Germany isn’t necessarily thought of as a hotbed for producing hockey players. However, if the sport is mentioned in the same conversation as the country, the name Kuhnhackl is likely to come up.
Penguins prospect Tom Kuhnhackl’s father Erich is widely regarded as the best hockey player ever to hail from Germany. Now entering his first season of professional hockey, Tom will be looking to make his own mark on the game.
Kuhnhackl, 20, is hoping to turn things around this year after suffering knee injuries, among other things, that kept him out of the lineup last year. Hitting the reset button is a must for the young winger.
“It was a rough year (last season),” Kuhnhackl said. “I got traded, suspended, everything. It was a rough year, but it’s a new year now and I hope everything goes well.”
Kuhnhackl saw time with both Windsor and Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12, but was limited to just 34 games between the two clubs. However, in his first season with Windsor back in 2010-11, the Penguins’ 2010 fourth-round pick (110th overall) potted 39 goals and 68 points in just 63 games. It’s statistics like those that intrigue Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill.
“I’m extremely excited about what we have down in Wilkes-Barre this year,” Botterill said. “You look at some of these players being first-round picks or high picks coming in or players that have had a lot of success in the OHL like a Tom Kuhnhackl, and I’m extremely excited.”
Kuhnhackl is also excited to be playing once again after rehabbing his knee in the offseason, but admits that he’ll have to get used to other aspects of the pro life – including living on his own for the first time.
“In the (OHL) you had billets,” Kuhnhackl said. “They’d cook for you and do your laundry and now you have to take care of yourself. It’s new but I’ve got to get used to it.”
Another change is a new coaching staff, including player development coach Bill Guerin. For Kuhnhackl, skating with a two-time Stanley Cup champion is quite a thrill.
“When I was young, I watched (Guerin) play and now you’re on the ice with him,” Kuhnhackl said. “He’s telling you what to do and it’s just an unreal feeling.”
Kuhnhackl will take in as much as he can from Guerin and the rest of the coaching staff, including some pointers on how to capitalize around the net. Kuhnhackl describes himself as a goal scorer, something he’ll look to do now at the next level.
After starting the season with Wheeling of the ECHL, Kuhnhackl was recalled by WBS on Oct. 20 and has been with the Penguins ever since. One of his best outings came Nov. 25 vs. Albany when he potted the first two goals of his pro career and added an assist in a 5-4 shootout win over the Devils.
“I’m good around the net and I can score from 10 to 15 feet around the net,” said Kuhnhackl, who’s 6-foot-2, 174 pounds. “I’m a big forward, so I can stay in front of the net, create scoring chances, and also have a vision for the other players.”
Botterill knows that there is an adjustment when a player moves from juniors to the pros, but the assistant GM is looking forward to what players like Kuhnhackl can bring down the road.
“You look at some of these players such as a (Brian) Dumoulin, a (Joe) Morrow, a (Beau) Bennett, Kuhnhackl, (Dominic) Uher – these players have a lot of room for development and growth this year,” Botterill said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what types of players these guys are going to be in March and April.”
For Kuhnhackl, the new campaign brings new opportunities, something that he’ll look to take full advantage of. Potentially impressing people like Botterill is just the start.
“It’s just nice that the new season starts,” Kuhnhackl said. “I hope on having a really good year this year.”
Who was your favorite player growing up?
“I really like Marco Sturm. He’s German too and he’s a half hour from my hometown. I know him pretty well so he was my idol when I grew up.”
Who was your favorite team growing up?
“It’s actually funny because when I was 3 years old, I have a picture of myself wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins tracksuit, so I guess it was Pittsburgh.”
What got you started playing hockey?
“When I was young, my dad asked me what I wanted to do. I’m from Germany, so I’ve been around soccer my whole life. When I was young I played soccer, tennis, golf and hockey. At one point, my dad asked me, ‘Hey, what do you want to do, you’ve got to make a decision,’ so I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to pick hockey.’ It was fun, I had a lot of friends there, so I just picked hockey and I had no idea at that point that my dad (Erich Kuhnhackl) was a good hockey player. It took me a while to figure out that he was one of the best hockey players in Germany.”
What’s an interesting fact/something people don’t know about you?
“I’m actually a really shy guy. I don’t talk a lot. I know a lot of languages, like a couple of words from every language. My dad is from the Czech Republic, he was born in the Czech Republic, so he speaks Czech, Russian, Slovakian, English, and German. I know how to speak a little Russian and Czech.”