Marcel Noebels said he knew he would have to make certain sacrifices along the way if he wanted to live his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.
Step one of that quest was leaving his native Germany to play in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds. So far, the move has paid major dividends.
The 6-foot-2 1/2, 195-pound left wing finished second on his team with 28 goals and third with 54 points. He also was second among first-year WHL players in goals and fifth in points. He's No. 48 on NHL Central Scouting's ranking of the top North American forwards available for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"Noebels has adjusted pretty well, and he's positioning himself better in the second half of the season," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He's got nice size and awareness, displays playmaking capabilities though he doesn't have much to work with in Seattle. His work habits are good and not too many bad habits have crept into his play on a bad team, which is a good sign. I like the way he thinks, but he must improve his foot speed. … He has a scoring touch."
Noebels succeeded despite playing for a Seattle team that finished last in the WHL Western Conference and scored the fourth-fewest goals in the league, and while facing the opposition's best checkers and defense pairs on a nightly basis.
"I think he knows that, knows the league well, knows the opposition and personnel and knows who he's going up against," Seattle coach Rob Sumner told NHL.com. "He expects a lot of himself and he enjoys that challenge. He's a big part of what we're doing. He's really climbed into our leadership group. He takes it as a challenge and he's delivered."
However, it was playing for Germany at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., that he realized jumping to North America had to be the next step on his career path.
"It's a better level here," Noebels told NHL.com. "I think that was the right decision."
Sumner hadn't seen Noebels in person, but what he saw on video and heard from people he trusted was that Noebels was someone who definitely could help his team. The Thunderbirds drafted Noebels with the 10th pick of the 2010 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
"I think it couldn't be better here," Noebels said of Seattle. "We've got a really good GM here (former Philadelphia Flyers GM Russ Farwell), the coaching staff is really good, one assistant coach is Turner Stevenson, he played in the NHL. I've gotten a lot of ice time here, played power play, penalty kill here. It's almost like I'm playing every second shift."
Noebels earned every second of ice time he received, according to Sumner.
"I gave him an opportunity 5-on-5 right away, and he earned power-play time quickly," he said. "I wanted to make sure he understood what we're trying to do technically on the penalty kill before I put him there, but he earned that. He plays in all situations all the time and he has pretty much for a long time."
Generally players coming to North America from Europe need time to adjust to the different feel of the game, from the smaller rinks to the higher level of physicality.
On the physical note, however, Noebels was more excited than concerned.
"I played some tournaments when I was young -- 16, 15 -- in Quebec, Drummondville, and I say holy (cow), I like that rink, like that physical play, the body contact, the 1-on-1 battles in the corner. I said, 'You have to go over and try it with the best in your age.' I really like it. I won't be going back to Germany.
"The 1-on-1 battles, I really like that. I go hard to the net all the time, try to be physical all the time, finish every check."
The adjustment has been nearly as easy off the ice. Noebels has a firm grasp on the English language and continues to improve. His billet family has tried to make him comfortable by cooking authentic German cuisine -- or at least attempting to.
"They try to make German food for me," he said with a laugh. "It's not exactly the same (but) I really like the food here, too."
Noebels improved as the season went on, and a nice benchmark for him was the 2011 World Junior Championships. While Germany lost all seven of its games, Noebels led the team with 2 assists and tied for the team lead with 3 points.
"It helped me a lot," said Noebels. "Since I've come back from world juniors I'm a different player. I have more points in every game. I'm better on the ice all the time."
The numbers bear that out -- in 32 games prior to the World Juniors, Noebels had 10 goals and 22 points; in his final 34 games, he had 18 goals and 32 points, including 8 points in his final nine games as Seattle pushed for a playoff spot.
"Confidence-wise it's a real feather in the guy's cap no matter what your country is to participate in that tournament," Sumner said of the world juniors. "He's come back and played very well since he's been back and he was playing pretty darn well before he left. His game has steadily gone up and he's still really improving."
And Sumner believes there's no reason he won't continue rising. Scouts made Thunderbirds games can't-miss experiences to see Noebels in action.
"They want to know more about him," Sumner said. "They're very interested and intrigued and want to find out as much as they can about him. He's certainly getting a lot of attention."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK