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THE FOREWORD

BY HANNIBAL WEITZMAN, GOALTENDER FOR KÖLNER HAIE AND CHILDHOOD FRIEND OF LEON DRAISAITL

Leon and I started playing hockey together when we were five or six years old and we liked each other right away.
 
Since then, we've been best friends. We skate together, we vacation together. Our whole families are really close friends too.
 
Him and the Edmonton Oilers coming to play us in German is probably one of the biggest events ever for our city.
 
Leon's success has pushed German hockey big time. It's opened so many doors for young players.
 
They want to go overseas like he did and try to make it in the NHL.

LEON THE LEADER

BY RYAN FRANKSON

If there is one defining moment in Leon Draisaitl's hockey career to date that encapsulated what he means to his country, the Edmonton Oilers and the sport in general, it came just a few minutes prior to the start of Wednesday's NHL Global Series Challenge game.

Not only did the proud German get to suit up with his NHL team in his home country, he had the pleasure of doing so in the city he grew up in and against the team he grew up with - the Kölner Haie, coached by his father and former Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) player Peter Draisaitl.

He was, of course, in Edmonton's starting lineup, and when the PA announcer got to the final Oilers name, all he had to do was say "Leon…" and the 18,400 fans jam-packed into Lanxess Arena screamed "Draisaitl!" with enough volume and passion to give the orange and blue's Head Coach Todd McLellan chills.

"There are moments that happen in the game where your hair goes up on your neck and you know it's a very unique thing that's happening," the bench boss said of the unforgettable display of affection from the fans in Cologne. "For me, that was a moment. For Leon, for his dad, for his hometown. I felt it and I'm sure Leon felt it as well."
 

That hair-raising highlight and the game itself - which the Oilers won 4-3 in overtime against a valiant Haie squad - marked a full-circle culmination for Draisaitl that began during his childhood days in Cologne as he fell in love with the game of hockey.

"I tried it all. I played soccer, I tried golf, I tried tennis, I tried ping-pong, I tried everything," Leon said of his athletic endeavours as a youngster. "But at the end of the day hockey was just my favourite. That's what I wanted to do."

With his mind made up, Draisaitl completed his 12 and 13-year-old seasons with his hometown U-16 Kölner Haie team before leaving to play in Mannheim for three years ahead of his big move to the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League in 2012-13.

During those formative early-teen years, Leon also often skated with the team his father coached at the time, the Ravensburg Tower Stars of the German second division. That team featured Coaldale, AB native Ben Thomson, who took Draisaitl under his wing. Thomson wore 29 on his jersey, which Leon has adopted throughout his career.

"It's huge for the young kids," Leon's father Peter said of that mentorship and others like it. "To be around a hockey team early, you just get to know the automatics that come within in the locker room, how the coaches communicate and how the players communicate between each other. I think it helped a lot."

On the strength of a 105-point 2013-14 campaign with the Raiders and showings with the German national team at both the U-20 and senior levels, the Oilers made his NHL dream come true when they selected him with the third-overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft.

Having left home in his early teen years and then moving thousands of miles away to play in the WHL, Draisaitl was forced to grow up fast, and that curve was steepened even more so when he made the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old rookie.

"He had to become a man sooner rather than later," his father said. "You don't hang around too long in the NHL if you don't do that. That was the transition between a teenager and developing him into an adult professional."

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Draisaitl played 37 games for the Oilers in 2014-15 before he was assigned back to the WHL after a trade from Prince Albert to the Kelowna Rockets. He excelled in the Okanagan, earning MVP honours in both the WHL Final and Memorial Cup as the Rockets won the league title and finished second at the national championship tournament.

With that invaluable experience under his belt, Draisaitl appeared ready to become a full-time NHLer and has fulfilled that destiny with an exclamation point, accumulating 198 points over the last three seasons and leading the Oilers during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 16 points in 13 games.

In addition to entering the conversation as one of the NHL's elite young talents, Draisaitl has emerged as the leader of the German men's national team, competing at the last four IIHF World Championship tournaments and also showing flashes of brilliance at the 2017 World Cup of Hockey, representing Deutschland as part of the surprising Team Europe squad.

"He's a special kid," said Marco Sturm, Head Coach and General Manager of the national team and a former NHL all-star who's recorded the most all-time NHL points among German players. Sturm had 487 points in 938 games. Draisaitl is already at 209 in 270.

"Just the way he plays, how he protects the puck. Not just in Germany but worldwide he's probably one of the best players at his age. I think there's more to come and we're very excited that he's a German and will play for us for the national team for a long time."

On August 16, 2017, Draisaitl signed an eight-year contract with the Oilers with an average annual value of $8.5 million - much to the jubilation of his friends and family back home in Cologne. 

"We follow him very closely," said Moritz Müller, defenceman and captain of the Kölner Haie, whom Draisaitl still skates with regularly during the off-season, since DEL training camps typically launch at the beginning of August.

"We saw him getting over there and we were hoping for him to do well. We all knew that he had the talent for it, but sometimes you need the right timing and everything. We're really happy that he had this breakout and played the way he did in his second year. After that, he became an NHL superstar and we're really proud that he made it like that."
 

