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WORLDS: Leon, Germans look to keep strong tourney going

'These guys are some of my best friends' says Draisaitl who leads his 5-2 squad into Thursday's quarterfinal showdown vs. Czech Republic

by Julie Robenhymer / Special to

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - Leon Draisaitl has played more than 70 games for Germany's men's national team and is currently in Slovakia representing his country for the fifth consecutive year at the IIHF World Championship.

When asked why he always answers the call to come to these international events, his answer was pretty simple.

"I just like to play hockey," the 23-year-old said with a shrug. "And, I like to play hockey with my friends."

Of the 25 players on Germany's roster, six of them - including Draisaitl - were born in 1995 and have been playing together on various national teams since they were 16 and, in some cases, even younger for their various club teams and national camps.

Frederik Tiffels, who currently plays for their hometown team, grew up in Cologne with Draisaitl and the pair have been playing hockey together since the very beginning.

"I don't ever really remember playing hockey without him," Tiffels said. "We used to play hockey on the streets after school almost every single day. We'd get some school friends together and it'd be the three of us - me, my older brother and Leon - against all of them. They didn't really play hockey, so we'd give them nine goals to start the game and play first to 10."

He paused, smiling at the memories before continuing, "We'd win every game."

Marc Michaelis, one of the top NCAA UFAs currently playing for Minnesota State, has known Draisaitl since their first national team camp when they were 14.

"He makes a lot more money now, but his personality hasn't changed at all," he said matter-of-factly. "He's still really goofy, fun to be around and has a great sense of humour. He's really good at imitating people and he gets some good laughs at team meals and meetings that way. So, as much as we all like him as a hockey player and how he can help our team win, we also really like having him in the locker room and around the team. He's really funny."

After notching a career high 50 goals and 105 points in 82 regular season games with the Oilers, Draisaitl will help lead this core of young players into the quarterfinals against Czech Republic on Thursday with five goals and three assists for eight points in seven games. Head Coach Toni Soderholm will be leaning on him to not only produce offensively, but also be strong in the defensive end.

"When you play against these teams at this point in the tournament, the opposition gets better and better," he said. "You might not get those chances offensively. You might have to be very good defensively to get a break and to get a counter chance. And that, I think, is where Leon's biggest spot for improvement is. He defends well because he's a big strong guy, but if he could be just a little bit better in that area and strip pucks and force turnovers, he will get more rushes and more chances to create offence."

As Soderholm tries to take advantage of the chemistry this core of young players has spent years developing to push them into the medal games, he hopes to see them take ownership of their collective potential to propel Germany's national teams for years to come.

"These '95's are really close and I hope that they can take this national team and make it theirs one day real soon," he said. "They're great together now, but I want them to still be curious about how to get better and become leaders of this team on and off the ice. They've already proven that they can be really good players at an international level and that's what gets us excited about what they could do three, five, seven, 10 years in the future."

For now, Draisaitl is focused on what they can do this year and knows Germany won't be the favourites in this quarterfinal matchup, especially with the predominantly Czech crowd in Bratislava, but said, "Stuff like that happens all the time. Every tournament, there's an upset or there's a smaller country that beats one of the big teams. So, we're going to get focused for next game and do our best. I think we've been playing some pretty good hockey, so we'll see what happens.

"But, these guys are some of my best friends and we're having a lot of fun here and we just want to keep it going and keep playing together," he continued. "We don't just want to make the quarterfinals. We want to win a medal and we think we can do it."

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