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Dominik and the Rise of German Hockey

By Chris Wescott

G

eduld, Ausdauer und Schweiß machen eine unschlagbare Kombination für den Erfolg.

Translation?

Patience, stamina, and sweat make an unbeatable combination for success.

For Dominik Kahun, that phrase makes perfect sense in either German or English and, in fact, encapsulates his journey to the Chicago Blackhawks.

It's taken time for German hockey to gain respect in North America, just like how it took time for Kahun to earn his own recognition and reach the NHL.

In the rise to respectability and success, patience is a virtue.

"For me, it's still like a dream," said Kahun. "I'm living my dream, you know? I still really can't imagine how I'm playing in the NHL. When I'm in bed, I think about it. Wow, am I really here? It's still something special to me."

All of it might not have been possible without the help of a dentist.

DR. CHARLES GEORGE HARTLEY was born in North Plains, Michigan on October 13, 1883.

Perhaps, Hartley never had a choice but to love the sport, as his family moved to Brantford, Ontario while he was at such a young, impressionable age. It was there that Hartley developed the remarkable skill and ability that would eventually earn him international acclaim.

But how does a Michigan-born, Canadian-trained, Chicago-educated dentist find his way to becoming the "father of German hockey?"

While studying at the Royal College of Dental Surgery at Toronto University, Hartley helped lead the school's team to two consecutive intercollegiate championships in 1902 and 1903.

Hartley's educational pursuits brought him to the Windy City, where he enrolled at the University of Chicago.

Hartley would not give up on his hockey career, and went on to star for the Chicago College of Dental Surgery team - the first hockey team at the University of Chicago - for two years.

As a top student, Dr. Hartley was offered opportunities to hone his craft in Europe. He ultimately accepted an invite from Dresden, Germany, and became the assistant surgeon dentist for the German royal court.

Dr. Hartley, spurred no doubt by his love of hockey, attempted to pick up the winter sport of bandy, which is played with 11 men per side on a football-field-sized sheet of ice, with a lacrosse ball as opposed to a puck.

Hartley
Photo provided by the Society for International Hockey Research

After giving bandy a try with ASC Dresden in 1906, Hartley was dismayed that it was illegal to carry the ball as one would a puck, and using two hands on the stick was also against the rules.

A year later, Hartley spoke with a friend from Toronto, requested he send hockey sticks and pucks, so he could distribute them to his German friends and bandy teammates.

It seemed he was on to something, as many Germans showed great enthusiasm to learn a new sport. 

Over the next several years, Hartley grew the game in Germany by skating with his new friends at various tournaments, including with Berliner HC for the first time a German team had skated in a modern hockey tournament, using Canadian-style sticks and a puck.

At the first ever European Championships in 1910, held at the Swiss resort of Les Avants, the Germans finished second, mostly due to the superior skill of Hartley, who was voted the tournament's top forward.

Dr. Hartley's successes on the international stage for Germany continued until he left the country in 1917, but the mark he left would last to this day. His Berliner SC team called him the "Unser Meisterlehrer."

Our Master Teacher.

He'd return to Germany in the early 1930s to much fanfare among European hockey associations, as they celebrated his accomplishments and his help in growing the sport overseas.

A member of the German Hockey Hall of Fame, Hartley is also seen as a factor in the development of hockey in California during the 1920s and '30s - where he was president of the Amateur Ice Hockey Association of Southern California, also coaching the University of Southern California team.

It's amusing to think today a dentist's role in hockey is likely to patch up the damage left by a puck or rogue stick. Back then, a dentist was responsible for the sport's advancements both in North America and abroad.

"I HAD THE GOOSEBUMPS all over my body when I stepped into the rink."

As a former Olympian himself, and President of the German Ice Hockey Association, Franz Reindl felt the emotions stirring at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

For what seemed like the first time ever - and perhaps that's the harsh truth - all eyes in the hockey world were on his program, his nation's team.

Reindl has a long history in German hockey as a player, a coach, a general manager and so on. And he'd been in this spot before.

In 1976, Reindl earned an Olympic bronze medal with the West Germany team. It was a magnificent feat, one that the nation's hockey fans held dearly. As of February 2018, German hockey had reached new heights.

