In his short life, Robert Mueller inspired more people and accomplished more in his profession than most people who live to a ripe old age. Last week, the former DEL (German Ice Hockey League) star, German national team goaltender and Washington Capitals
draftee succumbed to a two-and-a-half year battle with an insidious and incurable fourth-degree brain tumor known as a glioblastoma multiforme. He was a month shy of his 29th birthday.
Although he never appeared in an NHL game, the 5-foot-7 Mueller was a highly skilled and widely respected goaltender. He was inducted into the German Hockey Hall of Fame in March of this year, and his number 80 jersey was retired by his Cologne Sharks club team after his advancing illness forced his retirement in November 2008.
"I am of course shocked," said Markus Kuhl, the general manager of the Mannheim Eagles. "I knew him since we were little…He was 100 percent a sportsman."
Born June 25, 1980 in the Bavarian city of Rosenheim, Mueller played in 127 international games for Team Germany, including the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and eight International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships. The Capitals drafted Mueller in the ninth round, No. 275, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
In the DEL, Mueller played for the Star Bulls of Rosenheim, Mannheim Eagles, Krefeld Penguins, Duisburg Foxes and Cologne Sharks, winning two championships. He also appeared in eight games for EHC Basel in Switzerland's Nationalliga A during the relegation round of the 2003-04 season.
On the ice, Mueller is best known for battling back from his brain cancer diagnosis in 2006-07 to play professional hockey for Cologne. He returned to play a full season the next year. He last played internationally for Team Germany at the 2008 World Championships, appearing in five games. In that tournament, Mueller keyed Germany's 4-2 upset victory against Slovakia, stopping 36 of 38 shots.
Previously, Mueller backstopped Krefeld to the 2002-03 German championship, posting a stellar 1.99 goals-against average and .924 save percentage during the playoffs after starting a remarkable 47 of 50 games during the regular season. A 20-year-old Mueller was Mannheim's backup goaltender during the team's 2000-01 championship season. The youngster started 23 regular season games that year. In the playoffs, he only appeared in two contests, but allowed just three goals and showed the fast reflexes and fierce competitiveness that later became his trademarks.
Mueller's most famous one-game performance took place on March 22, 2008 during the DEL playoffs. On that night, his Cologne team downed Mannheim, 5-4, in six overtimes. Mueller stopped a mind-numbing 96 of 100 shots to earn the victory in a game that lasted 168 minutes, 16 seconds. In the annals of hockey history, only the Detroit's Red Wings 1-0 victory against the Montreal Maroons in 1936 went longer. That game took 176 minutes, 30 seconds to complete.
It was in November 2006 when it became known that Mueller had a brain tumor after he went to the doctor complaining about migraine symptoms, and family members and friends noticed changes in his personality. After undergoing surgery, it took a mere two months until Mueller was back on the ice.
"He was a competitor through and through," said former NHL defenseman and current Team Germany coach Uwe Krupp
. "Robert never gave up on anything."
Mueller emerged as a hero around the German hockey world. Upon his return to the ice, he earned hearty ovations whenever he made his first appearance in the various locales around the DEL. In 2007-08, he dressed in 41 regular season games for Mannheim, Duisberg and Cologne. Mueller started 14 playoff games for Cologne, posting a .935 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average.
Unfortunately, the brain tumor soon returned with a vengeance. In August 2008, Mueller underwent a second brain surgery. Sadly, it became clear that the cancerous cells had become resistant to any treatment method. Nevertheless, Mueller returned to practice with his Cologne team and even played in two games. Mueller played in his final game on November 23 against Krefeld.
Mueller was unable to continue. He allowed his doctor to publish the facts of his terminal condition and returned to Rosenheim to spend his last days with his wife, Jenny, and children, Lena and Luis. He finally succumbed last week.
"Robert impressed us all and was an idol for many people not only as a sportsman. He will leave a big hole," said Sharks' general manager Robert Eichin in a statement.