Former U20 Coach Ernst Hofner discusses Germany’s new direction

By Chapin Landvogt
Ernst Hofner and Team Germany players

Photo: Former Germany national coach Ernst Hofner (L) is now the Sports Director for Germany’s Deutschen Eishockey-Bund e.V. (courtesy of Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)


Some major changes took place in the German Ice Hockey Federation’s hierarchy this summer, with the new management wanting things to change from the ground up. Long-time German Ice Hockey Federation employee Franz Reindl was selected as the new DEB President (Deutsche Eishockey-Bund), gaining 73.5% of the vote from the summer’s General Assembly. With that, he replaced Uwe Harnos, who made it known before the vote that he would no longer be a candidate for the position he had held since 2002.

In recent years, there has been quite a struggle between the organizers involved in the German ice hockey scene, particularly at the professional and amateur levels across the country. It’s now the presiding feeling that if anyone can bridge the differences over the long-term, it will be Reindl, who has been involved in Germany’s professional and international ice hockey scene since his own playing career for the SC Riessersee, which began in 1972.

In light of these changes, Hockey’s Future got in touch with long-time U20 coach Ernst Hofner, now serving as the country’s Sports Director, to discuss what this all means for the future of German ice hockey and how the organization plans on fostering young talent towards creating a better national team – and perhaps more players like Leon Draisaitl along the way.

Hockey’s Future: Mr. Hofner, the German Ice Hockey Federation has a new president and is taking a different approach towards things. What are your thoughts on this change?

Ernst Hofner: With our new president and his new cabinet, we’re definitely on the right path, because the new cabinet is very good and capable of working together and thus, being a family.

HF: What is going to change now in the German ice hockey scene and what will the national team look like in ten years?

EH: The cooperation between the professional leagues and the German Ice Hockey Federation will, in the future, be based on mutual respect. Our momentary goal is to educate the current U13/U14 players in a better way with respect to both their technical abilities and in a tactical manner in order to make them more capable of competing internationally. This naturally should lead to the national team being much better in ten years time (by 2024).

HF: Our website is all about future NHL players. President Reindl is hoping quite vigorously that he’ll be able to watch a German national team in 15-20 years time that will play for a medal in the World Championship, much less in the Olympics. What is changing in the development of young German players now that could go towards making that goal possible?

EH: We’ll be recruiting more players for the sport of ice hockey in a systematic manner. The players are educated and further developed as per a planned method. The players will then be tested in international junior competition and raised to a level necessary to compete internationally.

HF: Speaking of young players, you were the coach of Germany’s U20 team for many years. As part of that, you’ve seen a lot of games and a lot of players. In your new role with the DEB, you’ll surely be doing a lot more of that at all age levels. Of what tasks exactly does your current role consist of?

EH: I’m now the official Sports Director of Deutschen Eishockey-Bund e.V. (DEB). I observe games and players all over the country with the goal of getting them into the nation’s top national team. I’m responsible for developing a unified practice and game plan structure together with the DEB coaches from the U16 to the men’s national team. An additional focus of my job is improving both the mental and athletic fitness of the players.

HF: What do you feel DEL and DEL2 clubs can or should be doing to improve the situation in German ice hockey? Or do you think that what’s going on right now, with the new, more cooperative structures, is the most optimal route to take?

EH: The DEL and DEL2 organizations are currently on the right path in being optimally active in developing young players with perspective and are showing the readiness to invest even more in this area. It’s the feeling we’re getting from them. In addition, our system here in Germany of having so-called Promotional Licenses, (Ed. note: where teams can reassign their young, signed players to teams in the DEL2 or the nation’s third-highest professional level of play, the Oberliga) allows young players to be placed in the best possible situation for their development and get the type of ice time they need in conjunction with where they currently are in their careers. This is something we’re definitely seeing as very effective in the progress of young players who have finished their junior careers.

HF: How do you feel about some of the young talent leaving Germany no later than at the end of their DNL playing days to seek out new challenges, usually in North America? For example, the most recent German WJC team you coached in Malmo consisted primarily of such players…

EH: In the future, this currently high number of players heading over to North America is going to sink, maybe dramatically, because the perspectives for players in Germany are quite simply changing drastically. This will have a massive impact on the current trend.

HF: Pat Cortina, head coach of the men’s national team, also participated in the last WJC in Malmo and is now taking over the reigns as the head coach of the U20 team, which he’ll be guiding through the upcoming WJC in his home country of Canada. This dual function is not very common, although recently practiced by, for example, Sean Simpson for Switzerland. What advantages does the DEB feel can come of this?

EH: The advantage is that players in the U20 team will already be very familiar and used to the system he is implementing in the men’s team, as well. This will allow them to adjust much easier to the needs and expectations at the men’s level, both domestically and internationally. And we’re not talking about just the play on the ice. They’ll also be used to and practicing the same thing athletically off the ice, in preparations for games, and with respect to mental fitness, which is very important for a program like Germany’s.

HF: You’ve coached and worked with the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl for a number of years now. How did you experience seeing him get drafted this past summer and what do you think about him having been taken third overall, something completely unheard of from a German-born and raised ice hockey player?

EH: Right from the beginning, Leon Draisaitl was one of the best players in Germany. In every step of his development, at every age level, he was about the best the country had. I have long felt he’d have the opportunity to be a first round NHL Draft pick and I was incredibly excited and happy for him to see him get taken third overall.

HF: In your opinion, what is the most impressive part of Leon’s game and capabilities?

EH: The most impressive aspect of his game is that he can protect the puck in the offensive zone like few players I’ve seen. He also possesses incredible hockey sense and an above-average nose for the net.

HF: Do you feel that Philipp Grubauer, Korbinian Holzer, Konrad Abeltshauser, Tobias Rieder and Tom Kuhnhackl are future NHL players?

EH: Tobias Rieder has already played his first NHL games and I feel he’s well on his way to one day becoming a regular at the NHL level. Philipp Grubauer also has a few NHL games under his belt and I fully believe he can become a long-term NHL goalie. Konrad, Korbinian and Tom all have some strong attributes and the prerequisites. Should they continue to work really hard on their game, I feel all three of them can make the jump to the NHL.

HF: Are there other young players who are currently active in Germany with whom you’ve worked who you believe may get a shot at the NHL later in their career?

EH: I feel a few young German players in Germany can play in the NHL one day, for example, Tim Bender or Dominik Kahun (both currently with the EHC Red Bull Munich). I think this’ll also be the case for Yannik Moser (Ohio State) and Frederik Tiffels (Western Michigan), who of course are already playing in North America.

HF: Without wanting to say too much, does Germany have the next Leon Draisaitl or Christian Erhoff playing somewhere, maybe in current U16 ranks?

EH: It’s difficult to make an evaluation of any sort at that age. We have a few young promising talents, but much of their development will depend on how they go about continuing their development and what their work ethic is.

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