Bronze was no longer the ultimate achievement.

"We have ups and downs," Reindl explained. "We're like an elevator and we go up and down and so '76 was a highlight, but you cannot measure it with what they did now.

Olympics
Photo by Getty Images

"I'm really happy the '76 story is over now. I'm really happy that this new generation has taken a big step and they are the heroes. We have silver heroes now. The bronze heroes are getting older or not alive anymore and you need some new stories. PyeongChang was a big, big story and I'm so happy for the boys."

The nation of Germany, players, fans, and media were amused when the Germans entered their quarterfinal matchup with Sweden. They were even more intrigued when the Germans beat the Swedes 4-3 to advance to the semi against Canada. Their collective jaws dropped when the Germans beat the Canadians 4-3 for a shot at the gold medal.

Although the Olympic Athletes from Russia would end the Germans' run, there were a lot of smiles on the faces of those lifting silver medals. Kahun, a Czech born, German forward, remembers the scene vividly.

"When we lost the game in overtime, at first guys were sad, guys were crying," said Kahun, who scored two goals and recorded three assists in seven games during the tournament.

But the sadness the Germans felt quickly evolved into near euphoric levels of happiness. Those emotions came with the realization of what they had done.

"I would say not even five minutes later we were all smiling," Kahun said. "We knew already, before the final, we had did it. We did the most out of German hockey. The gold medal game was like we had nothing to lose. We could play free and that's what we did. We were happy at the end."

German hockey had declared itself on hockey's world stage. Sure, there was an absence of NHL players at the 2018 Winter Games, but that takes nothing away from the Germans. They earned the recognition and the sense of accomplishment.

"As a former player and getting beat up a lot of the times with the National Team, being in PyeongChang, and seeing the team getting together every day more and more, increasing the success, it was just a dream," said Reindl. "The sport was unbelievable. Every day was a day of glory for German hockey."

"I think it was the biggest thing in German hockey, ever," Kahun said. "Probably, we hope not, but the percentage is high that we will never do it again. It's because we're still a small hockey country. But it's getting better and better. I think we showed that we have good guys, we just need to play as a team. We had very good coaching. I just hope we can go on. It's getting better and better."

To this day, the Olympics are Kahun's greatest hockey memory.

"Obviously, I have more highlights," he said. "I won three championships with Munich. I'm in the NHL. It's a dream come true, but the Olympics are right now the best thing that's ever happened to me. I think it's every athlete's dream to be in the Olympics. I just enjoyed every day. We had so much fun every day with all the guys and all the athletes. It was a highlight that we had a tournament like that."

"I was very proud," said Helmut de Raaf, Kahun's Under-18 head coach in Mannheim. "Dominik was one of 10 players on the German team I coached in junior. For a coach to watch his players, how they made it to play pro, it is the best [thing] that can happen."

Since that gold-medal game on Feb. 25, 2018, Reindl has met with hockey fans around the globe and has seen a meteoric rise in interest German hockey, no matter where his travels take him.

"I am in Canada, I'm in the USA, China and Sweden, and Finland the last couple of weeks and everybody is talking about PyeongChang, the success of the German team and, of course, winning against the big hockey nation of Canada and being so close to the gold medal," Reindl said. "We, as German hockey, are much more respected now than it was before."

Not just more, but "a lot more."

"It's changing dramatically," Reindl confirmed.

Reindl, born in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1954, has been a life-long hockey fan. A top player in his country, he skated in nearly 200 games for the national team. He went to nine IIHF World Championships, three Olympic Games and one Canada Cup. It's an international career that commands respect, even when his team didn't get much of that even from his own countrymen… until now.

Quote2

"The respect is also coming from the media and Germany," he said. "In Germany, soccer is all over. It's another world. They are on another planet. But now, we are respected. We are known as a sport. Even now in the streets, they are talking about waking up at five o'clock in the morning and watching hockey [during the Olympics.] Even in a city like Munich, a lot of lights turned on in apartments and houses and people are so funny [talking about it.]"

"We heard stories from Germany while in Korea that millions of people were waking up at four in the morning to watch a hockey game," Kahun said. "That hadn't happened before. The whole country was with us. It was crazy."

When Kahun flew home after the Olympics were complete, the German team first flew into Frankfurt.

