Right now, it feels like Germany is having a moment. The men’s national team stunned the world with a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, while Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl was the second-highest goal-scorer in the NHL, behind only Alex Ovechkin. Draisaitl was also a top-five producer overall, while goalie Thomas Greiss has been crucial to the New York Islanders’ turnaround. At the junior level, the nation will likely have back-to-back first-rounders in the NHL draft for the first time, if 2019 defenseman Moritz Seider joins 2018’s Dominik Bokk of the St. Louis Blues in that club. That tandem also helped Germany’s under-20 team win promotion to the top rung of the World Junior Championship for next year’s tourney in the Czech Republic.
In the NCAA, Clarkson’s Nico Sturm was one of the NHL’s most coveted free agents this spring. And in Europe, Red Bull Munich went all the way to the Champions League final before losing to Sweden’s Frolunda. German free agents from the German League (DEL) are also attracting NHL interest, something that hasn’t been a regular occurrence of late.
So is it all smiles in Germany? Well, not quite, but things are looking up. “It’s not like there was a big step, but it’s baby steps,” said former NHLer and 2018 Olympic coach Marco Sturm (no relation to Nico). “The Olympics helped, because it showed the world and Germany that German guys could play.”
Sturm, who’s now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings, is a product of the German system, having come up in the 1990s with Landshut of the DEL. He sees both positives and negatives in his homeland, drawing off his own experiences as a teenager. “It was huge,” he said. “When I started, there were only three imports. My second year, there were five. At 16, I was playing in all situations. Now, even a player like Seider doesn’t get a lot of minutes.”
Indeed, Seider – a big, strapping two-way defenseman with Adler Mannheim – averaged 12:13 of ice time in the regular season and 11:10 at the start of the playoffs. But it’s a positive that he stayed in Germany: Bokk has been playing for Vaxjo in Sweden the past two seasons, while 2019 draft prospect Taro Jentzsch has been developing in the QMJHL with Sherbrooke. Draisaitl, Tobias Rieder and Philipp Grubauer all played major junior in Canada, too.
These days, DEL teams can carry 11 imports, though only nine can play per game. That may seem like a hindrance to local development, but not everyone sees it that way. “It’s a good balance right now,” said Straubing Tigers GM Jason Dunham. “We like to see German players, but we also want the competitiveness. We want those 17- and 18-year-olds to be facing top competition. It’s nice to see the kids get an opportunity here. They can finish their German schooling, but they also grow as men. You’re going into the corners against a guy who has house payments to make.”
One of Dunham’s best young players is right winger Stefan Loibl, a 22-year-old who is attracting NHL interest as a free agent. The 6-foot-2, 188-pounder had 21 goals in 52 games for Straubing this season and has great speed. Dunham and the Tigers are helping Loibl round out the rest of his game, and doing so against men in the DEL the past few years has upped the stakes.
You don’t hear about anything except soccer, so it was nice to hear millions were watching hockey. We were the big talk for awhile.
– Marco Sturm
Loibl is a late-bloomer, but Dunham points out that the dream of making it to the NHL is still alive at 22. Lean Bergmann of Adler Mannheim and Fabio Pfohl from Kolner Haie are two other free agents garnering NHL interest, while Dunham cites Chicago Blackhawks rookie Dominik Kahun as a perfect example of a young guy who eventually got his shot.
Kahun was part of the German Olympic team that won silver in Korea, and that squad did a lot for the sport’s visibility back home. “You don’t hear about anything except soccer, so it was nice to hear that millions of people were watching hockey,” Sturm said. “We were the big talk for awhile and it was nice.”
The only downside was the raised expectations that crashed when Germany didn’t earn a medal at the World Championship last spring. “A lot of people I talked to didn’t realize the Olympics were a second-level tournament last year,” said Thomas Roost of NHL Central Scouting Europe. “They didn’t understand when Germany couldn’t even qualify for the quarterfinal at the worlds a few months later.”
But using momentum is key, particularly when it comes to the youth. Dunham, who is Canadian, believes there are a great number of athletes in Germany, but the problem for hockey is that most of the talent goes into soccer. Sturm sees the biggest shortfall coming in the 16-24 age bracket, where a lack of ice time can both hinder development and turn kids off the game.
To that end, the German Ice Hockey Federation (DEB) recently created the Five Star Program, which is intended to promote the grassroots game at the youth level by engaging pro organizations. Teams get points for specific actions, like having a youth co-ordinator, hosting school events or recruiting days, or having ample ice time available for young players. Teams with the highest scores are deemed to be ‘Five Star’ and are awarded with extra funding. Twelve different organizations were awarded the ‘Five Star’ designation in 2017-18, including DEL franchises such as Adler Mannheim and the Krefeld Penguins. The previous year, there were 11 such teams. “We have invested a lot in youth hockey in the past seven to 10 years,” Dunham said.
Indeed, with corporate backing from names such as SAP, Red Bull, Thomas Sabo and the Anschutz Entertainment Group (which owns both the L.A. Kings and the DEL’s Eisbaren Berlin squad), the money is there and so are the facilities. Now it’s a matter of keeping the good work going and growing the young base of talent so the next generation can fulfill its hockey dreams.
In Canada, Dunham notes, the pool of players is so big that teams don’t have to stick with kids who aren’t fully committed. In Germany, there may only be one or two promising youngsters coming up in the same cohort, so the development model must work with them longer and more attentively. “We’re still paddling,” Sturm said. “We have to take the small group that we have and grow it bigger.”