Among followers of German and international hockey, the name Erich Kühnhackl is held in the same sort of reverence that North American fans bestow on some of the greats of the NHL. Chosen as Germany's "Player of the 20th Century," he is also a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.
That's why it was major news in European hockey circles when Kühnhackl, 58, recently announced that he had accepted an offer from the Frankfurt Lions of the DEL (German elite league) to join the team as its sports director, effective July 1. Kühnhackl also serves as vice president of the DEB (German Ice Hockey Association) and was formerly the head coach of both the national Under-20 and Under-18 squads. He will be an ambassador for the 2010 IIHF World Championship, which will be played in Germany.
One of Kühnhackl's prime responsibilities in his new job will be to upgrade Frankfurt's junior hockey development program. A staunch believer in a strong domestic junior hockey program, Kühnhackl has been a vocal critic of the frequent lack of opportunities for young German players in the veteran and import dominated pro leagues.
"It concerns me," he wrote on his official Web site. "It's particularly unfortunate that young German players in the DEL and (lower leagues) get so little playing time today. A significant amount of talent gets wasted. As a coach, I learned that if one has patience and confidence in young players, they pay you back in performance."
Kühnhackl was born October 17, 1950 to German parents in the Czechoslovakian town of Citice. He got his start playing hockey in Czechoslovakia and did not move to his homeland until 1968. At 6-foot-5, the center towered over most of his opponents, and had the skill to match.
He first started playing professionally in 1968 and remained a top player until his retirement in 1989. His primary club teams were EV Landshut (1968-76, 1979-85, 1987-89) and Kölner Haie (1976-79). He also spent two seasons in Switzerland, playing for EHC Olten in 1985-86 and 1986-87.
Kühnhackl led his clubs to West German Bundesliga championships in 1969-70, 1976-77, 1978-79 and 1982-83. Over the course of his career, he scored a staggering 723 goals and 705 assists for 1,428 points in only 771 games, all of which remain German career records. Eight times in his career he led the circuit in scoring and recorded 53 hat tricks. His best individual season came in 1979-80, when he racked up 85 goals and 155 points (both single-season records) in a mere 48 games.
During Kühnhackl's playing days, the caliber of the German league was not nearly what it is today. Over the last 15 years, the league has become a haven for former NHL and AHL players. Nevertheless, Kühnhackl was clearly a world class talent. In the mid-1970s, the New York Rangers
offered him a contract but he turned it down. It was still not common in that era for European players to venture overseas, and Kühnhackl was comfortably entrenched as the biggest hockey star in Germany.
Kühnhackl proved himself on the international stage as well. Suiting up for West Germany, he played in ten World Championships and three Olympics, including the bronze medal-winning team at the 1976 Games at Innsbruck, Austria. The center was the top scorer among all players at both the 1978 World Championships (16 points in 10 games) and the 1984 Olympics (eight goals and 14 points in six games).
Almost single-handedly, Kühnhackl helped to keep West Germany at the elite international level, avoiding relegation to what was then known as the "B Pool" (today known as Division I). In 75 career IIHF World Championship games, Kühnhackl scored 40 goals and 35 assists for 75 points. He also displayed a feisty side, logging 126 career penalty minutes.
Kühnhackl's greatest accomplishments came during his three Olympic tournaments. In 1976, his five goals and 10 points helped West Germany to shock the hockey world by capturing a bronze medal -- the only time in the post-World War II era that Germany has won an Olympic hockey medal. Kühnhackl was the highest scoring non-Soviet player in the tournament. At the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, West Germany finished a respectable fifth, placing ahead of both defending gold medalist Team USA and Finland.
He was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 1997. For many years Kühnhackl coached in German hockey and also served as a broadcaster. His son recently debuted on the international stage, playing for Germany at the 2009 World Under-18 Championships.