"When we arrived at the airport, there were so many people waiting and it was the biggest thing in Germany when we played the final."

And then he flew on home to Munich, where Kahun and a few of his teammates were greeted by another enthused mob of supporters, waving flags and cheering.

"It has changed dramatically," repeated Reindl. "We are respected, we are well-known, we now are really in the sports market."

The Swedes have their style, the Russians have theirs. Canadians, Americans, the Finns… they're all unique in some way. So, what defines a German hockey player?

"German hockey… We are hard workers," Reindl said. "Team players, hard workers. That's our biggest thing. We're based on good goalies, good defense and we are a strong opponent. That's German hockey... It's close to North American hockey."

Now with the silver medal in hand and rise of young players in the NHL like Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and Chicago's Dominik Kahun, you can perhaps add "here to stay" to those descriptions of German hockey.

"The silver medal was a great moment for German hockey," said de Raaf. "We all enjoyed it a lot, but it was just an incredible moment. We are not a top six nation in the hockey world, but the silver medal helps us to increase. More kids are playing hockey."

WHEN LEON DRAISAITL WAS 13, he moved to Mannheim to join what was - at the time, if not still to this day - the best hockey academy in Germany.

Dominik Kahun was already one year into the program.

The two were placed in the same billet family, and it was a friendship match made in hockey heaven.

"I met him the afternoon, I think I remember, and in the evening we were already playing Xbox together," said Kahun. "We became pretty good friends."

"From there on, we just clicked on and off the ice," Draisaitl said. "We got along really, really well. The three years we played together in Mannheim, it was just him and I all the time together. We built a really good relationship and we're still really good friends."

The dynamic duo was so close, in fact, that their teammates would call them the "Sedins of Germany," a nod to the Swedish twins who dominated the Vancouver Canucks hockey scene for so many years.

"We were probably the best friends on the team and the next year we started playing together [on the same line] and then we played always together," Kahun said.

"We were really, really good together," Draisaitl said. "It was awesome because we got along so well off the ice, we lived together for the three years we were there so we were together every single day. It was a lot of fun, it was a great time."

Kahun does not remember the nickname but it makes sense, given their surreal, twin-like chemistry.

Olympics

"We know where the other guy is going to be," said Kahun. "It seems like we think the same. We know where the other guy is. It works out."

Their numbers together in junior make you do a double take.

The 2009-10 season was their first together, playing for Mannheimer ERC - the Under-16 squad in the Schüler-BL league. Kahun paced the team in scoring with 126 points, including a whopping 56 goals in 27 games. Draisaitl was not far behind, tallying 48 goals and 103 points in 26 games.

The next season, the two exploded again. Kahun torched the league for 206 points (69 G, 137 A), while Draisaitl finished second with 192, burying an unreal, league-leading 97 goals.

"Of course, we can all the time think about the level of competition in that league, but to produce an average of five points per game… there has to be fire to be that good!" said Kahun's U-18 assistant coach in Mannheim, Petteri Väkiparta. "If that was easy, I guess everyone could do that."

"Yeah, it was awesome," Draisaitl said of those seasons. "We had some really, really good chemistry."

Perhaps all of those nights playing video games, the conversations at home, their shared car rides to the rink or the countless practices together contributed to the chemistry.

"We practiced together every day," said Draisaitl. "We worked out together every day, so we went through the same hockey school and went through the same program and did everything the same, basically. We developed a really good chemistry through that."

The numbers they put up were also fuel to the competitive fire between the two.

In 2011-12, both made the full-time leap to the DNL, the elite development league in Germany, skating with Jungadler Mannheim's U-18 squad. Another level meant another chance to compete against both their opponents and each other.

"They created amazing situations and goals," said de Raaf. "Dominik was the leading person and Leon learned a lot from Dominik. Attitude, readiness creativity."

Väkiparta remembers their healthy competition and what set them apart from the rest.

Kahun
Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago Blackhawks

"Yes, really much!" he said. "[They were] best friends, but at the same time the best guys to push each other for better performance. They saw the game the same way."

Kahun and Draisaitl finished with an identical 21 goals each. Kahun, however, edged Draisaitl by one point (57 to 56) for the team and league scoring title. Guess who was happiest for Kahun's achievement?

