The IIHF Men's World Championship just wrapped up and though the final medallists weren't necessarily off-the-board names - Canada, Finland and the USA - how they all got there made for a compelling tournament. Canada, famously, dropped its first three games of the tourney and barely squeaked into the medal round. In fact, they got there because Germany beat Latvia in regulation in the final round robin match between the two European nations, providing heartbreak for the host Latvians but a glimpse of hope for the Canadians.
But it's Germany that I'd like to focus on today. Ultimately, the Germans finished fourth in the tournament after falling in the semifinal to Finland and Team USA in the bronze-medal game, but they proved that their national program has truly hit another level in recent years.
At the top, you have Germany's shocking silver medal at the 2018 Olympics - which, to be fair, is diminished in some eyes by the fact NHLers did not participate. For the Germans however, the silver medal was more than just an on-ice triumph; it got people back home talking about something other than soccer (briefly) for once. And that sort of positive momentum can go a long way.
This season's world juniors were a mixed bag, as the Germans were rocked by Covid protocols early on and forced to play with a severely depleted lineup. But once everyone got back to health, we saw one of the best performances of the under-20 squad ever, with Germany playing in the quarterfinal for the first time after getting two victories in the round robin.
Now we have Germany going deep at the Worlds; it's officially a trend.
The most positive sign for Germany is how much elite talent is now available to the national side: The team has already qualified for the 2022 Olympics in China and assuming the NHL will be there (and it is looking positive), Germany has a Hart Trophy winner as its No. 1 center in Leon Draisaitl, a Vezina Trophy finalist in net with Philipp Grubauer and the world junior's reigning Top Forward award-winner in Tim Stutzle. Oh, and on the back end you have the reigning Top Defenseman award-winner from the worlds in Detroit Red Wings prospect Moritz Seider, the kind of guy who can play 30 minutes a game if you need him to.
Luckily for the Germans, they have established a structured culture and enough depth where Seider doesn't have to play that much anymore (he was a workhorse at the world juniors back in 2020), but you get the idea. Toss in prospects such as J.J. Peterka (BUF) and Lukas Reichel (CHI) and it appears as though things are going to continue getting better for Germany.
So how did we get here? Part of it is great timing; Draisaitl and Grubauer are playing their best hockey yet right now while the kids are quite simply the best generational cohort of talent that Germany has ever produced. But perhaps the reason behind that growth is because the Germans have been working on their grassroots hockey.
A couple of years ago, the German Ice Hockey Federation introduced the 'Five Star Program,' which sought to reward pro teams back home for helping young players develop. 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.
While Draisaitl and Grubauer both left Germany to play major junior hockey in Canada, it's worth noting that Stutzle, Peterka and Reichel all played their draft seasons back home in the DEL, getting ice time against men and honing their skills. The 2022 draft class may not be as strong, but Florian Elias and Luca Munzeberger are two solid options and they too stayed home to develop.
It's very difficult to climb the ladder in international hockey, with that Big Six of Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Team USA and the Czechs looming large. But Germany already seems to have the high-end elements to pass by middle-tier programs such as Switzerland and Slovakia and it's not outlandish to wonder if they could pull past the Czechs in the future, either.
In fact, in the latest IIHF rankings, Germany sits fifth, ahead of the Czechs and shockingly, Sweden. So maybe the future is already here.