Kühnhackl adapting smoothly to North American game

By Jason Menard

Imagine if you were Ty, Tristan, or Trevor Gretzky, and you decided to lace up the skates in Brantford, ON. Pressure? You bet! But for the son of Germany’s version of the Great One, that pressure is only starting to come now that he’s on this side of the Atlantic.

“When I was younger it was not that hard, but now it’s getting tough, so I just try to focus on help my team as best as I can,” Windsor Spitfires’ center Tom Kühnhackl said.

Kühnhackl joined the Spitfires this season after being drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Penguins of the 2010 NHL entry draft. Prior to this season, he spent the better part of the past two years playing for his hometown club, the Landshut Cannibals. And although he states that the pressure is greater now, the younger Kühnhackl admitted to feeling the weight of expectations back in Germany.

“Absolutely! He was a great hockey player and when I was young he watched every single game and we’d talk about every game afterwards,” Kühnhackl said. “If I did something wrong, he’d tell me what I should do better and how I should improve myself.”

And those lessons aren’t decreasing despite the thousands of kilometers between Germany and southwestern Ontario. “He watches every single game on the Internet,” he said. “He’s talking to me after every game, texting me, sending me e-mails. But it’s great to have a dad like him.”

However, with OHL games ending around 10 p.m. and factoring a six-hour time difference, might the elder Kühnhackl be a little cranky? “That’s for sure!” Tom said, laughing.

Tom’s father Erich Kühnhackl was a three-time Olympian and participated in 10 world championships. Over his career he scored 724 goals in 774 games in the German leagues, spending most of his career in the Bundesliga with EV Landshut and Kolner EC. He holds the German record for goals and points, recording 53 hat tricks in his career. In 1979-80, the elder Kühnhackl scored 83 goals and 155 points. Over the course of his international career, Kühnhackl wracked up 1,504 points in 841 games (with an additional 55 in 37 playoff games). He never played in the NHL, although he was offered a contract by the New York Rangers, only to turn it down to remain in Germany.

Now his son has been drafted by one of the Rangers’ key rivals — the Pittsburgh Penguins. At 6’5, Erich also knew how to play the physical game — amassing 1,256 penalty minutes over his career — and he taught his 6’2 son the ropes.

“My dad was a great hockey player in Germany so he helped me along every single step, through juniors all the way to the highest level,” he said. “He helped me with every single step, but you have to work your ass off.”

The content of those late-night/early-morning calls and texts? “He tells me to take the easy things, don’t lose the puck,” Kühnhackl explained. “And then he says that transition is so fast and the rink is smaller. Teams like London, Mississauga, those guys — they’re fast, so if they get the puck they can score off the rush.

Kühnhackl started the season slowly, being held pointless in his first seven games. However, he’s caught fire as of late, with 13 goals and six assists in the 14 games since. Windsor head coach Bob Jones explained that the German center appears to have grown more comfortable in his surroundings — something the club has tried to help facilitate.

“He was slow off the start — he didn’t have a point in his first seven games, but that’s kind of normal for a player who’s come from overseas for the first time,” Jones said. “Since then, he’s adjusted very well and he’s been one of our best players, if not our best, since then.

“The biggest adjustment is the language barrier. We were fortunate that Tom’s English is very good, so the adjustment was a lot easier for him. Our organization does everything first class, so we make sure that we do everything we can to get these guys comfortable right off the bat and we do what we can to help them succeed.”

Kühnhackl’s transition was aided by the fact that he had a solid command of English due to his schooling — English was a mandatory class for him. However, he admitted to some challenges.

“Almost three months. It’s been hard. Your family’s gone — so are your friends,” Kühnhackl said. “Everything’s new: the arena, the team, the city — everything. After a while, it’s not that hard. You get to know each other and it’s great to be part of a team.

“Off the ice, you miss all the friends that you’d hang out off the ice and after games and practice. You miss your family and everything around.”

And you miss other comforts of home — like the food.

“There are those special meals that I love that I can’t get here. I’ll just have to wait until summer,” he added, laughing. “There is one German restaurant [in Windsor], but I haven’t been there yet, so I’ll have to start going there sometimes.

“I miss scweinebraten. It’s like a special kind of meat — it’s unreal. I miss it.”

It’s all-team all the time, in his case, as he’s also billetted with the family of teammate Craig Duininck. In addition to the off-ice transition, Kühnhackl’s getting used to a much-faster game — despite having played at the professional level in Germany.

“Hockey is Canada is so fast — you can’t compare it to the German league,” he said. “The German league is so slow, you can pick up the puck in your own zone and score in the other end. It’s not physical at all; there are no fights — it’s a big difference.

“Canadian hockey — I like that style of hockey.”

Although there have been strides made in the development of German hockey, Kühnhackl expressed some frustrations with some obvious challenges that are preventing the development of young German players.

“It’s pretty tough, because I think in the first league in Germany, you’re allowed to have 11 imports, so half of the team are Canadian, Swedish, U.S. guys or whatever, so most of the teams only play with imports and the German guys are pretty much third line,” Kühnhackl said. “We have to improve like the Canadians. They play physical, they move fast — we have to work on that so maybe over the next couple of years we can be better.”

Not only does the import situation discourage young players from thinking they have a legitimate chance to progress — it’s also discouraging for those kids who have gone through the system and want to get better.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “You want to get out there an improve yourself, but if you’re a [German player] and you’re spending every game on the bench it’s hard to improve yourself.”

So how did Kühnhackl break the pattern?

“I just worked my ass off.”

That work ethic is going to serve him well, his coach said, and he thinks that the offensively gifted forward is going to be even more of an impact player than he has been in the early part of this season.

“It took him a little while to learn the North American style of game that we play over here, but he’s adjusted fine now,” Jones explained. “He has to work on his strength, like all junior-aged kids, but Tommy has a huge upside as a hockey player and I’m sure that he’ll meet those expectations for us down the road.”

Kühnhackl was drafted by the Penguins and the German forward said he was surprised, but ecstatic about that development. “I had no idea, but it was great,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get the chance to play with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeny] Malkin — you never know!”

He’s already had the opportunity to suit up with some potential future Penguins this summer. “I was with Pittsburgh in the camp that was in London [the Toronto Maple Leafs-hosted rookie tournament],” he said. “It’s a great experience to play with older guys — and some guys who have played in the NHL. I learned a lot.”

Windsor general manager Warren Rychel enjoyed a NHL career spread out over 10 seasons, while first-year Spitfires’ head coach Jones was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1989 and went on to play five years at the minor-pro level. The young center said that their experience, along with that imparted by Kühnhackl’s father, has been invaluable to his development this year.

“They know everything about not only this league, but every single situation. They talk to me and review videos, so it’s great to have those guys behind me,” Kühnhackl explained. “No one is perfect. You have to improve everything: your skills, your skating, your offensive game, your defensive game — you have to keep getting better in every single area.”

Canadian hockey isn’t the only thing the German forward prefers over his homeland. Earlier this season, he told the Pittsburgh media that the girls in Canada were better looking than their German counterpart. After three months, he’s still standing by his words!

“That. Is. True!,” he said emphatically, adding with a laugh. “I can’t lie about that. The girls in Canada are way better than in Germany.” He admitted that he’s yet to be able to compare the females in the U.S. “I was once in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t see a lot of girls there.”

So Canadian girls above Germans, with the U.S. still to be evaluated?

“Absolutely,” he added, laughing.