The Deutsche Eishockey Liga (for sponsorship reasons called "PENNY Deutsche Eishockey Liga") (German pronunciation: [ˌdɔʏtʃə ˈʔaɪshɔkiː ˌliːɡaː]; English: German Ice Hockey League) or DEL, is a German professional ice hockey league and the highest division in German ice hockey. Founded in 1994, it was formed as a replacement for the Eishockey-Bundesliga and became the new top-tier league in Germany as a result. Unlike the old Bundesliga, the DEL is not under the administration of the German Ice Hockey Federation. The DEL is regarded as one of Europe's premier ice hockey divisions behind leagues in Sweden, Finland and Switzerland. Three German clubs represent the DEL on the European stage each season in the Champions Hockey League although no German club has yet won this competition.

In the 2016–17 season, the league was the second-best supported in Europe, behind the Swiss National League A, with an average attendance of 6,198 spectators per game. Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks in English), Düsseldorfer EG and Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears) all regularly attract over 15,000 fans for home games. Adler Mannheim (Mannheim Eagles) also regularly attract over 12,000 fans per home game with each of their home games in the 2019 DEL Playoffs, including all 3 games in the 4–1 final series victory against EHC Red Bull München, selling out. Despite attracting some of the biggest crowds in the DEL, and hosting NHL teams in pre-season games, Kölner Haie haven't won a championship since 2002.

In the DEL Winter Game, similar to the NHL Winter Classic where matches are played in larger, outdoors stadiums, Cologne and Düsseldorf have played in front of crowds in excess of 40,000, notably in 2019 as Düsseldorf won in overtime in rival Cologne's RheinEnergieStadion. The DEL Winter Game traditionally takes place every 2 years and 4 editions have taken place since 2013 including games in Cologne and at the home of TSG Hoffenheim with all games attracting over 30,000 spectators. Following a 2021 postponement due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic, the DEL Winter Game is set to return in December 2022 with Cologne hosting Mannheim (two of the DEL's best supported teams) in the RheinEnergieStadion.

The DEL is known for having a great game-day atmosphere with a few large modern arenas (e.g. in Berlin, Mannheim, Cologne and Düsseldorf) and other older, smaller venues (e.g in Bietigheim, Schwenningen and Straubing). The German top flight is also known for producing NHL talents including Dominik Kahun from EHC Red Bull München. Many of the German national team that took silver at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang played in the DEL, while EHC Red Bull München became the first German team to reach the Champions Hockey League final in 2019, losing to Frölunda HC. EHC Red Bull München followed this up by reaching the semi-finals of European ice hockey's premier competition in the 2021-22 Champions Hockey League. Ice hockey is growing as a sport in Germany and is seen as a popular alternative to football or handball, building upon the Olympic success in 2018.

A new system of promotion and relegation with the DEL2 is set to begin with the 2021–22 season, in which the last-placed DEL club will be replaced by the DEL2 champions and the second-bottom DEL club in 2022 will also be relegated. SC Bietigheim Steelers joined the DEL for the 2021-22 DEL season as DEL2 champions ahead of the first promotion/relegation to DEL2.

The DEL Playoffs determine the season champions in a similar format to the NHL. Each team plays 52 regular season games to determine the regular season champions before the top 10 teams are seeded and qualify for the playoffs. The top 6 teams receive a bye to the quarter-finals while the teams ranked 6–10 compete in the pre-playoff (wildcard) round. The seedings are re-calculated after each round in a straight knockout system. The DEL Final, held in May, is a best-of-seven games format, similarly to the NHL where the top seed remaining holds home-field advantage in a Game 7.

The Eisbären Berlin and Adler Mannheim are the most successful DEL clubs and have won the last two editions. Mannheim have enjoyed a lot of success in recent years (2015 and 2019 Chanpions, 2021 Regular Season Champions) although EHC Red Bull München won 3 consecutive titles between 2016 and 2018 and also made the 2019 final, losing to Mannheim in 5 games. München were also top of the 2020 standings before the season was curtailed by the Covid-19 Pandemic. ERC Ingolstadt (2014 Champions as the 9th Seed) and Grizzlys Wolfsburg have also enjoyed deep playoff runs in the last decade.

