Inside the program revolutionizing German hockey and building the NHL's next draft powerhouse

At this point, Moritz Seider doesn’t suspect a thing. It’s June 21, 2019, and the young defenceman’s perched up in the stands of Vancouver’s Rogers Arena in his Sunday best. His suit sits somewhere between black and grey, not quite either. There’s a hint of a pattern, light lines tracing their way down his broad shoulders, and his crisp white shirt is echoed by a white pocket square, folded and placed with a precision that betrays the importance of the evening. Light brown shoes neatly match a light brown belt. Neater still, Seider’s wild locks have been tamed, with a respectable part above his left eyebrow. But the crown jewel of the outfit sits just below his chin — a whimsical black bowtie speckled with white polka dots. He’ll joke later that he opted for the bowtie as part of a new German tradition at the NHL Draft, after countryman Dominik Bokk donned one and heard his name called in a setting just like this a year prior. But as Seider sits in the stands gazing down at the spectacle of screens surrounding the stage below, he has no idea how big a part of that tradition he’s about to become.

The first few names roll off the board, the best young talents from around the globe making their expected marches to the stage.

“The Devils are proud to select, from the U.S. program, Jack Hughes. … With the second pick in the 2019 draft, from TPS Turku, Kaapo Kakko.”

Seider has time to get his bearings, take in the moment. He knows this portion of the night is reserved for the names that have been known to fans and pundits for months, maybe years. The blue-chips.

“With the third pick, the Blackhawks are proud to select, from the Saskatoon Blades, Kirby Dach. … The Colorado Avalanche are proud to select, from the Vancouver Giants, Bowen Byram.”

Seider’s seen the rankings, the projections, the mock drafts. Every one of them told him to perk up around pick No. 20, maybe a bit later. But he believes in his potential, in the work he’s put in, so he’s prepared for things to kick off as early as No. 15.

“The Los Angeles Kings are proud to select, from the United States Hockey League, Alex Turcotte.”

As Steve Yzerman, the newly-minted Red Wings general manager, makes his way up to the stage with the rest of his Detroit contingent, Seider’s mother, Sabine, sitting just to his right, gives him a knock on the leg. “Hey Mo,” she says with a smile. “Get ready. You’re going to get picked.”

He laughs now remembering the moment. “I was like, ‘Okay mom, I know you’re excited, but please calm down,’” he says. “‘I’m freaking out anyways, I don’t need you freaking out next to me, too. Relax. Chill a little bit.’” Then Seider’s world got flipped on its head.

“With the sixth pick in the draft, the Detroit Red Wings select, from Mannheim of the DEL, Moritz Seider.”

The plot-twist quality of Yzerman’s choice isn’t lost on the room, an audible gasp fit for a silver-screen audience escaping the crowd. But no one’s more shocked than Seider himself, leaning forward, eyes wide, mouth agape. Sabine, maybe the only one not seated at Detroit’s draft-floor table who felt it would be his name called at No. 6, smiles on. After hugging her and his father, Kay, Seider takes a deep breath and enters the maelstrom.

It’s in the moments between hearing your name called and putting on that jersey for the first time that everything changes. It’s that walk down out of the stands and onto the draft floor, past the suits that decide big-league fates, up onto the NHL stage. Here, during this brief journey, teenagers become stars; fans and pundits doing their quick calculus on how the hockey landscape has been altered. And it’s here that Seider’s just become the highest-drafted German defenceman in NHL history, the third-highest drafted German player in all. For him, though, the line of thinking on that trek to the stage is less about the gravity of the moment and more about gravity in general. “The only thing I really remember was when I was walking down the stairs. I was like, ‘Okay, don’t do anything stupid. Don’t fall, don’t f— it up. Just go there, shake some hands, get a nice jersey, and have a big smile on your face.’”

This year’s crop of NHL hopefuls won’t get that same nerve-wracking, whirlwind experience Seider did. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the 2020 NHL Draft online, the top prospects watching at home and Zoom likely to play a more significant role than anyone desires at this point. What will continue, though, is that new German tradition. Bowtie or not, Seider’s countryman, close friend, and former teammate, Tim Stützle, enters draft day as one of the premier names on the board, a lock to continue the streak of German first-rounders, with a realistic shot at becoming the highest-drafted German player in NHL history at second-overall.

But Stützle’s moment will also mean something more.

