WINNIPEG - It's been over two years since Leon Gawanke was selected in the fifth round by the Winnipeg Jets at the NHL Draft in Chicago.
This past spring, the 22-year-old German wrapped up his three-year junior career with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL. He recorded 121 points (29G, 92A) in 178 regular season games - an experience he won't forget.
"It was obviously a great time. I met some great people there and it helped my development that I came over here (to North America) to play three years of junior in Canada," said Gawanke.
"It was a good decision and it worked out pretty well and I'm looking forward to my first pro season."
Gawanke isn't the first player to come over from Europe to Canada to play Major Junior - Nikolaj Ehlers doing the same - and he certainly was aware of the culture shock that would come from leaving home at such a young age.
"It's a big difference. Especially Berlin where I'm from to Cape Breton. Everything was smaller, people are really nice and I had good billets," said Gawanke.
"I had really good teammates so it wasn't too hard (outside) of the first couple months, obviously. It was like a second home and I enjoyed my time."
Still leaving Berlin which has a population of 3.75 million people to a much smaller city of 132, 000 had to be really shocking. However, the Jets prospect liked how it helped him focus on hockey.
"During the hockey season there's not too many opportunities for you to get into trouble," laughed Gawanke.
"So I think that was a good part. During the summer in Berlin I have some more time and more stuff to do. I think it was good (mix). It was a good place."
Back in the spring, the Jets signed Gawanke to a three-year entry level deal worth 2.4 million dollars. Gawanke has added size to his frame as he prepares for his first year of professional hockey. On top of that, he feels that he has made some significant steps in his development but of course, there is room for improvement.
"I think I'm still not at the level where I want to be but I think defensively I got better over the years. When I came here I started a little bit in the D zone and stuff," said Gawanke.
"I think I developed. I think overall my physical play developed too and I remember when I came here I didn't play any body cause I didn't need to in Germany. But now I think defensively and physically I'm better than at the start."
As of May 2019, Germany sits seventh in the IIHF rankings up from eight in 2018. The Germans were arguably the biggest surprise at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games with a silver medal. Gawanke who has played at numerous tournaments for his country is starting to see a slow and steady progress.
"(After the Olympic silver medal) a lot of people are watching. Hockey is growing in Germany, you see it in the CHL draft, the NHL draft there are more and more Germans getting drafted," said Gawanke.
"I think we are developing but we still can't compare ourselves to the big team like Canada, USA, Russia but I think we are getting there. Closer and closer every year and it's going to be great."
Germans who have made a name for themselves in the NHL include Marco Sturm, Christian Ehrhoff and Olaf Kolzig. Right now though, the biggest name in Germany when it comes to hockey is Edmonton Oiler Leon Draisaitl. The big winger scored 50 goals in 2018-19.
"Especially for the young kids who want to look up to someone like Leon Draisaitl," said Gawanke.
"They know he's German and he made it out of Germany to such a big league and is one of the best players in the NHL. I think players like that are really important and we need that."