When is a sophomore a veteran?
When his name is Christian Ehrhoff.
What at first sounds like a contradiction is easily understood when you consider the evolution of the San Jose Sharks' second-year defenseman. Ehrhoff is regarded as one of the most promising young defensemen in the NHL, but on the international stage he will assume the role of a seasoned veteran for Team Germany.
The solid 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has represented his homeland at numerous international tournaments since he was 16. Most recently, he appeared in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey for Team Germany, the same year he played for the NHL YoungStars West team in St. Paul, Minnesota. Incidentally, Ehrhoff made quite an impression among his peers at the NHL All-Star Weekend where he scored a goal, led the team in ice time and finished first overall in plus/minus (plus 4) in the team's 7-3 victory. A year earlier he helped Germany to a quarterfinal berth at the 2003 World Championships and was the youngest player to participate in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The German team heading to Torino is built on youth, with 11 first time Olympic performers. Ehrhoff is not rattled by the expectations placed on him to be a team leader and the linchpin of the Team Germany blue line.
"We've got a pretty young team and I'm expected to do that for the team," says the 23-year old native of Moers, a town near the city of Dusseldorf in western Germany. "I've played in the Olympics, at World Championships and the World Cup. The tournament in Torino is where all the best players in the world will be, so it's going to be a great event. At some of the World Championships in the past NHL players couldn't play, but that won't be the case in the Olympics. All the best players will be there and I hope that I can be a big part of Team Germany."
Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson has no doubt that his young star will deliver for Team Germany in light of his continuing development this season.
"Christian played in the Olympics in Salt Lake City, so this is not going to be new to him," Wilson said. "Sometimes people look at the age of a player and it's very misleading. But you have to take into consideration his experience. It's a fun time when you look at the players in this League that have stepped in and in many cases exceeded expectations and it's the younger players that have done that this year.
"When you look at Christian you see that he is one of the best skaters in the NHL," Wilson said. "He's got a tremendous shot and I think he is good defensively too. He is a big, strong kid, a lot bigger than people think. With these new rules you can activate and jump into the play. You can't be tentative, but you must have the assets to see the opportunities to jump up. You have to be a great skater so you know you can recover. Christian likes to get involved. He makes things happen and generates offense from the back end."
Ehrhoff resembles a young thoroughbred with immense raw talent. As he matures he will learn that the game is not just about being fast, but also about playing with pace. Trying to beat opponents with a 1-on-3 rush might not be such a gamble in junior hockey or the minor leagues. It's an unnecessary high-risk maneuver in the NHL and Olympics. But it's better to tame a tiger than paint stripes on a kitty cat and Ehrhoff possesses skills that make him a rare breed ? an ability to intimidate goaltenders with a thundering shot and back off the other team with his unbridled speed.
"Christian is a brilliant skater," explains former assistant coach Drew Remenda, now the color man on Sharks' telecasts. "He is just a phenomenal skater who can be up and down the ice quicker than you could possibly imagine. It's just unbelievable how effortless he is when he skates. He also has a cannon of a shot. It's a great shot as far as velocity is concerned, but his accuracy needs work. I think he rushes it and doesn't take that extra second because he doesn't want it to get blocked. He could take one or two lateral strides and pound it.
"It's interesting when you look at German hockey players to see how much better their program has become," continues Remenda. "We are getting more and more top quality players from Germany whose skill level is above average and they can all skate. I haven't seen one German in the NHL who can't skate. They can all go. Christian reminds me of Sandis Ozolinsh. I coached Sandis and early in his career he was pegged to be a great player by pretty well everybody. He went on to win a Cup in Colorado. Christian reminds me of Sandis as far as raw ability goes. But Christian is better defensively and a better skater. Sandis had better timing jumping into the play."
The run-and-gun game is not in the cards for Team Germany. Ehrhoff recognizes that he and his teammates must exercise patience if they're going to upset their European rivals.
"Definitely," admits Ehrhoff, "we've got to be very patient. We've got to limit our mistakes, especially defensively. We will need good goaltending and hopefully up front we will get some chances and be able to capitalize on them and score some goals. It's going to be interesting. Patience is a key for us and it's the only way we can beat some of those teams. It's going to be tough but we are up for the challenge."
Tough ? up for the challenge ? that sums up the character of the German squad.
"They don't quit," says Remenda. "They've got a way to go before they can compete at the same skill level as Canada, the Czechs, the Russians and the U.S., but they keep showing up. One thing you can be guaranteed with those guys is their work ethic is second to none. They're going into the Olympics to win the games. They're not going over there to make friends or just to taste the Olympic experience. They're going there to try to win. I think there's a good possibility they could shock people."
"They compete hard," agrees Wilson. "We've drafted a few players from Germany and they come over as men. They're used to a physical style and they do compete."
Wilson has advice for any team facing the Germans in Torino.
"You'd better come prepared to work because they're not going to take it easy on any shift. They've got good goaltending and a team that works for 60 minutes. When you're playing against a team that works as hard as they do, you can't take anything for granted."
Written by Karl Samuelson - NHL.com