On the heels of Leon Draisaitl becoming the first German NHLer to ever win the league’s scoring title or earn MVP honours, Stützle represents another seismic step forward for their country — on track to take his place alongside the Oilers pivot and Seider as the most important leaders of Germany’s golden generation. The trio represent a key decade of progress for not only their country, but their club, too, because their ascent was far from a random run of luck or a historic outlier. Long before Draisaitl, Seider and Stützle exported German on-ice excellence to North America, each passed through the same town in Germany, their future molded by the same youth academy program. This is the story of the Adler Mannheim, and a 20-year effort that produced the three best talents German hockey has ever seen.

Taken sixth overall by the Red Wings in 2019, Seider had more immediate things on his mind than continuing Germany's streak of first-rounders

The gap between Leon Draisaitl and the best player his country had produced before him seems to grow by the year; a divot that’s quickly expanded into a canyon. German hockey’s simply never seen anything like the young Oiler. The only one of his countrymen to ever truly dominate the NHL offensively, the 24-year-old already sits just 65 points shy of Marco Sturm’s all-time German scoring mark. That’s a down year’s production for Draisaitl — the only NHLer currently riding back-to-back 100-point seasons — who’s brought himself within reach of that record in 516 fewer games.

But back before he was stockpiling awards alongside Connor McDavid in Edmonton or lifting WHL trophies in Kelowna, Draisaitl was just another 13-year-old wandering the halls of his new school in Mannheim, his haste to join his new teammates leading to an inglorious start to his run in the Adler Mannheim’s renowned youth academy program. “I actually went in the wrong class my first day, so that was not a good start,” Draisaitl recalls with a laugh. “I had no idea where to go.” He’d soon learn his new club wasn’t short on guidance.

Twenty-five minutes away from that school sits the NHL-esque SAP Arena, home base for the entire Adler Mannheim organization. Viewed from the train lines that run nearby, it appears to hover like a futuristic hockey mothership in a stretch of open land southeast of the city centre. The 13,600-seat arena connects to a practice complex with two more sheets of ice, one flanked by another 500 seats. Here, divvied up into six teams — under-11, under-13, under-15, under-17, under-20 and the professional men’s team — the organization reigns as the focal point of on-ice progress in Germany.

“I built that confidence in myself, that no matter who I play against, that I can make plays, and I'm good enough to score and be productive.”

The program’s goals are twofold: firstly, to feed talent up to the professional squad, the most recent champions of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga; and, on a deeper level, to raise the overall bar for on-ice talent in the country, to produce players like Draisaitl. Supported by the Hopp family, whose billionaire patriarch Dietmar co-founded the global tech giant SAP, the academy’s commitment to achieving these goals has been unrelenting. Each year, spanning back over the past two decades, young players are recruited throughout Germany, brought to Mannheim and offered a place to live, go to school, learn under elite coaches, and play for some of the most renowned youth teams in the country — with the Hopp Foundation footing the bill.

It’s here that Draisaitl grew from the young talent he was in his native Cologne into a bona fide star in his own right, with the potential for far more. “At the time, Mannheim was just the best program, the best junior program, in Germany,” he says of why he made the decision to leave his hometown.

To be fair, the allure of moving south is no mystery. The Adler Mannheim’s deep pockets allow the club to equip each of its youth teams with resources fit for the pro level — including private chefs and a crew of specialized coaches focused on strength and conditioning, skill development, power skating, and everything in between, each often working one-on-one with the young prospects. It would be a vast undertaking for a couple dozen players, let alone the hundreds that come through the program — a meticulously planned itinerary seeing the pupils balance schooling, practice, and games.

The window into life as a pro extends beyond those daily commitments and into the philosophy guiding them, too. “Anything that we do at the pro level always trickles down, and we make sure that everyone all the way down to our U-11 group is getting the same kind of foundation of how you should be training off-ice,” says Mannheim’s director of player development and North American scouting, Todd Hlushko, who did radio work for Sportsnet following his playing career. “The same thing goes for the skill development on-ice.”

