Well, not quite. When it comes to the sport's elite superpowers, after all, Austria remains on the outside looking in. Still, there can be no denying the strides the central European nation has made in terms of developing players and improving the overall quality and popularity of its national program in recent years.
There are currently only three Austrian-born players in the National Hockey League, with Buffalo Sabres forward and emerging superstar Thomas Vanek being the most notable. Hoping to follow in the trailblazing footsteps of his friend and fellow Vienna native is Flyers prospect Andreas Nodl.
Selected in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (39th overall), Nodl is off to a scorching start to his NCAA career at St. Cloud State. Like Vanek, who starred at Minnesota, Nodl opted to continue his amateur development at the US collegiate level, after establishing himself as one of the top junior players in his homeland.
|Andreas Nodl was drafted by the Flyers in the third round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. (photo courtesy Neil Andersen, St. Cloud State Athletic Media) |
Whether Nodl, 19, can replicate Vanek's success against NCAA competition certainly remains to be seen. But the 6'1', 198-pound forward appears to have the tools necessary to become an elite performer for the Huskies.
"Obviously, he's off to a great start," said St. Cloud Head Coach Bob Motzko of Nodl, who has already accumulated eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) through four games thus far, leading the team. "There are going to be periods of adjustment for Andy and plenty of challenges ahead as he acclimates himself to the style and pace of the college game, and to college life in general.
"He has a great attitude and his talent and skill levels are apparent. We've already seen a sampling of what he is capable of and, ultimately, he's just going to get better and become a more complete player. I firmly believe that he's going to be a very good player at this level and beyond."Getting started
Nodl's journey began in the Austrian capital, where he was raised by his mother in an environment where sports, though not necessarily hockey, were very popular.
"I actually started figure skating at a very young age, probably two or three," he explained. "I did that for a little while, but eventually my mom decided that that wasn't really right for me. I always enjoyed watching the hockey teams play after my practices were over, so we decided that I would give it a try.
"My mom bought me all of the equipment and I tried it out for a week, and really enjoyed it. I think I was about five at the time, and I just had a lot of fun playing and learning more about the game. I was good at it, and just continued to play and move up to different levels and improve."
Nodl doesn't remember all of the specifics of seeing his first NHL game on television, but recalls a meeting between the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens at some point during the mid-1990s.
"We didn't get too much exposure to the NHL [in Austria], but we heard a lot about guys like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and [Mario] Lemieux; how good they were and all that they accomplished. I saw this game between the Devils and Canadiens maybe ten years ago, and I was fascinated by how talented the players were and how fast the game moved.
"I knew from that time on, for sure, that I wanted to be a hockey player. And, even now, it's still my goal to make it and play in the NHL, to get to that highest level and experience it for myself."
By the time Nodl had reached 16, he was already being viewed as one of the top young players in Austria. He represented his country at the 2002-03 IIHF Division I Group B Under-18 World Championships, notching four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in four games while centering his team's top line.
The following season, he would find himself playing semi-pro hockey against grown men in the Nationaliiga, the second-highest league in Austria. He would finish the campaign second on Weiner EV with a very impressive 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 25 games.
Nodl's fortunes truly began to rise, however, when he was invited to play for Team Austria at the 2003-04 World Junior Championships in Finland.
Though the team had high hopes entering the tournament, Austria's WJC entry was completely overwhelmed and overmatched against one of the best overall fields in recent memory. Save for a 2-2 tie against Ukraine, in fact, the team was thoroughly outclassed in every game.
The experience is one that Nodl took to heart and still speaks of in an almost-regretful tone today. At the same time, however, he readily acknowledges the personal benefits he has gained via his connection to Vanek, whom he met and befriended when the two became teammates for the first time in Finland.
"The world juniors was a good experience for me, though our team struggled to compete," said Nodl. "I don't know how much was expected of us going in, but any time you represent your country, you want to perform well. We just weren't ready to go up against the top teams at that level yet.
"I tried to make the most out of it, and was fortunate to develop a relationship with Thomas. He was our leader, someone we all looked up to. He took me aside and offered a lot of advice, helping me out a great deal.
"Most importantly, he helped arrange for me to come to North America and continue playing hockey here, something I remain very thankful for. I feel like I owe Thomas a lot, and hope to get the chance to play against him in the NHL one day. He's obviously doing great [with Buffalo] and I wish him all the best."
Motzko has the unique perspective of having coached both players. He was the head coach of the Sioux Falls Stampede during Vanek's two-year tenure in the United States Hockey League (USHL), and then worked as his assistant coach for two years while Vanek was at Minnesota.
"I think it was fortunate for Andy to have met Thomas at that time," he explained. "It was good for him to make that connection, and learn more about the collegiate game here. It's also been pretty darned good for us too don't get me wrong. But I think Andy has and really will benefit from coming over when he did.
"They're both very gifted offensive players. The one thing Thomas developed early was that he was a big-game player. He came in and pretty much became a dominant player right away with Minnesota. Now, it's Andy's turn at this level. He's shown a lot of the same qualities so far, so I don't think it's unfair to draw some comparisons between the two in that regard.""Falls" and rebounds
Nodl crossed the pond two seasons ago, joining Vanek's old junior "A" team in Sioux Falls. But, while his two-year tenure with the team would eventually be viewed as an unmitigated success, just about everything that could go wrong for him during that first season, did.
