The DEL in Germany is one of Europe's most import-reliant major hockey leagues. In an average season, about 45 percent of the league's players -- and most of its stars -- hail from countries other than Germany.
Therefore, it is somewhat unusual for a native-born and trained German player to get a sniff of the top spots in the scoring race, as most German skaters are role players on their clubs.
That has changed this year, though, with the ascension of ERC Ingolstadt left winger Thomas Greilinger
to the league's top spot in the scoring race. Through the first 28 games, he leads the circuit both in total points (42) and in goals scored (19, including 6 on the power play and a shorthander). In addition, German center Robert Hock of the Iserlohn Roosters is tied for third in the league with 35 points and is tied with former NHL center Bob Wren
(Greilinger's Ingolstadt linemate) for first in assists with 26.
Greilinger has completed one of the hockey world's most compelling comeback stories in the process.
No one has ever doubted the talent of the 28-year-old forward, who was born and raised in the small Bavarian town of Deggendorf. Rather, it was injuries and off-the-ice discipline that were nearly his undoing.
Greilinger was playing in a men's minor league by the age of 18 and dominated it by racking up a staggering 53 goals and 88 points in 52 games during the 1999-2000 season with his hometown Deggendorfer SC club. He made his DEL debut the following year and suited up for Team Germany in both the World Junior Championships and the men's World Championships. By age 20, he was a regular on the DEL's Nuremberg Ice Tigers. Despite relatively modest ice time, he compiled 14 goals and 30 points for the Ice Tigers during the 2000-01 campaign.
Early on, however, there was grumbling that Greilinger's practice habits left a lot to be desired and that he enjoyed the nightlife more than he enjoyed hockey. In an age where most professional hockey players are fanatical about their conditioning, Greilinger ate as he pleased and worked out only when necessary.
Nevertheless, he had enough talent to pull through on the ice.
In 2004, he once again played for Germany in the World Championships and the next season, got off to a fast start for his new team, Adler Mannheim (10 goals, 26 points in 31 games). But the 23-year-old's career nearly came to an end when he suffered a serious knee injury, in which he badly tore several ligaments.
Rather than rehabbing the injury earnestly to return to the DEL, Greilinger elected to have a good time with his friends in Deggendorf. His already suspect conditioning deteriorated, and the 5-foot-10 hockey player's weight ballooned.
Even when his weight reached 242 pounds, he ignored warnings to get control of the situation. As a result, Greilinger found himself out of professional hockey by the age of 24. He worked an office job for two years, during which time his weight reached a high of 286 pounds.
Unhappy, Greilinger gained a newfound desire to take control of his weight and return to the ice.
His knee was finally feeling better, and he realized how much he missed being around the game. Dedicating himself to hard training and a strict diet, he started to shed the excess pounds. DEL teams still weren't interested in his services, however, until he proved that he could still play effectively and maintain a reasonable weight.
Greilinger hooked on with the one team that he knew would always welcome him, Degggendorf. Playing for the Deggendorf Fire in Germany's fourth-tier minor league, Greilinger dominated the inferior level of opposition he faced. Leading the club to a promotion to a higher league, he racked up 106 points in 54 games at the Oberliga (third-tier) level in 2007-08. By now, DEL clubs were calling.
When Greilinger signed with ERC Ingolstadt in the summer of 2008, there were still plenty of skeptics.
He started to prove the doubters wrong, scoring 15 goals and 34 points in 52 games. Just as important, Greilinger continued to work on his conditioning, getting down to 215 pounds. Ingolstadt rewarded him with a contract extension.
This year, there's been no stopping him. In leading the DEL in scoring, he has emerged as a candidate for Germany's Olympic team and is a shoo-in, if healthy, for the World Championships in the spring.