It didn’t take long for Draisaitl to flourish in this environment. After putting up 43 points in his final year in Cologne, he posted 48 goals and 103 points in just 26 games during his first season in Mannheim, dominating on the U-17 team alongside eventual NHLer Dominik Kahun, who amassed 56 goals and 126 points himself. The next year, it kept building, Draisaitl coming up with an absurd 97 goals and 192 points in 29 games, Kahun with 69 goals and 206 points. “It was probably the best time of my life there,” says Kahun, now a Buffalo Sabre. “Sometimes we had games where each guy had, like, 12 points. … We moved on, the teams got harder and harder, but we still were so good, we won those games sometimes 10-3, 9-5.”

Lopsided as those routine wins may have been, the impact they had on Draisaitl was significant. “It gives you confidence, for sure,” he says. “You have the puck on your stick a lot. You feel confident in making plays offensively. … We had great coaches and they wanted us to play with the puck, no matter who we played against. So, I built that confidence in myself, that no matter who I play against, that I can make plays, and I’m good enough to score and be productive.” Moving up to the U-19 team the following year, Draisaitl and Kahun delivered on their growing promise with a German Development League title, Draisaitl earning a player of the year nod for his efforts.

But met with success at every turn, Draisaitl eventually found himself wanting more, wanting a path that took him beyond Germany’s borders. “At the time it was just my instinct, my gut feeling,” he says of his decision to leave the club. “I just really wanted to play in Canada. … Every player has to find their own path a little bit. The setup is obviously very different in Germany — you don’t play as much, you practice a lot. And in Canada, you just play. You play every other day, and you get used to that NHL kind of schedule, so it’s just different. It’s a different path and every player needs to find their own.” He’d eventually wind up in Prince Albert, Sask., suiting up for the WHL’s Raiders, and apart from a brief spell at AHL Bakersfield, he’s played in Canada ever since.

Stutzle is a lock to go in the first round, with a chance to surpass Draisaitl as the highest-drafted German ever

It’s precisely because of the program’s loss of Draisaitl that Seider’s ascent had such an impact on German hockey. Back in the Oilers pivot’s days in Mannheim, the path up to the pro-level DEL, to test elite skill against men instead of boys, was muddier, in part due to a different set of roster-construction rules in the league that allowed more focus on established players. By the time Seider came along, debuting with Mannheim the same year Draisaitl played his first full season in Edmonton, that had begun to shift. Currently, DEL clubs must have at least two U-23 German players on their roster every year. So, while Draisaitl’s path to the NHL Draft took a turn far away from home, Seider — who similarly earned offers from the Canadian Hockey League — chose to remain in Mannheim for his draft year.

The choice wasn’t exactly surprising, as Seider had been all-in on the club from the very start, his parents quitting their jobs managing a retirement home in the town of Erfurt to move their whole family when the young defenceman was recruited. After joining at 14 years old, his rare blend of intimidating size and a deft touch with the puck on his stick allowed Seider to ascend quickly through the ranks. Three seasons in, he’d already earned a brief shot with the pro-level squad. The next year, faced with the decision of whether to jump to North America, Seider found himself unable to pass up the chance to measure his defensive acumen against men with a decade’s head start in the game. “That was the main reason to stay here and play my draft year in Mannheim. I wanted to compete against older players; mature, experienced guys … a couple played in the NHL, some of them won a Cup,” he says. “And it was challenging every day. I mean, the guys want to earn their spots on the roster. It was a huge, huge opportunity for myself.”

“They really want the good young guys to play big roles on the team, and I think that's very special.”

It paid off in more ways than one, with Seider netting rookie of the year honours, lifting silver as a DEL champion, and sending a message to his fellow young Germans: While Draisaitl is this generation’s unequivocal leader, the one who first charted a path to the upper echelons of the NHL, Seider showed his countrymen that another path is possible, one that doesn’t require leaving home.

When the big-bodied blue-liner did eventually make the move west, it only confirmed the validity of his choice to stick it out in Mannheim for that final year. Making his North American pro debut with Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids this past season, the teenaged Seider looked right at home. He was sent over the boards in all situations — running the power play and stifling the opposition on the penalty kill — eating more than 20 minutes a night, at times as many as 29, and collecting a respectable 22 points in 49 games. While his natural size and skill were undeniable, there’s no question Seider’s fitness level — honed in Mannheim — played a crucial role in helping him quickly acclimate to a new world on the ice. Former NHLer Ben Smith, who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and joined Mannheim for Seider’s rookie year, can attest. “I learned quickly that they put a lot more emphasis on conditioning, running,” he says. “Maybe I thought it would be a little bit more low key but in fact it was probably a little bit more intense in terms of training than I’d experienced in North America.”

