off the ice.”
O’Brien attributes their strong start to a lifetime of familiarity and feels the European style of play has benefitted them in a big way as well.
“We’re both got off to great starts over here and a lot of that’s because of the chemistry is already there. We’ve been best buddies for a long time and linemates for the last two seasons in Newfoundland, so that allowed us to pick up where we left off. Also playing on the bigger ice over here is a good thing for the way we both play. A little more time with the puck allows us to make more plays, especially in the offensive zone.”
The DEL2 league in Germany is a very competitive league and one of Europe’s best. O’Brien has been able to adapt quickly and the proof is in the numbers, but even O’Brien has a hard time comparing the DEL2 to the ECHL in terms of its quality.
“It’s not easy to compare the two,” O’Brien said.
“Most of the teams in the league have a couple of players who were previously playing in the ECHL and had a lot of success. Playing on the bigger ice over here means there’s a bit more skating, but it’s also not as physical as the ECHL.”
The biggest difference O’Brien has had to contend with this season is the lack of fans in the building. While he’s happy to be active and playing, he admits the new vibes and empty arenas are things he is still getting used to.
“With Covid and being in a lockdown, all of our games have no fans. It’s so different, that’s for sure. After a big goal or a big hit or save, it’s still so strange not to hear the crowd go crazy. The only thing you hear is the players on the bench. I’m definitely looking forward to having fans back in the arenas. I’ve heard the fans over here are very passionate and loud. Hopefully I get a chance to experience that.”
O’Brien spoke highly of his new home in the Landshut area, claiming it seems like a great place to play and live, but he hasn’t yet been able to take full advantage of everything the area has to offer because of the pandemic.
“Landshut is a beautiful place,” he said of his new home.
“We haven’t been able to get out and see much of it here in the last few months because we have been in lockdown. The first couple of weeks after we arrived, we were able to get out and see the downtown area. They have a lot of nice restaurants and cafes.”
Given the geography of Germany and the DEL2 league, travel and gamedays look a little different than O’Brien was used to back home on The Rock. Germany is quite small compared to Canada and the United States and teams do not have to cover as much ground to travel to opponents. But that doesn’t mean that travel days are any easier.
“The travel here is a bit different then what I’m used to in Newfoundland,” O’Brien said.
“We don’t fly at all. We bus to every game and always on the day of the game. We never leave the day before like we used to in the ECHL. The positive thing is that you’re always home to sleep in your own bed, but at the same time, there are some trips that are five or six hours, so you’re sitting on the bus for a long time, then you have to get up and go play a game.”
As well as O’Brien is faring in Germany alongside his childhood best pal, he’s quick to admit he’s a little homesick. He looks back fondly at his time at home with the Growlers and sees some light at the end of the tunnel for Newfoundland hockey fans who are excited to see live hockey again soon.
“What I miss the most about playing at home is the fans and being able to see my friends and family,” O’Brien said.
“Having friends and family at every single game at home is incredible and getting to spend time with them away from the rink makes it that much more special. The Growlers are a first-class organization and they treat the players and staff incredibly well. I can’t say enough good things about the two seasons I played there. There is a very bright future ahead for the organization.”