First there was Marco Sturm. Then came Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc, and most recently Thomas Greiss
. They’re among the most accomplished players in the history of German hockey, and each got his start in the NHL as a draft pick of the Sharks.
Now, 18-year-old defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser
– San Jose’s sixth-round draft pick last June – is hoping to add his name to that illustrious list.
“I would like to be one of them, the next that makes that step,” said the six-foot-five, 210-pounder, who is spending his holiday season competing for his native country at the World Junior Hockey Championship, which features the best Under-20 hockey players from 10 different nations. “When I was at the development camp, Thomas Greiss
took me out for dinner once so I got to chat with him a little bit. That was pretty nice.”
Abeltshauser said he has also had “little chit chats” with some of the other Germans with Shark roots. He said they’ve offered plenty of encouragement, telling him to “work hard and believe in your dreams and anything can happen.”
Unfortunately for Abeltshauser, he knows that one of his dreams – to advance to the quarterfinals of this year’s World Juniors – will not come true. The team arrived in Buffalo with high hopes because it was placed in the easier of the two groups of five. But in their first game, the Germans fell behind 4-0 to Switzerland halfway through the first period, and though they fought back to make a game of it, they still lost 4-3. They then lost another one goal game, 2-1 to Slovakia, before Finland defeated them 5-1. They ended the round robin being shut out 4-0 by Team USA and now must battle the likes of Norway to avoid being relegated back to the dreaded “B” pool.
“For me personal, I just want to help my team to stay in the ‘A’ pool and give the younger players the opportunity to play in the World Junior Championship like I did this year because it’s just an amazing feeling to play for your country and to play in such a big tournament,” said Abeltshauser. “So far it’s the biggest tournament of my life. I play against a lot of future NHL players so it’s pretty exciting, huge crowds, so yeah, very exciting. But it’s kind of hard. Sometimes it seems like we’re too good for the ‘B’ pool, but sometimes it’s just hard to stay in the ‘A’ pool for us. It’s tough because we beat these teams in the summer in Europe.”
Abeltshauser was born and raised in Bad Tolz, about an hour’s drive south of Munich. He said the city has an excellent hockey development program so it was an easy and natural progression for him to grow as a player, from his pre-teen years right up until he turned 17. Last year, he played on the German junior team that earned the berth at the World Juniors after being demoted in 2009. He had four assists and a plus-9 rating in five games in that tournament.
After he was drafted by San Jose, Abeltshauser realized that he needed to take his development to a higher level than he could achieve domestically in his homeland. So this past fall he packed his bags and arrived in Halifax, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, having been drafted by the Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“It was a big journey for me, coming to a complete new environment, new house, new team, new food, everything. But I think I got the change to the North American lifestyle pretty good,” he said. “The language barrier wasn’t that big because I had English in school. But the hockey is so different and so much bigger here in North America than it is in Germany. The crowd is different here. The crowds are much bigger here but the crowd in Germany they make much more noise.”
Another reason the hockey is quite different is the size of the ice surface, which is much larger in Europe.
“You got less time to think. All your decisions have to be quicker. But on the other hand, you’re closer to the forwards, the gap is smaller so it’s easier for you. I think my game changed a lot. I’m more used to getting physical, like receiving checks and giving checks, because it’s not that hard, not that physical in Europe. But playing in the defensive end, you just have to play your game, so that’s what I try to do. (I want to become) a rushing defenseman, try to create offensive, but still be solid in defense and do my job.”
He’s done it quite well for Halifax so far this season, with three goals and 10 assists in 32 games.
Uwe Krupp, an assistant coach on the German team, who played for more than two decades in the NHL as a tall defenseman like Abeltshauser, said the youngster is on the right path.
“He’s one of our good young prospects. He took that step to go over to North America to play junior here and he’s developing nicely,” said Krupp.
After the World Juniors end, Abeltshauser will return to Halifax, but for the moment, he’s fully focused on the German team, and his role as an assistant captain.
“I try to give the other players my experience from playing in North America, help out the younger players and try to cheer them up. We’re still waiting for our first victory so we are still looking forward for that moment, the memory that we were the first (German) team in a while that stayed in the A pool, so the best memory is to come.”