That imbalance offered Seider an edge as he made the opposite journey. “It gave me a huge advantage, I would say, comparing to other players at my age,” he says. “It was a great preparation, having less games and more time to recover and build some muscle.”

The obsessive focus on training came from Jan-Axel Alavaara, who was hired as manager two years ago, bringing with him the heightened dedication to fitness ingrained in him during his time playing and working in Swedish hockey. It’s not simply about fitness for fitness’s sake, he says, but rather a necessity given the nature of European hockey. “There’s a little bit difference from the small [ice] surface over there to the little bit bigger ones over here,” Alavaara explains. “You have to skate a little bit more. You have to be able to skate that extra metre. In North America, you can save your energy a little bit more, if you’re a smart player, both in the AHL and the NHL. But [in Germany] if you’re not able to skate on the big surface, you will be exposed.”

Draisaitl's success, owed at least in part to his time at Mannheim, is a source of inspiration for new generations of German players

When we connect in mid-May, Tim Stützle is two months removed from seeing his rookie campaign in the DEL cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an ill-timed upending of the most important year of his young life, and one that’s left him balancing NHL Draft preparations with studying of a far less glorious sort. “Tomorrow is a math test,” he says, caught almost comically between his last months as a normal teenager and the beginning of life in the NHL spotlight. Had his schooling not also been delayed by the pandemic, Stützle’s studies would be long wrapped up by this point. Instead, with the draft — at this time during the early blur of the pandemic — scheduled a month from now, he’s just hoping he’ll have his schoolwork wrapped up before the big day. “I think I will be ready in about four weeks — or, I hope I will be ready then,” he says with a nervous laugh.

Like many who rise through the Mannheim program, Stützle grew up spending as much time on the soccer pitch as he did at the rink — “I think every kid growing up in Germany has to touch a soccer ball somewhere,” Seider jokes. But as he’s likely about to prove in the NHL, Stützle was never one for participation ribbons. He didn’t just play, he played well — there was no acceptable middle ground. “When I was 12, I could’ve gone to Gladbach, to the Bundesliga team, but I stayed in hockey,” he says. “I had most of my best friends in hockey and I loved the sport. So, for me it was the decision I needed to make. And I think I made the right decision.”

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d disagree. A potent blend of speed, elusiveness and with the hands to hang in today’s offensively dynamic NHL, Stützle’s dominated every step of the way in Mannheim. His quick progress is indicative of this novel time in Germany, of its clubs as a whole getting over their hesitancy to reward young talent with opportunity and ice-time, says Alavaara. That shift isn’t lost on Stützle. “When I came to Mannheim, I was the youngest guy in the under-20 team, and I already played top minutes, played power play — I think that’s really a big point for Mannheim,” says Stützle. “They really want the good young guys to play big roles on the team, and I think that’s very special. And it’s not in every team.”

Watch Round 1 of the NHL Draft on Sportsnet and SN NOW beginning at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on Tuesday, Oct. 6. Then catch Rounds 2-7 on SN1 and SN NOW starting at from 11:30 a.m. ET/8:30 a.m. PT on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

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Like Seider, by Year 3 in the program, Stützle had already been bumped up to the pro team. That fast-tracking is a function of one of the club’s greatest strengths, Alavaara explains. “We have the luxury to be in the same building — we have three sheets where we have the office and where the big team practices, so everybody sees everybody on a daily basis,” he says. “When you see the young kids practice, you see them on the ice, you see them off the ice. … You see them Tuesday morning at 7 o’clock when they go out running for half an hour, you see what kind of a mood or what kind of a character they are. There’s no surprises. And you can impact the development too, by small adjustments when you see them.” There was little surprise for Alavaara, then, when Stützle catapulted himself into elite territory in his debut DEL campaign, one that saw him follow Seider as rookie of the year and raise his profile even more among draft prognosticators out west. “Timmy’s just a special player,” says Smith, who suited up on the young forward’s line throughout that sterling season. “It was hard to believe at times during the year last year that he was 17, 18 years old.”