For starters, Nodl had difficulties adjusting to the cultural change and struggled mightily with the language barrier. A series of nagging injuries didn't help matters, as the talented forward never seemed to gain confidence in his new surroundings. The result was a disappointing 16-point output (7 goals, 9 assists) in 44 games.
"That first year was very, very difficult for me," he said. "I had a lot of problems with injuries, and also some family issues back home and trouble with understanding English. It was very hard, especially being so far away from home for the first time. Adjusting to a new style of hockey was tough enough, but there were so many other things going on as well."
The 2005-06 season would see a complete turnaround for Nodl, thanks in large part to the arrival of new Stampede Head Coach Kevin Hartzell. Applying a back-to-basics approach, Hartzell helped Nodl restore his confidence and get his game back on track. Nodl responded in a big way, notching a natural hat trick and an assist in the first game of the season and never looking back.
Nodl powered Sioux Falls to the top of the USHL standings during the regular season, finishing fifth in the league with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games. He would lead the Stampede all the way to the Clark Cup finals with a 15-point postseason effort. Ultimately, however, the team would fall to Des Moines in five games.
After the season, Nodl was named to the All-USHL First Team. This honor went along with the accolades he had garnered earlier in the year, when he was announced as the MVP of the USHL All-Star/Prospects Game, and won Fastest Skater competition in the Skills Competition with a lap of 14.68.
"I have to give so much credit to coach Hartzell," Nodl explained. "He really helped turn me around and get back on track. He pointed out all of the areas of the game where I needed work and advised me to follow a certain workout to gain muscle over the summer. I came back a better, much more confidant player thanks to him. He is a great teacher."
Nodl's emergence as a top performer in the USHL not only punched his ticket to the NCAA, but also put him on the map as a legitimate NHL prospect. Scouts began to show up in greater numbers to watch him play as his second season with the Stampede progressed. It soon became apparent that he would be selected fairly early in the upcoming entry draft.
"It was, I think, four in the morning back in Austria this past June," Nodl said with a laugh. "My mom and I had been following the draft [via the Internet], but she decided to go to bed. I sat there, refreshing the computer screen constantly. Then, I saw that I had been picked by the Flyers, and I was so happy.
"I went to get my mom and share the news. It was a great moment for us, a really big deal. After everything, it was a dream come true and it added to the excitement of me [coming to St. Cloud State] for this season."Immediate success
Nodl's connection with Thomas Vanek paid off, helping the young forward land in a position favorable for working toward an NCAA commitment. When it came time to actually choose a collegiate destination, Nodl once again relied upon the advice of his good friend and fellow countryman.
"Thomas always spoke very highly of Bob Motzko, as did everyone at Sioux Falls," he explained. "I met with [Motzko] and decided that St. Cloud State would be an excellent place to go to college and continue my playing career. Coach Motzko is a teacher, like coach Hartzell. I knew he had a reputation for working with offensive players like me, and I believe it's a very good fit."
The early results support Nodl's assessment. Through four games, he leads the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) with an average of two points-per-game. He ranks tenth in the conference in scoring, though St. Cloud has played at least two fewer games than every other team in the circuit thus far.
Nodl has been playing left wing on the Huskies' top line, with Nate Dey centering and Andrew Gordon on right wing. He has also been the main focus of the team's first power play unit, doing most of his damage thus far in man-advantage situations.
"Andy is a fun guy to play with because of his ability to distribute the puck," said Motzko. "He has great hands and offensive instincts, which makes him an ideal player on the power play. Right now, that's where most of his success has come. The elite players also produce consistently in five-on-five situations, so that is one area we will continue to work with him on.
"It's a big adjustment, though. In our two wins, Andy has been a top contributor. If you look at our two losses, he really wasn't a factor. Those are the things you live with when you go with freshmen at this level. Sometimes they're good and sometimes they're not so good. But, we have a lot of faith in him to develop consistently.
"Top players generally begin to dominate when they become sophomores and juniors, so we can't expect the world of him right away. But, again, he's off to a good start and I expect we'll see some very bright moments from Andy this year."
"A world of potential"
Relatively quiet and unassuming away from the rink, Nodl is also very humble when it comes to his own success and in discussing his future potential.
"I'm off to a good start, yes, but the important thing is the success of our team," he explained. "We have done some nice things early on, and there is definitely plenty we still have to work on. I will continue to try to develop into the best player I can be.
"My personal goal is to play in the NHL, and I believe that is something I will accomplish with the Flyers. But, as always, the main goal is to play hard and work together [with my teammates] to make us a better team."
Motzko, well noted for his honesty and openness with the media, was a bit more forthcoming in his assessment of both Nodl's short and long-term outlook.
"There's no doubt that Andy has the offensive ability to play at the highest level," the coach added. "He's a special player. In a way, we're still learning what's under the hood at this point. He's had some success right out of the chute, but now things are going to get more difficult, with other teams keying on him and trying to shut him down.
"We'll see how he fights through, but, for him, I think it's really a matter of when, not if or how. He's going to figure out how to become a top player at this level, and I believe he has the ability to eventually do the same in the pros. It could take a little time, but already you can see the makings of a player with a world of potential."
Motzko paused, then let out a mock nervous laugh.
"I only hope," he continued, "that we can hang onto Andy for a few years. But, with his ability, there is always the possibility that the Flyers could ask him to turn pro early. We'll see what happens, but you just wish all the best for your players and want to see them all do well for themselves.
"It's a pleasure having Andy here now, and [I'm] looking forward to what he can do in the future."