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Like Father, Like Son

by CJ Harvey / Pittsburgh Penguins

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

There is a chance, though, that Tom and Erich Kuhnhackl are taller than the tree, but nonetheless the saying holds true for the German-born hockey lovers.

Current Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Tom Kuhnhackl continues to impress his teammates and coaching staff with strong showings on the ice. His two goals and five points have helped get the Pens to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

But ice runs through his family’s veins. His dad, Erich Kuhnhackl, is widely considered the best German hockey player ever.

Erich won four German Championships and a bronze medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics, only to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1997.

His largest honor followed in 2000 when he was named ‘German ice hockey player of the Century.’

But Erich made the trip to Pittsburgh, Pa. for the first time to watch his son play in the Stanley Cup Final, one of the few things he did not have a chance to do as a hockey player.

“It’s spectacular,” Erich said about seeing Tom play. “His first year in the National Hockey League and he’s in the Stanley Cup? It’s a dream. I tell him all the time that he has to work harder than the other guys, and when you get a little luck you’ll have a chance.”

Erich picked a good game to see, after Pittsburgh beat San Jose 2-1 in overtime, taking a 2-0 series lead at CONSOL Energy Center before heading out west.

“It’s very special to be here. It’s a playoff game,” Erich continued. “It’s a very important game for the team and they played well. Sometimes in the last minutes there’s some luck, but one of the teams has more fight and finds a way to win. Tonight that was Pittsburgh.”

But Tom’s real ‘lucky chance’ popped up months ago when the Penguins called his number on Jan. 7, from Wilkes/Barre Scranton, his last time in the AHL.

“I never expected to be here five months later, playing in the Stanley Cup Final, with my Dad in the stands,” the younger Kuhnhackl said. “I’m just glad they came over.”

When Tom was learning to play the game, as you’d expect, advice trickled down from the top. As a kid, Tom said his father was always on top of him, spelling out how he could better himself.

“When he was young, I told him all the time, ‘if you think I can help you, you can come to me anytime,’” Erich said about raising Tom. “I would stay with him for hours on the ice. But there comes a time when you just have to out work the other guys.”

“He always told me, ‘you’re good offensively, but horrible in the defensive end. You’re not going to make it far,” Tom said. “Now that I look back, he was completely right.”

After those endless hours of practice, Tom made defense a staple in his game, using his size to help kill penalties and turn good defense into offense.

He scored his first NHL goal shorthanded against Ben Bishop on Feb. 20. He had two assists on March 13 against the New York Rangers, his first multi-point game. Then, a week later he recorded his first 3-point game against Washington (1G-2A), mile markers for the young player.

Erich has always kept close tabs on Tom’s success, but with him in town, discussions about the game have been a rarity.

“He doesn’t want to put any pressure on me,” Tom said. “He’s completely stayed out of my head. With all the media and noise around, you’re just glad you can get away from hockey for a few hours.”

The other twist in Erich’s visit to the Steel City, was getting to meet Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux.

The two played against each other in the 1985 Winter Olympics, but never met one-and-other officially, until Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final more than 30 years later.

“Meeting Mario was great,” Erich said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve played hockey.”

That year, Lemieux, at 20-years-old, finished with 10 points (4G-6A), while Kuhnhackl, 35, finished with only seven points (3G-4A) in his final international appearance.

Their conversation centered around the only thing that mattered.

“He’s got a great team this year,” Kuhnhackl said. “It’s fun to watch them win and hopefully keep winning.”

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