The German WJC entry for the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships held in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY included one of the best assortments of young hockey players the country had put together in quite some time, including NHL draft picks Philipp Grubauer (WAS), Konrad Abeltshauser (SJS), Tom Kuhnhackl (PIT), Marcel Noebels (PHI), Tobias Rieder (EDM) and Mirko Hoefflin (CHI).
Nonetheless, the team found itself on the losing side of a close 4-3 result against Switzerland and 2-1 loss to Slovakia, which were considerable blows to its chances of moving on to the playoff round. A 5-1 loss to Finland and 4-0 loss to the USA ensued, effectively pushing Team Germany into the relegation round. There, things didn’t get any rosier as a 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic was followed by an almost surprising 3-1 loss to Norway, thus unequivocally seeing Germany relegated to Division I for the 2012 WJC tournament.
This event was then hosted by Germany in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and featured the opponents Norway, Belarus, Slovenia, Austria and Great Britain. Despite two close victories over Belarus and Norway, Germany was able to readily defeat its other opponents, including an 11-2 victory over Austria and 11-1 thrashing of Great Britain, and took the expected step right back into the top grouping.
The current cast is preparing for its upcoming appearance in Ufa, Russia, where the team is looking to avoid the fate it suffered in Buffalo. Whereas Tobias Rieder may be the team’s most recognizable face, the team is far from set and does have a number of candidates who are currently playing in North American juniors or against men in a pro league in Germany.
With an eye on the upcoming 2013 WJC, Hockey’s Future had a chance to get some insight from the team’s coach, and long-time national team member, Ernst Hofner.
WJC in Ufa, Russia
Hockey's Future: Coach Hofner, what major challenges have you been facing in preparing for the upcoming WJC in Ufa, Russia?
Ernst Hofner: The biggest challenge is getting the WJC players together as a team and practicing together as a group during the preparatory phase. I then have to form these individual players into a team as quickly as possible. We then have to work on our game concepts, most particularly how we’re going to operate the power-play and penalty killing units.
HF: This time last year, you were getting Team Germany prepared for the Division 1A WJC in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where aside from an exciting game against Norway to wrap up the tournament, your team convincingly earned its way back into the top group for the coming WJC tournament. How much difference is there in the time and effort put into establishing and preparing this year’s team in comparison to last year’s squad?
EH: In last year’s tournament, it was actually our first game against Belarus, which we won 2-1, that truly ended up being the decisive game. If we had lost to Belarus, the game against Norway would have been relatively meaningless, since Belarus had beaten Norway in their second game of the tournament and would have then been the team that would have been promoted.
HF: Which players from last year’s team who are now lost to graduation, so to speak, will this year’s team miss the most?
EH: Well, last year, we had Matthias Niederberger in goal (currently 12-2-1 with a 2.58 GAA and .925 save percentage for the Barrie Colts of the OHL) and he was excellent. He put up his best performances in the all-important games against Belarus and Norway.
HF: Which players from last year’s WJC team will be suiting up for Germany in Ufa?
EH: The following players will surely be part of the extended line-up for the WJC in Ufa: Defensemen Kilian Keller (Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams), Henry Haase (Eisbaeren Berlin), Stephan Kronthaler (Landshut Cannibals), and forwards Tobias Rieder (Kitchener Rangers), Andreas Pauli (EHC Munich), Sebastian Uvira (Oshawa Generals), Nick Latta (Sarnia Sting), and Leo Pfoederl (Nuremberg Ice Tigers). Their health and playing condition leading up to the tournament will be decisive in their actual nomination to the team.
HF: What was the most important lesson from Team Germany’s relegation at the 2011 WJC in ice hockey’s U-20 belle etage (in Buffalo and Niagara, NY, USA), especially considering that it was a pretty good team on paper?
EH: Simply put, we need more days together as a team for our WJC preparation. I need for all of my team’s players to be with me and participating in practices along the way to the WJC.
HF: Your group at the upcoming WJC includes host Russia, Canada, Slovakia, and the USA. At least when it comes to the Men’s team, Germany often plays very well against Canada, Slovakia and the USA. How do you see this strategically, especially considering Germany will face Slovakia on the last day of the preliminary round?
EH: You can’t compare the Men’s WC and the U-20 tournament. The WJC has to be compared to the World Cup or, in recent times, the Olympic Games. Canada, the USA, and Russia compete for the tournament championship. To play against a tournament favorite is a huge challenge and a lot of fun. Our strategy to is take things game for game, day in, day out, to then quickly forget the last game of the preliminary round and get ready for whatever then awaits us.
HF: What can the hockey world realistically expect of Germany at this tournament?
EH: We will first be able to gauge the performance and abilities of our opponent right before the WJC. Any prognosis at this point would be nothing more than pure speculation.
Ice hockey in Germany in at the U-20 level and lower
HF: As a coach with decades of experience, and as one of the founders of Germany’s top junior hockey league (DNL), what is your current opinion on the development this league has had? Is it generating the types of players that Germany just didn’t seem to have before its time, especially in light of the composition of the U-20 and U-18 teams?