Franz Reindl, President of the German Ice Hockey Federation, beams with national pride when asked what Draisaitl's NHL success has meant to his homeland.

"For us, it's a hero story," Reindl said. "He made all the youth programs in Germany, all the national teams and he was always a leader with each team. Now he has reached a really great position in Edmonton, in Canada, the motherland of hockey."

Not only has Draisaitl endeared himself to Oilers fans with his exceptional skill on the ice, he's also committed to making a lasting impact in his home away from home thanks to a recent charitable commitment.

On September 24, 2018, the now 22-year-old announced he will be donating $1.2 million to local charities over the next eight years, with the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation matching at 50% for a total contribution of $1.8 million.

"I want to give back to the Edmonton community, because it has given me so much," Draisaitl said. "As a player coming to this city and making it my home for most of the year, I find it very important to find a connection. I want to be part of building something in this city, and I'm very excited for this chance and look forward to starting."

As proud as his father Peter is of his on-ice accomplishments, it's displays of maturity and generosity like this significant charitable commitment that give him the greatest paternal satisfaction.

"This is what makes me proud the most as a father," he said, eyes illuminated. "Seeing Leon being a good person first and foremost is the most important thing."

Draisaitl may now be one of Oil Country's adopted sons in "the motherland of hockey" as Reindl so eloquently put it, but it's his continued connection with his home country and city that made last week's Oilers trip to Cologne so meaningful.

"I'm pretty emotionally connected to that city," said Draisaitl, who served as the team's tour guide during their four days in the German metropolis, picking restaurants for dinner and leading the squad on a sight-seeing adventure.

Family time was also a key component of the trip, whether that meant off-ice bonding with his Oilers brothers or hanging out at the Cologne practice facility with his dad and the team he trains with for the month of August.

"It's cool for everybody to have Leon around," said Ryan Jones, who played for the Oilers between 2010 and 2014 before heading to Germany, where he's been a mainstay with the Kölner Haie the last four seasons.

"These young guys see what he does on an off-ice regime that they can put into their own lives. He's a good guy, he's a phenomenal hockey player and he works hard. If you're around here for our camp, he's doing everything we do and then more, which says a lot. He didn't get to where he is on accident. There's skill but there's a lot of hard work and determination that goes into where he is."

The affection the Cologne squad has for Draisaitl is reciprocated by the Oilers forward, according to Müller.

"He's probably our number one fan boy in North America," the team captain laughed. "He watches every one of our games and right after every game he texts me. He's really into it. He's in love with this town and this club."

The one-time Oilers fan favourite Jones was featured opposite Draisaitl on banners displayed across Cologne promoting the Global Series Challenge game. Typically, the poster boys for German sports are soccer stars like Bastian Schweinsteiger or NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki, but Draisaitl's elevating stardom combined with the growing popularity of hockey have shifted Germany's sports landscape.

There's a collective dream within the hockey community in Germany that more kids will want to follow in the footsteps of players like Draisaitl, his Oilers teammate Tobias Rieder, Philipp Grubauer, Tom Kühnhackl, Korbinian Holzer and a few others trying to make a name for themselves on the North American circuit.

"When Leon and I and a couple other guys like Tom Kühnhackl and Philp Grubauer went over to play in the junior hockey leagues, you could tell the years after there were more and more Germans going over and trying their chance in that league," Rieder said. "For the really young guys, they really look up to the NHL players."

When Rieder returns to his hometown of Landshut in the off-season, he's impressed by the number of kids taking a greater interest in his sport.

"It's fun going back in the summer and seeing how excited the little kids get," he said, adding the majority of NHL jerseys he sees feature orange and blue with an oil drop. "It's getting better and better every summer I go back. You can tell there's more kids playing hockey. They're having fun with hockey and that's important to see."

Draisaitl is without a doubt the catalyst of this movement, with the national team's silver medal performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics also adding plenty of fuel to the fire.

"As the sport of hockey, we need those guys that go over and become superstars," said Müller, who was part of the Olympic squad. "When little kids play, they identify themselves with the best, and if you have one German who's one of the best, he's a great role model for the kids and the sport of hockey in Germany."

"It would be a scenario you would wish for that Leon can have a positive impact on kids," Peter Draisaitl echoed. "It is really, really tough in Germany for other spots because the soccer hype is so big it just kills every other sport. We had some success at the Olympics, so hopefully it will push the German hockey a step further."

Though the Oilers don't have any more games in Cologne on their schedule in the foreseeable future, you can bet the city and the entire country will continue to cheer just as loud for their native son as they did when they shook the walls of Lanxess Arena on Wednesday.

It's a perfect balance of love from both sides, according to the German Ice Hockey Federation president.

"He's a great kid. He loves hockey and he loves where he comes from," Reindl said. "He loves to play in Cologne and he loves to play for the German national team. We are really excited and thankful also that he's the kind of person you need for your program to show it's worth doing all the work to reach this goal."

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