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Stanley Cup Final

Penguins' Kuhnhackl making dad proud

Pittsburgh forward's father, Erich, was German hockey standout

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Erich Kuhnhackl towered over everyone in the family waiting area inside Consol Energy Center late Wednesday, a large, fit man in a crisp blue suit with flowing hair and a big grin.

Other than his physical stature, you never would have thought Kuhnhackl was anything more than a proud hockey dad watching his son, Pittsburgh Penguins rookie forward Tom Kuhnhackl, live his dream and play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Except he is way more than that. If he weren't, he would not have been invited into Mario Lemieux's suite during Game 2 so "Super Mario" could meet the man he played against in the 1985 IIHF World Championship, so he could meet someone who is his German counterpart.

Erich Kuhnhackl is considered the greatest German hockey player to ever live. In 2000, he was named the best German hockey player of the 20th century. Now 65, he's still a Lemieux-like celebrity back home.

"You can't walk on the streets with him back home," Tom Kuhnhackl said of his dad prior to the Penguins' 2-1 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday. "You wouldn't make it far because everybody recognizes him."

Home is Landshut, Germany, a long way from here. In Pittsburgh, the Kuhnhackl men are together because of the pact they made when Tom was a kid trying to figure out his path in life.

Erich told Tom to do what he wanted to do. He never pressured him into playing hockey. But if he wanted to play hockey, he would be there for him every step of the way.

"You must go your way," Erich said.

Tom chose hockey because, "I wanted to be like my dad one day," he said.

He knew that was a reach as soon as he watched video clips of his dad in his playing heyday. Erich retired in 1989, three years before Tom was born, which is why Tom lists Marco Sturm, a German native, as his favorite player. But the video told him all he needed to know about his dad's talent.

"You see him being way taller than everybody else and just being a force out there, picking up the puck in his own end, skating through five guys and then scoring a beauty backhand," Tom said.

Erich scored 773 goals in 772 professional games in Germany's top league, including 83 goals in 48 games in the 1979-80 season.

He never played in the NHL by choice. He spent a few months with the New York Rangers before a season in the 1970s, but found better money playing in Switzerland.

Erich scored 131 goals in 211 games for the German national team, which is still an all-time German record. He played in two Olympics, taking home bronze at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. He played in seven IIHF World Championships and is a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame.

Video: Erich Kuhnhackl's father on son's journey to NHL

"It's an honor to have such a great person as a father, as a role model for me," Tom said. "If I ever need anything, advice about hockey, it's just great to have him in my life."

But Erich's stature in Germany made Tom's hockey life harder in many ways. There was a price to be paid as the son of Germany's greatest player.

"The name was so much pressure," Erich said. "You must work harder than the other guys. But I tell him all the time, 'Buddy, this is your life. You can be a good hockey player. You have the size. You're thinking hockey. But this is only your decision.'"

Tom's NHL dream came to him early, so dad became his coach and mentor. They practiced together and Erich would film those sessions and go over them with Tom.

"Sometimes I think I was a little bit too tough to him," Erich said, "but better to be too tough and you work harder and you give yourself a big chance."

Tom embraced every session, every lesson. He felt like the luckiest young hockey player in Germany because he had a chance to be the student to the best player the country has ever known.

"He always told me, 'You're good offensively, but you're horrible defensively and you're not going to make it far,' " Tom said. "I was always like, 'Yeah, right, we'll see.' Now if I look back, he was totally right."

That's the irony. Tom has found a way to live his dream in the NHL, but to do so, he had to become a completely different player than his father.

Erich was a skater and a scorer, the biggest player on the ice, an unstoppable force. Tom is a grinder, a penalty killer, good on the walls, away from the puck, physical.

"It's about not giving up a goal now," Tom said.

It wasn't always like that. Tom scored 39 goals to lead the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires in the 2010-11 season. He had 11 goals and 12 assists in 18 playoff games to lead Windsor to the conference final that season.

But when he turned pro he learned that to last, he would have to transform his game. The Penguins put him in the East Coast Hockey League. They wondered how he would handle it considering he grew up around greatness and wanted the same for himself.

"But you know what? Tommy didn't act like a privileged kid at all," Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. "He accepted all his responsibilities. When we put him in the East Coast Hockey League, he had a great attitude, went down, did his work and was a real pro. We were wondering how this kid would handle it because of how he grew up. I'm sure coming over from Germany he didn't expect the East Coast Hockey League, but he was amazing."

Tom said his time in the ECHL taught him how to be the player he is now.

"The hardest thing for players is to make it in a way you never thought you would, to accept a role other than the way you've grown up your whole life," Guerin said. "That's what Tommy has done."

Erich has watched Tom do it on the biggest stage, the Stanley Cup Final. He has seen his son get within two wins of hoisting the Stanley Cup. He'll be in San Jose to see if Tom and the Penguins can get it done there.

That he has watched in relative anonymity, or at least as anonymous as a 6-foot-5 man can be, had made the experience even richer for him.

Tom's hockey career has always been about Tom. Erich is just happy to have played a role.

"It's the greatest," Erich said. "I have a son. He plays hockey. And his motivation all the time was to play in the National Hockey League. This was his dream. He's living it."

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