EH: The DNL is currently at its highest possible level of development (four practices per week in the evening, 1-2 practices before school, and two games each weekend). The players have their hands absolutely full with sports and school. There’s simply no room for anything else. The training in the DNL and the sessions held by the German Ice Hockey Federation have ultimately led to us finishing 6th at each of the last two U-18 WJC's. We’re ranked 8th at the U-20 and U-18 levels. Our Men’s national team is currently ranked 10th.
HF: Since the players in the DNL are 18 or younger, there is some criticism that the great majority are not near ready for the German DEL after their DNL careers. In fact, for a lot of these players, even the jump into the 2nd is a bit too much to ask of them. What do you think is the best solution for the further development of these players after the DNL, especially considering you have to spend every fall picking out the best 16-20 year old's for the national team?
EH: Put quite simply, it really has to do with the players themselves and how far along they are in their development. There are individual solutions for each of them out there, be it in the 3rd league, the 2nd league, the DEL or perhaps even North America.
HF: Which German clubs do you think are doing the best work when it comes to developing young players, especially with respect to players who come into question for the national team?
EH: There are a 100 clubs in Germany who are doing some great youth work in a number of different ways. A good example is a small club in southern Bavaria called SC Reichersbeuren, which produces new players (both girls and boys) every year and develops them until they just about hit bantam level. They then move over to Bad Toelz, where they play in the bantam and then the DNL teams. At some point, if good enough, they’re worked into the men’s team, which is currently in the 3rd league. The best can even find themselves with a prospect contract for the DEL affiliate, Nuremberg Tigers (such as Leo Pfoerderl or Andreas Jenicke).
Bottom line: the youth work in Germany is something all of the clubs are participating in and something we can’t do without them. Every club makes its contribution to the overall success of the program.
HF: What is your opinion of the ever-growing number of German players who have been heading over to Canadian juniors or the USHL? Is that something you see as being positive for German ice hockey? Does it make your job of putting the best possible U-20 teams together more difficult?
EH: It definitely makes it more difficult to put together and work with the respective U-20 teams, but on the other hand, it’s definitely a form of recognition for the solid prospect work Germany has been doing in recent years (all 100+ youth clubs).
HF: How often do you go see games in the DEL, 2nd league or 3rd league? Can hockey fans assume that some players you watch in these leagues, especially DEL players such as 19-year-old Yasin Ehliz of the Nuremberg Ice Tigers, will be suiting up for Team Germany in Ufa?
EH: Every Friday, I either watch a DEL, 2nd league or 3rd league game. On Saturday I then watch a DNL game. On Sunday afternoon I watch another DNL game and then spend the evening at another DEL, 2nd or 3rd league game (thus, 4–5 games a week).
HF: At the men’s level, Germany has long suffered internationally when it comes to providing an offensive ability that can regularly compete at the level evident with the best players coming from more dominating countries like Canada, Russia, Sweden, the USA, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. At the moment, some talented and offensive-oriented players like Tom Kuhnhackl, Tobias Rieder and Leon Draisaitl are developing at a remarkably strong rate over in North America, where Kuhnhackl (PIT) and Rieder (EDM) are already considered aspiring prospects for their respective NHL teams. Draisaitl is also raising some eyebrows in the WHL. Do you think these three players will one day be able to provide the national team with the offensive effectiveness that it has sorely missed over time?
EH: The players named above are naturally exceptional talents who, if their development continues to be positive, will one day help the Men’s national team. In addition, our ‘95 born class of players features a potpourri of goalies, defensemen and forwards who are all exceptional talents.
HF: In Germany, a young player by the name of Parker Tuomie is currently making a lot of noise in the DNL, where he’s racked up 40 points and a +30 rating in only 14 games. Have you already had a chance to see him personally and is it safe to say that he, as a 17-year-old (his birthday was less than 10 days ago), is already receiving consideration for the U-20 team?
EH: I’ll be holding a training camp before the WJC and all possible talents that come into question will be invited.
HF: Do you maintain any contact with some of the younger players currently playing in North America, like forwards Draisaitl (Prince Albert Raiders), Dominik Kahun (Sudbury Wolves) and Frederik Tiffels (Muskegon Lumberjacks)? What about your in-season communication with more established U-20 players like Rieder, Latta and Uvira?
EH: I will actually be making a trip to North America to visit the players from November 13th to 19th.
HF: Are you able to name any of the U-20 players who are playing surprisingly well at the moment or better yet, are surprisingly putting their name into consideration for the WJC team?
EH: Let’s just say that, at the moment, everything is possible and still very open.
About Ernst Hoefner
HF: After so many years as a pro coach, how exactly did you end up becoming the head of the U-20 program?
EH: After having spent seven years as a coach in pro Men’s leagues (three years in the top league, another four years in the second league), the education, training and further development of German ice hockey in general has become my absolute biggest passion.
HF: What does your everyday schedule look like, especially at this time of the year?
EH: 1–2 on-ice practices per day, participation in a club’s practice, basic U-20/U-16 camp practices every Monday, player observation on the weekend, various coaching seminars, and of course a number of tournaments.
HF: Wow, that’s quite a busy schedule. Would you say that the general quality of German players in this age group has improved or increased in the course of your time with the program?
EH: The quality of the players here has improved considerably. As I already mentioned, our youth programs (U-16/U-18) are currently ranked 8th in the world rankings. To sum it up, there are clearly a much higher number of young players (from our DNL) currently playing important roles for both their DEL teams and the national program.