Some of the league's biggest rivalries include Kölner Haie and Düsseldorfer SG, Cologne and Adler Mannheim, and Eisbären Berlin and EHC Red Bull München. The Bavarian Derbies between München, ERC Ingolstadt, Augsburger Panther, Straubing Tigers and Nürnberg Ice Tigers and also fiercely contested. Due to geography, Nürnberg/Straubing and Augsburg/Ingolstadt are notable rivalries although Munich/Augsburg has become a stronger rivalry following their epic 2019 Semi-final series. München won that series in the deciding game 7 which also included the longest match in DEL history won by Augsburger Panther after 104 minutes of action in game 3, as 2 matches required 3 overtimes to determine a winner.

History

The Eishockey-Bundesliga was formed in 1957 as the elite hockey competition in the Federal Republic of Germany, replacing the Oberliga in this position. It was in turn replaced by the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, which now also carries the name 1st Bundesliga in its logo.

The DEL was founded in the 1994–95 season, consisting of teams from the Eishockey-Bundesliga's 1st and 2nd divisions. The condition of these earlier leagues had become intolerable. Many 1st and 2nd division teams were heavily in debt. The 2nd division attracted few sponsors and spectators. As a result, many clubs were forced to fold or withdraw to the lower leagues. Fans and corporate sponsors focused on the 1st Bundesliga teams, forcing the elite teams to invest heavily in players to avoid relegation. This increased budgets 25 percent over the previous two years.

In the final Bundesliga season, 1993–94, only 11 teams wanted to play in the 2nd Bundesliga. Furthermore, two teams folded during and after the season. Ice hockey's reputation in Germany was heavily tarnished. This made it difficult to attract serious sponsorship. In January 1994, 20 out of the remaining 21 1st and 2nd Bundesliga teams voted for creating a new entity, the DEL.

Upon founding, the "DEL Betriebsgesellschaft mbH" was the first German professional sports league managed by an organization whose members were incorporated as well. The goal behind the DEL was to create a league, based on the model of the North American NHL, in which teams could play consistently without relegation concerns and create a stable league. Clubs in the DEL were required to conform to rules, which were designed to ensure long-term viability. Twelve clubs from the old 1st Bundesliga, and six from the 2nd Bundesliga came together as founding members. The new league immediately attracted corporate sponsorship with the Krombacher Brewery, which was prominently featured on the new league logo.

The hope of avoiding the troubles of the old Bundesliga by stricter financial controls did not materialize. During DEL's initial season, on 18 December 1994, the Bundesliga's final champion, the renamed EC Hedos München, folded. This was controversial, as DEL's president Franz Hofherr had approved their license and certified their finances. Hofherr was Mad Dogs former president and it was alleged that he must have known about their desperate financial situation.

The Bosman ruling, a 1995 decision of the European Court of Justice regarding the movement of labor in soccer, had profound influence on the league. The old Bundesliga had national character with German clubs competing for the German title using mostly German players. After the ruling European Union players were excluded from the "foreign" player quota. In the 1995–96 season following the decision, the DEL teams employed 97 EU players. This lowered costs significantly, enabling smaller teams to compete more effectively. However, frequent player moves were not viewed positively by the fans, resulting in smaller attendance numbers.

Following an agreement with the DEB the league renamed itself as "DEL – Die 1. Bundesliga" in the 1999–2000 season, while reintroducing relegation and promotion to/from the 2nd Ice Hockey Bundesliga.

The 2004–05 season was significant due to the NHL lockout. 26 NHL players came to play the season in the DEL, including Jamie Langenbrunner, Erik Cole, Stéphane Robidas, Doug Weight, Mike York and several German national team players – Jochen Hecht, Olaf Kölzig, and Marco Sturm.