Of course, even driven by an insatiable need to improve, adjusting to the leap in competition level took a minute. “For the first few months, he really had a tough time, because I think he was scared that if he missed a pass, he would upset us. So, we had to really help him with that mental aspect, like, ‘Hey, you’re going to make mistakes. Just go. Play. You’re really good.’ So, we had to keep reinforcing that to him,” Smith says. “But just his overall natural skill, his stickhandling ability, the way he escapes out of corners, his deceptiveness and the way he just isn’t afraid to go at people one-on-one, I think that’s what separates him from everyone else.”

That five-star collection of traits has led to lofty comparisons for Stützle already. Some see his skill-set as akin to Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner; others point to Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Few could judge the validity of the comparisons better than Smith, who played in Toronto during Marner’s rookie year and won a Cup alongside Kane. “He has that unique ability just to change a game in a flash — he just needs the puck and he can make something happen. That’s how I would see him similar to Kaner or Mitchy, those kind of players. Every time he’s on the ice, he’s a threat,” Smith says of Stützle. “He has the ability to do something that makes everyone go ‘Wow,’ you know? And that’s what I think is the most comparable thing about him.”

“Playing against men, and training against men, I think that's very important. I think that makes the next step to the NHL a little bit easier.”

Stützle’s skating and his hands let him dazzle with some end-to-end beauties, but it was his all-world understanding of the game that earned him such a prominent role with the senior club. “I mean, he was 17 years old and he was running our power play in Mannheim — everything went through him on the left side,” says Hlushko. “For a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old, to be able to do that in a professional league with men, with guys that have won Stanley Cups, and to see the high-percentage passes, the ability to make plays and see openings and be creative on our power play, was impressive to watch at a young age. Never mind getting someone who’s had success already in the American League or the NHL coming over and doing it. You’re getting a 17-year-old teenager running our power play, running it to the league’s best — I think it was about 31 per cent we were clipping at. It was the best in the league, by far, and he was a massive part of that.”

Stützle felt his own game change in the pro ranks, too, the thin margin for error forcing the kind of reining in that players of his ilk usually aren’t forced to undertake until their first forays in the NHL. “The pro game is a lot faster, a lot more skillful — they are so much smarter players on the teams, stronger guys. So I think I changed a lot,” he says. “When I was young, I dangled a lot on the blue line and maybe had some turnovers … maybe I made too many circles in the defensive zone, not like start and stops. So, I think I developed that very good. … I think overall, I got better in every kind of [area].”

The story was the same off the ice. “I’m always a guy who wants to be the best with everything. So yeah, I think also in the weight room, I always want to make the highest weight, but with the pro team, it was tough to make the highest weight,” he says with a laugh. “But I worked so hard, until I maybe get onto the highest weight, or I’m a little bit away from that, but not too far away. That was pretty good for me, to get to know every veteran, how he’s preparing for games, how he’s training hard, what he’s doing on the ice to be that good guy and a leader. Playing against men, and training against men, I think that’s very important. I think that makes the next step to the NHL a little bit easier.”

That career-altering progress also counts as a bet won, as the decision to remain in Mannheim for his draft year wasn’t as much a cut-and-dry choice as a worthwhile wager on his own potential. Even more than was the case for Seider, the quick-footed Stützle and his high-flying arsenal had plenty of suitors calling Hlushko about a potential change of jerseys. And while watching Seider take the Mannheim route and wind up as a sixth-overall pick helped, it didn’t necessarily make up Stützle’s mind. “For sure, Mo was a good example for young players, that you can make the next step in Germany, too, in the pro league. But I’m kind of my own guy,” he says. “When Mannheim wanted me to sign a contract, I was 50-50, if I [should] go to college, CHL or Mannheim, and was not 100 per cent. But then I talked to [head coach] Pavel [Gross] — he said he’d give me a chance. But he can’t say, ‘You play power play, you play that, you play that’ — he can’t say that, he said to me. But, I’d get my real chance. … And I’m a guy who likes to fight for something.”

Stützle fought, and he won, which brings him to this point, on the cusp of the biggest moment of his career. And yet, just like Seider when he descended those stairs and walked into the big leagues, Stützle finds himself concerned only with this moment, with what he can control. “It’s definitely my goal to be the best-drafted German, but right now I can’t change anything. I can’t show anything more,” he says. “I can just be myself, be honest. I don’t really think about the history I can make, I just think right now, from day to day. I just want to train hard, make my body the best it can be, and improve everything. I want to get better, and that’s the most important right now.”

