Casually, a historic event has taken place in the hockey world this week. German Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl has been named the NHL’s MVP by both press representatives (Hart Trophy) and his peers (Ted Lindsay Trophy).
This is no small feat when you take into account the fact that Germany, until recently, played a rather secondary role on the international hockey scene. Draisaitl’s story is even more fascinating when you see that there are only 21
000 federated hockey players in Germany, out of a population of some 80 million inhabitants.
If we rely on the observations of Quebecer Stéphane Richer, who has made a career on German soil for 25 years, this country’s hockey is having by far the best moments in its history. And that only seems to be the beginning. Over the next few years, expect a whole new generation of hockey players developed in Germany to enter the NHL.
Before going any further, let’s take a look at a very interesting historical reminder.
In the 1980s, two hockey players from the Outaouais and bearing the name Stéphane Richer made a career in the organization of the Canadiens. One was a prolific forward who won two Stanley Cups. The other was a reliable defenseman who rolled his bump for a long time in the American League and whose journey was punctuated by a few stints in the NHL.
It is the latter Stéphane Richer who occupies the position of general manager of the Eisbären of Berlin, one of the most prestigious clubs of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the German first division league.
Richer ended his playing career in the early 2000s after playing eight seasons in the DEL, mainly at Mannheim. He has never left this country (professionally) since. Over the years, Stéphane Richer has served as head coach in Mannheim and Cassel. He was then the general manager of the Hamburg club for several seasons before taking the helm of Eisbären Berlin.
Very few Canadians, therefore, know German hockey as well as Stéphane Richer.
The GM was having a blast when I called him this week. His team’s training camp was just beginning, and the Los Angeles Kings had just lent Eisbären five of their best prospects: forwards Alex Turcotte, Tyler Madden, Akil Thomas, Aidan Dudas and goalkeeper Jacob Ingham. .
There is a direct link between the Eisbären and the Kings since the two organizations both belong to the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG).
Philip Anschutz reproduced in Berlin what he did in Los Angeles. He built an ultramodern amphitheater around which he created a business and entertainment district.
Usually, it is mainly us who use the resources of the Kings. Every year, for example, we send two young Germans to their development camp. But this year, the reverse is due to the pandemic.
All NHL teams try to place their young players in Europe to allow them to continue their development. According to my last tally, 85 youngsters belonging to NHL teams have been loaned to European clubs so far, says Stéphane Richer.
In addition to the Kings’ five prospects, the Eisbären welcomes young defenseman Leon Gawanke, a prospect for the Winnipeg Jets. The Berliner played his junior hockey in Cape Breton in the QMJHL. He was playing in Manitoba, in the American League, last season.
This exchange of good practices is beneficial for everyone. These young people we welcome are starting their professional careers. They come out of the junior ranks or the university. They will realize that the level of play is high in Europe and they will be supervised by good veterans. Here in Berlin, our two veterans and leaders are Maxim Lapierre and Pierre-Cédric Labrie.
It will also be very positive for our youngest players to rub shoulders with prospects who are almost their age and who have just been drafted. It will allow them to compare themselves and see where they are in their development, says Stéphane Richer.
How impressed will young German hockey players be with their new North American teammates? There is reason to wonder.
The Eisbären have left winger Lukas Reichel, who is considered the 11th European prospect for the NHL draft, scheduled in two weeks.
I think Reichel could be the big surprise of this draft. I am convinced he will be taken in the first round. His skill level is really very high and his sense of the game is incredible. He hasn’t reached full physical maturity yet, but his progress has been truly impressive over the past year. He arrived here at 17, rather shy. He was naturally inclined to pass the record on to the veterans. Now he is the one who wants the puck and creates games.
Maxim Lapierre took Lukas under his wing. They played together for most of the last season. Lukas learned good manners and developed excellent work habits, dit Richer.
At 17 in a very competitive professional league, Reichel scored 12 goals in 42 games last season. That’s five more goals than Tim Stützle, who wears the colors of the Mannheim club and who is identified as the first European prospect for the draft.
Former NHL players who faced Stützle in the LED say he is sure to find success in North America. This is no small compliment.
Stützle has absolutely everything to be successful. At 17, faced with professionals who have a lot of profession, he was a dominant player in our league. He was playing in his team’s first power play unit. And some nights he was the best player on the ice. It doesn’t surprise anyone here that he’s identified as one of the top three players available for the draft, Stéphane Richer analysis.
Then, in Munich, we find another left winger, John-Jasen Peterka, whom the NHL recruiting center considers to be the 7th prospect available.
Peterka is a pure power striker. He is constantly rushing to the net and he has a good shot. He is not a game maker. He is not a smuggler. But he’s a very hard working shooter, comments the Quebec CEO of the Eisbären.
When he looks at the portrait as a whole, Stéphane Richer does not hesitate for a second to say that the 2019-2020 season was the most successful in the history of German hockey. Not so long ago, when Germany reached the final of the Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang, the same was said.
Leon (Draisaitl) won the Hart Trophy. And three Germans will likely be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, which has never happened before.
For the young people here, who grow up in a country where football (soccer) is a religion, it’s huge! Often the best young German hockey players also play football and they have to make a choice when they reach their teenage years. The trophies collected by Leon and the popularity of young people here with NHL scouts, it shows them that there is a path for those who choose hockey.
During the last season, Stéphane Richer said that there were sometimes 20 NHL scouts in the stands when the Eisbären faced Mannheim or Munich.
I had never seen such a thing in my life. And after the games, scouts came to me to tell me that they were impressed with the level of play of the DEL.
All of this progress, he stresses, is not, however, the result of chance.
The German federation has imposed standards on professional teams in the development of minor hockey. Professional clubs were encouraged to invest heavily in development, including providing full-time minor hockey coaches.
Then other measures were adopted. For example, we were forced to field two German players under 23 in our teams last season. This quota will increase to three players next season. We put a lot of effort into ensuring that young German talents are supervised and developed.
The Berlin Eisbären has its own development academy which welcomes, from the age of 13, young talents who participate in a sports-study program headed by the organization.
Young people live, study and train on the same campus. They train twice a day, explains Richer.
And academies like that, he says, it grows all over the country. The Munich club is also in the process of building a complex of four ice creams which will serve as a training base, but which will also allow it to create its own academy.
Leon Draisaitl did not win the two most prestigious individual trophies in hockey by chance this week. Across the Atlantic, another very serious hockey nation is emerging.