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Draisaitl emerging as the face of German hockey

Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl has emerged as an NHL star and the face of German hockey

by Aaron Vickers / Special to EdmontonOilers.com

COLOGNE, Germany -- Leon Draisaitl has emerged as Germany's brightest star.

He's quickly developing into their favourite son, too.

Draisaitl, who represented Germany at the 2017 IIHF World Championship in his home city of Cologne, is his country's next great on-ice phenomenon.

And next great role model.

"He's one of a kind, right?" said longtime German hockey legend Marco Sturm, who guided Draisaitl and Germany all the way to a quarterfinal meeting against Canada at the World Championship on Thursday.

"Unfortunately we don't have too many of him. Even right now it's great to have him here because hopefully a lot of kids…we need more kids playing hockey at a younger age…hopefully a lot of people will watch TV and see a guy like Draisaitl play, and choose the game of hockey instead of soccer."

At just 21, the idea isn't lost on the Edmonton Oilers forward.

There's no shying away from the spotlight as a player who has already represented Germany on the world stage at the IIHF World Under-17 Challenge, twice at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, twice at the IIHF World Junior Championship, and now three times at the World Championship level.

There's just a full embracing of the fact from him.

"For sure. I think every player wants to be a role model for young kids," said Draisaitl, who is already seventh all-time in NHL scoring amongst German players with 137 points (50 goals, 87 assists) despite the fact he's played just 191 career games.

"If I can be that, I'd love to."

There's no 'if' in the minds of those around him.

Draisaitl 'is' that role model.

"He's a huge star," said German forward David Wolf, who has spent nine of the past 10 seasons playing pro hockey in his home country. "Obviously soccer players are a little bit more recognized in public, but he's getting more and more in the newspapers and everything.

"I don't think that the German papers and the German media thought that he was going to be this kind of star. Over the last year they've recognized him as the (Dirk) Nowitzki from the NHL.

"It's cool. It's unbelievable. They recognize that he's a star."

The resume certainly backs it up. Draisailt, the highest-drafted German-trained player when the Oilers made him the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, has had a meteoric rise.

He scored 19 goals and had 51 points in his first full season in the National Hockey League in 2015-16, and exploded this season with 29 goals and 77 points in 82 games.

The effort helped Edmonton return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006, and all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round series against the Anaheim Ducks.  

"He's one of the top players in the world and he showed that this year," said German captain Christian Ehrhoff, a veteran of 789 games over 12 NHL seasons with the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

"For him, he's only going to get better.

"It's really good for German hockey. Right now there's a lot of focus on the World Championship here. For a young hockey player growing up or people that want to play hockey it's a big bonus that he's here."

There was never any doubt.

When the Oilers bowed out of the playoffs, Draisaitl bolted home to Cologne.

No one was surprised.

"He lost Game 7 and the next day he was here," said German defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who has logged 831 career games in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers, Phoenix Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders. "Playing for Germany is very important to him. Every kid watches those games and look up to him and one day they want to be like him. He's a superstar.

"I think since Marco, he's the guy who really knows how to score. He's a power forward in the NHL. Him and (Connor) McDavid and whomever they play with are one of the best lines in the league.

"There's no reason why kids shouldn't look up to him. He's the guy.

"He's awesome."

With Draisaitl's importance to Germany, both on and off the ice, there was no reason to expect anything different.

Not with over 50 games of international experience already under his belt in a little under six years.

Not with the tournament on home ice.

"I know he's from here," said Sturm, who himself is first all-time amongst German scorers with 487 points (242 goals, 245 assists) over 938 career NHL games with the Sharks, Bruins, Kings, Washington Capitals, Canucks and Panthers. "He just wanted to play. He was very excited during the season when I talked to him a few times. I knew as soon as they were out he was going to be here the next day. I think he really enjoys it, too, speaking German in the locker room again and hanging out with a few of his old friends.

"It means a lot.

"In the hockey world, he's up here. He's been our best player."

They're flattering words, Draisaitl admitted, from the one that once served as his role model.

"You always try to look for guys in the country you're from," said Draisaitl, who still sits tied for fourth in playoff scoring with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) despite having his NHL season ended 10 days ago.  

"Marco is a guy I looked up to, and a lot of other players. It means a lot. He's had a very successful career in the NHL and I think that for me, I still have a ways to go to prove that every year.

"It's nice to hear it from him."

It's not just Sturm that recognizes, though.

It's an entire country.

And it's why Draisaitl now carries the torch for German hockey.

"100 percent," Wolf said.

"Players like him…all the kids in the stands look at him and they can't believe they see him in Germany playing. That's obviously exciting. For him too.

"He's a great guy in the locker room and he's great to everyone. In front of the hotel there are fans and he takes time for everyone. It makes him a great professional.

"And one of the best athletes in the world right now."

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