Seider's decision to stick with Mannheim for his draft year proved it was possible to attract real attention from NHL talent seekers without leaving Germany

In the grand scheme of things, half a million dollars may be well worth the progress that’s been made on the international stage. That’s roughly the investment the Adler Mannheim made in the three star pupils now pushing German hockey further than it’s ever gone. The only downside for the club is that the more successful it is in player development, the less likely it is to enjoy the fruits of its labour. Stützle’s growth in the game will soon take him out of Germany altogether, just as it did for Seider, for Draisaitl, for all those who panned out as the club hoped. It’s simply the price of the work. “From the business side of it, we would love to have these guys longer, in their prime years, but we also understand that that’s every country, right,” says Hlushko. “Sweden loses their best players to the best teams in the world. Russia, Finland. We understand that’s the process, and we want our young kids to be able to play at the highest level, the best league in the world, make the most money they possibly can. So we understand that, and it’s extremely gratifying to see that and to see that we are a massive part of their development. You’re proud. And those guys don’t forget where they came from.”

It’s clear why, as the organization puts its full weight into supporting its young players, into nurturing their growth long before the spotlights shine — and not simply with time and energy. The Hopp Foundation gives the club €2.2 million every year to run the program, according to Marcus Kuhl, the mastermind behind this effort to raise German hockey’s profile. Kuhl says he feels that same pride Hlushko does, even knowing the possibility that a club in North America will see the more direct benefit of Mannheim’s work. It’s the biggest difference between them and many of their soccer counterparts in the Bundesliga — while those clubs operate with a similar academy structure, they eventually sell their stars to bigger teams around the globe, the profit used to fuel the next class of talent. “We try to develop players, but we only get not the best, because the best will go. They go to America or Canada,” says Kuhl. “Every player we develop, from 15 to 19, or from 12 to 19, every year for one player it costs us €40,000. And when they go, we get nothing.”

Mannheim may not enjoy the financial benefit of player sales or icing a roster stocked full of the gamebreakers who’ve passed through its locker room, but that was never the goal. That pride they speak of is, in fact, the end game. It’s why, back in 1999, when the Hopp family and SAP began sponsoring the club, they decided it was crucial to also build up and heavily invest in a youth academy program. It’s why they turned to Kuhl, and asked him to map out the development structure that’s revolutionized German hockey over the past 20 years. “He’s had his fingerprints all over the Leon Draisaitls, the Dominik Kahuns, the Moritz Seiders, the Timmy Stützles,” Hlushko explains. “Mannheim was one of the first organizations to really invest in German ice hockey. … Hockey was the No. 4 or No. 5 sport in Germany, and still kind of is. To get those young top, elite athletes in Germany to want to play hockey as opposed to playing soccer, as opposed to tennis or golf or something else, to invest the money and to invest in the structure to get these academies going, it takes a big commitment from the ownership group to get it going. Daniel Hopp [Dietmar’s son] and Marcus Kuhl were basically the lead horses in this.”

Kuhl devised the system as it still runs now — bringing in talent from all across the country, setting them up with top-end coaches for every specialized aspect of the game, taking care of their schooling, their accommodations, their nutrition. At its core, it was about infusing the German development system with a level of professionalism and attention to detail that wasn’t there previously. “When we see that a player needs more weight or more power, then we have athletic coaches who make special programs for them. When we see that his skating is not good enough, we have coaches, they try to show them how to skate better, even with the stickhandling, with the mental stuff, with everything,” Kuhl says. “For every part of the sport, we have specialists, coaches, they take [it on]. And they try to help the players to get better.”

Kuhl masterminded Mannheim's development structure, which is now being adopted by programs across the entire country

While one could argue the ceiling may have been lower for Mannheim’s star graduates had Kuhl’s program not been in place for them on their way up, he’s adamant that it’s their own natural potential that lies at the core of their success. It’s simply about harnessing and unleashing it. “They have the talent — you see the talent right away. Even Leon or Tim, they were really good players [at] 15, too. But they didn’t have the body, they didn’t have the size, the athletics, the tactics,” Kuhl says. “I think they grew a lot in the three to four years in the program. You see them develop a lot every day. Leon, he was a big guy, but he was skinny — when he left us, he was ready to go over. … With these three players, it’s given. They have the talent you cannot learn. But what the program brings to them is the athletics, the discipline, [becoming] better skaters, better shooters, better stickhandlers, getting all that stuff to help them [become] big players.” And while talents like Germany’s current starring trio might’ve found their way regardless, Kuhl remembers a time when Germany’s best tried for glory with far fewer resources, and simply couldn’t stack up. “You always have talent. They will make it with or without a program, no question. … [But] even if they have the big talent like Tim or Leon, I think the program brings them to another level. Before, when you don’t have this, they were also good players — but this special level, like Leon has or Tim has, it’s the hard work from our coaching staff.”

