Each of the 28 campers at the Penguins prospect development camp is more than thrilled to be practicing with a National Hockey League team, but for one player in particular, pulling on a Penguins sweater has a special feeling.
|Penguins forward Tom Kuehnhackl chats with goaltender Brad Thiessen as the two stretch prior to Friday's practice at Southpointe. |
While some of the other campers might have rooted for different NHL franchises when they were a kid, German-born forward Tom Kuehnhackl has been a huge Penguins fan for as long as he can remember.
“It was awesome to be drafted, but the fact that it was the Penguins who drafted me made the experience that much more special,” Kuehnhackl said.
The Penguins made Kuehnhackl’s dream come true when they selected the 6-foot-2, 182-pound right wing with the 110th-overall selection last month at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles.
For those wondering how a kid from Landshut, Germany becomes a Penguins fan, Kuehnhackl provided what he thought was a rather obvious answer.
“There are two reasons and I think everybody knows them – Mario (Lemieux) and Sid (Sidney Crosby
),” said Kuehnhackl, who is using the locker at Mellon Arena this week for workouts which Crosby used the past five seasons . “I grew up watching Mario and Jaromir Jagr playing together, and that was awesome to see. Now it’s Crosby doing that. It’s always been a great team with great players.”
Because Kuehnhackl hopes to one day call players such as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
his teammates, the 18-year-old is leaving behind his hometown Landshut squad of the German-2 league to join the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, who drafted Kuehnhackl with the fourth-overall selection in the 2009 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. Kuehnhackl believes coming over to North America will help enhance his development as he makes the transition to the smaller rinks.
“Playing next season in Windsor is going to be a big chance for me,” Kuehnhackl said. “It’s going to be a great experience getting to play Canadian hockey. In Germany, the hockey is much slower and a lot less physical. You pick up the puck in your own end and take it all the way down to the other net and you score.”
Kuehnhackl said coming to Pittsburgh for development camp has helped him adjust to those changes he expects when the 2010-11 regular season begins, particularly when he goes head-to-head with defensemen such as 6-foot-3 Reid McNeill
and 6-foot-1 Joe Rogalski
, fellow 2010 draft picks who will also play in the OHL this upcoming season, providing Kuehnhackl with a sneak peak at the competition he will face.
“I have noticed a slight difference in the game here at camp,” Kuehnhackl said. “Some of the guys are bigger or older. I don’t worry about any of that. I am just trying to play the best hockey that I can. I am trying to be strong on the puck and shoot to score. Those are easy items that I can work on.”
As Kuehnhackl spends the week working on his on-ice game, attending development camp has also proved to be plenty beneficial for him off the ice as well.
Although his father, Erich, was a five-time Olympian for the Germans, and is regarded at the top German hockey player of all-time, the younger Kuehnhackl had only been to the United States on one previous occasion prior to this year – the 2004 Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames. He credited the seminars and off-ice team-building activities from this week that the Penguins provide as huge elements in terms of helping him further assimilate to North America.
“Everything has been perfect so far,” said Kuehnhackl, who displayed his scoring touch by scoring on a one-timer during a three-on-three scrimmage on Friday. “It starts with the rink, extends to the organization and the players and even the city is just great.”
Following the completion of camp on Saturday, Kuehnhackl will go on a mini whirlwind tour the next few weeks as he spends time in both Switzerland and the Czech Republic with the German National Team training for the 2011 World Junior Championships, which will be held in Buffalo, New York from December 26 through January 5, 2011.
“Because Germany is not really a big hockey country we have to work extra hard to be one of the good nations in hockey,” Kuehnhackl said.
Kuehnhackl will then have one week to rest up in Landshut before he will embark to Windsor to begin his first OHL season.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead of me in Windsor,” Kuehnhackl said. “I think it’s going to be a very good change for me.”