"We're both really competitive guys, but it was never in a competitive way where we wouldn't be happy for the other guy," said Draisaitl. "It was always pretty healthy. We pushed each other and we expected the best from one another, but if he got three goals one game and I got nothing I was really happy for him. It was the other way around the same thing. We're competitive, but at the end of the day we always stick together."

"Obviously, there was the 'who will be first?' but in the end, we were more happy we won the championship together," said Kahun. "We were happier, you know? But we just said we'll have fun every day and play our game and we will score many goals. That's what we did."

"They were like twins," said de Raaf. "You never met [just] one of them...They were teammates, friends and it fit perfect."

The "Sedins of Germany" were virtually unstoppable together but split up the next season to pursue their NHL passions. Draisaitl went to the Western Hockey League's Prince Albert Raiders, where he put himself on the hockey map so much so that the Edmonton Oilers eventually selected him third overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

Kahun took the Ontario Hockey League path, joining the Sudbury Wolves. His numbers didn't translate as quickly as Draisaitl's did, and so Kahun made the decision to go back to Germany and hone his skills more in his home country. It's a move that turned out to be a great choice for Kahun's career, one that ultimately brought him to Chicago.

"His dream was all the time to play [in the] NHL," said de Raaf. "As a small player, he worked very hard in junior. He tried to play OHL, got injuries, points [were] OK, but [he] was not drafted. [He] came back to Germany, started as the youngest player on our top team, Red Bull Munich, was sent down to [tier 2] league, came back and developed into one of the top forwards in the league, won the silver medal at the Olympics, [and he] never lost his goal to play [in the] NHL. If [anyone] deserved to get the chance in the NHL, it is Dominik."

DRAISAITL EXPLAINS THAT in his early teens, Kahun was withdrawn, quiet... shy even.

"He's changed a little bit because he's gotten older," said Draisaitl. "When he was younger, he was a shy kid. He was very shy and pretty quiet. As soon as he got older, he got more confident and more comfortable in speaking and talking to people and now he's just an awesome guy."

Those who know him best say he's just hilarious.

"He's a funny guy," Draisaitl said. "I think if you don't know him really, really well then I don't know if he comes across as funny. But if you're like me... we have our inside jokes and he's hilarious."

And one of the more cheerful as well.

"He has a smile on his face all the time," said Väkiparta. "He might look a little shy, but he has a good sense of humor.

"He played on our U-16 team and it was really nice to watch him play. He has a smile on his face every day. Can't really remember any bad days from him. When he came up with U-18, he was a little shy to take part in the conversation, but immediately when the conversation turned to hockey, his eyes started to burn!"

When describing Kahun as shy, his friends and teammates speak more to his humble nature than any real timidity. It's a certain level-headedness that has helped Kahun through the ups and downs of his journey to the NHL.

Reindl said it best.

"As a human, as a player, as a kid, he seems to be a little shy, but you need this. He's really, how you say, grounded? Both feet on earth, as we say in Germany.

"Even if he's scoring or doing great things he will stay with both feet on earth," Reindl continued. "I really like people like this and players like this. He always knows where he's coming from and that he needs to work every day to keep this. He knows this. You don't have to tell him to do this or this or this. He knows."

There's nothing shy about the way Kahun plays the game of hockey. He darts in and out of spaces, attacks pucks, goes to the net, and makes great, skilled passing plays. He's a perfect complementary player to more established NHL players. It's allowed him to fit right in on Chicago's top line with Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews.

"As a hockey player, he's unbelievably fast," said Reindl. "He knows where to go and he knows what's needed in the game. Quick passes, quick turns, scoring. He knows what to do at the right moment. He makes the game faster. He can play on any level. The better the level is, the better he plays. Not a lot of players can do this."

Kahun
Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago Blackhawks

It's the result of years of dedication to the sport.

"In hockey, I started when I was three," Kahun said. "That was the first time on the ice. When I was like seven or eight, I was thinking 'yeah, I can be pretty OK.' I was the best in my age [group] when we were young and also, I loved games - I played everything like soccer, I was on a team. But I just knew right away that hockey was my favorite."

"He loves sports in general," said Väkiparta. "It didn't matter if it was hockey, soccer, basketball. He was a natural player who knows and understands the game and could play with his instinct."