The true reward for all that work is difficult to quantify. It’s something that sits separate from the statistics and paycheques: the seeds of a new era for their country in the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to. It’s that unquantifiable goal that eventually pulls so many back to Mannheim to continue the effort. Hlushko played four seasons with the organization in the early 2000s, winning a title in his first. Head coach Pavel Gross played six, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ for his last and winning three championships, while his assistant coach, Mike Pellegrims, won three of his own during his tenure playing for the team. A banner hangs in SAP Arena with Kuhl’s No. 15, retired after his own lengthy tenure suiting up for and captaining the club. And it’s not just the older generation of Mannheim alumni — the current crop of former players are still looking out for each other as well. Just ask Seider, who says after he made the jump to the AHL, Draisaitl — whom he, Stützle and every other young German player aspire to emulate in the big leagues — texted him every month, all season long, to check in on how he was adjusting to life in the North American ranks.

“I think we're creating players out of Germany that can play with the best in the world.”

For the first NHLer ever produced by Mannheim’s academy — among the first group ever brought to Mannheim by Hopp and Kuhl, and eventually just the second German to ever hoist the Stanley Cup — the heights reached by his young countrymen are a heartening sight. “I can only hope it helps German hockey to keep improving and keep developing more young players,” says Dennis Seidenberg. “I think with each and every player that has a lot of success, it just shows the young kids in Germany to be able to come out of Germany and be successful on the big stage like [Draisaitl] is doing. I can only hope that young kids playing or starting hockey in Germany would feel the same thing, and strive for the same opportunity, that one day you could be in his shoes.”

Soon, there will be even more for young German hopefuls to aspire to, more NHL jerseys floating through the streets of Mannheim adorned with the names of their own, starting with Stützle. But the reverberations of Mannheim’s impact on the 2020 NHL Draft will go beyond its brightest young star hearing his name called early. The undeniable success of Kuhl’s program has spawned other academies elsewhere in the country, a wave of new development efforts. “[Mannheim] put a program in place, and all the other teams or cities basically tried to copy them,” Seidenberg explains. The products of those offshoot programs will be seen in 2020, too, with the class likely winding up as Germany’s all-time best, led by Stützle and followed up by EHC Red Bull München’s John-Jason Peterka and Eisbären Berlin’s Lukas Reichel, both of whom could make the first-round cut as well. It’s an irrefutable bit of progress and a sign of what’s to come, says Draisaitl. “I think we’re creating players out of Germany that can play with the best in the world. Players that make it to the NHL,” he says. “I still think we have a lot of growth to do, I think we still have a lot of room for improvement, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.” As for the steps still to come, the path is simple. “Keep pushing forward. Keep pushing our country,” he says. “Keep continuing to get better year by year, and hopefully we can build more and more players that will get to the NHL, and we can become a better hockey country altogether.”

Just how hard they push, and just how far that takes them, remains to be seen. But Hlushko doesn’t have to look far to get a sense of where it could all wind up. It reminds him of another country that once paled in comparison to the Canadians and the Russians, one that now houses some of the best goal-scorers and playmakers in the world. One that’s producing NHL award winners at every position. One that saw its own landmark moment at the draft where Seider made history, a record eight of its own young talents dominating 2019’s first round. “We kind of have pockets of hotbeds of hockey in [Germany]. It’s similar to how USA Hockey was a number of years ago,” Hlushko says. “You had the Minnesotas, you had the Chicagos, you had the Detroits, and then you just saw the boom, and those hotbeds have just spread everywhere now. And USA Hockey has just taken off — it’s on par with Canada for sure right now, in terms of the development programs.

“That’s what I see happening in Germany.”

Photo Credits

Courtesy the Adler Mannheim; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Courtesy the Adler Mannheim; Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images; Courtesy the Adler Mannheim (2); City-Press via Getty Images.