That instinct has served Kahun well in hockey - his ultimate sport of choice.

"As a small player he has to find different ways to be successful," said Väkiparta.

"His hockey sense is unbelievable and he's a small kid, I would say, but quick," said Reindl. "He can skate, he has quick hands back and forth and he can do everything. He's really amazing, what he can do with his body and feet. Unbelievable."

Väkiparta recognized the NHL spark inside Draisaitl and Kahun early on.

"We played some international tournaments in Finland and Sweden and also in the States," explained Väkiparta. "For example, we won at Shattuck St. Mary's. That proved for me and also for the players their potential."

De Raaf knew he had a chance, but he'd have to clear one obstacle.

"When he was the second season with us he made huge steps to develop his game and he could handle the speed," de Raaf said. "The only question mark was his size."

Draisaitl has never doubted Kahun's ability.

"I've said all along he's a very special player."

However, in Draisaitl's mind, Kahun's NHL potential really bubbled to the surface later in his career.

"Probably a few years ago when he started to really contribute in the German league, which is a good league," Draisaitl said. "As a 19 year-old, or whatever he was, he put up really good numbers. Then I watched him a few times and I played with him at Worlds and stuff and he just has the hockey sense to play in the NHL. That's his biggest strength. His hockey sense is off the charts. It's really, really good."

Kahun's profile in Germany rose long before it did in North American scouting circles

"He played in my hometown for two years," said Reindl. "Munich sent him out to the so-called farm team, and many, many fans are here. I know a lot of players, I know a lot of former players who are watching Kahun because he played so good here. They feel he's 'their player' and the same thing in Munich or Mannheim when he played there. He has a lot of fans and they really root and cheer for him."

SOME PEOPLE SHY AWAY FROM the responsibilities as an ambassador for their sport. Kahun, however, says bring it on.

"Oh, I love it," he said. "I'm a guy who has always tried to do everything for the fans, especially for the young kids in Germany. Any little guy who wanted something, I'd give it to them. I want to be a role model for those young players."

By making it to the NHL, Kahun has not only achieved his own dream, but he's shown kids all over Germany who have professional hockey aspirations that it's possible. Draisaitl is establishing himself in Edmonton; Kahun is trying to do the same in Chicago.

"Just proud," Kahun said. "Obviously, Leon is now longer in the league, he's used to it, he's more experienced… Back home, almost daily, they say something about Leon and me. We are big guys right now."

Reindl himself watched on as Kahun scored his first NHL goal against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center.

First NHL Goal


"I watched it with my family," he said. "I watch the NHL, I see the games, I see the highlights normally, but this game I watched full length with my family, with my son. I'm a hockey fan, and he scored an unbelievable goal, top-shelf. We jumped out of the seats, jumped out of the couch and we were just so proud and so happy for him, seeing this German kid scoring this goal in the NHL, playing on the top line with the Chicago Blackhawks. That's a dream. It's a just a dream come true."

A dream that's now shared by many young German athletes.

"Many more players now have the dream to go to the NHL," said Reindl. "I'm president of the German Federation and I'm proud when players make it, make the step and get the chance and take the chance. That's a dream.

"This is better to have for our young players, having a dream or goals to achieve and there will be more to come. I believe."

It's sometimes difficult for German players to get noticed, but you could see more of their names come up in future conversations about drafts and free agents.

First NHL Goal


"Yes, for sure. Thanks to Leon, Dominik and also are few more German kids who are doing pretty well in NCAA, that opens the door," said Väkiparta.

"This helps German hockey to make the next step," said de Raaf. "In Germany, everything is focused on soccer and now we have two young men rocking the NHL. The media is interested in what they are doing and the young players want to be like Dominik and Leon."

Draisaitl has been leading the charge in terms of German ambassadorship among NHL players. He and the Oilers played an exhibition game against his father's team the Cologne Sharks in Germany early in October.

Adding Kahun to the list of those making the country proud is exciting for Draisaitl.

"It's awesome," he said. "We all hope we can get more players like that in the NHL and we can build our country's hockey and we can develop into a country that can play with the big nations. We're on our way, and hopefully we can keep developing players like Dominik."