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Penticton product suiting up for Austrian Olympic hockey team
Brian Lebler is taking a break from everything that he loves about Austria, including an occasional Stiegl beer, when he heads to Sochi, Russia next month.
The former Penticton Vee, said the beers in Austria are amazing, he’s getting the chance to fulfill a long-time goal in playing for the Austrian men’s Olympic hockey team. Being named to the squad earlier last week, he follows in his father’s (Ed), footsteps who also played hockey for Austria in the Olympics.
“When I came to Europe, I wanted to try and be one of the top Austrians and play for the national team,” said Brian by email. “Have something to strive for and keep bettering myself. I look forward to playing against the top players in the world and seeing what it takes to be the best.”
Brian, who was born in Austria and moved to Canada at age four, feels Austria has a strong lineup that features NHLers Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek of the New York Islanders and Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Brian said they are not being given much of a chance, but he hopes they will surprise teams.
Ed, who also played professionally in Austria, is excited by his son’s selection. He thinks they will have a decent team.
“I think it will be fun to watch them,” said Ed, who was born in Vanderhoof, where his parents moved to from Austria. “I think they will do OK, but obviously they are not expected to be in any kind of medal contention or anything like that.”
Helping Brian earn a selection is the strong season he is enjoying in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. He is 10th in league scoring for the Linz Black Wings with 26 goals and 43 points in 43 games. The Black Wings are in a tight race for first place leading up to the playoffs.
Brian pursued a career in Europe after he experienced an injury-riddled year in the American Hockey League with the Syracuse Crunch of the Anaheim Ducks in 2010-11. He felt he wasn’t able to play to his potential.
“In Austria, I was able to establish myself and earn ice time by playing and not (being) in the training room,” said Brian, who played four years of Division 1 hockey in the National Collegiate Athletic Association with the University of Michigan Wolverines, where he tallied 33 goals and 59 points in 145 career games.
“The style of play in Austria is faster with the big ice surface but the physicality for sure is not the same. The AHL is a very hard league in that aspect,” he said.
Playing internationally has helped improve Brian’s skills.
“The big ice surface has challenged me with my skating and I believe I have learned a lot over the past three seasons,” he said.
Brian has enjoyed playing professionally in Europe, saying it has been such a positive experience.
“The crowd atmosphere is actually pretty amazing,” he said. “My first practice in Linz, half of the arena was full and they chanted the whole practice and lit flares. For the games, we sell out every game.”
The road trips are also great in the EBEL, which has only two teams that require the Black Wings to stay the night before. Travel to most teams is an hour and a half to four hours.
“My wife (Kelsey) loves it here as well,” he said. “I get to see a lot of the world I wouldn’t be able to see. As well, I get to play hockey, the game I love, while doing it.”
Brian hangs out with his teammates, but not as much since becoming a father 10 months ago to daughter Blakely. The Leblers have a family that has taken care of them, who they call their aunt and uncle, and spent Christmas together.
“My neighbour’s mom works for Stiegl (which brews a light lager or Hefeweisen), which is an added bonus whenever she comes to visit,” he said.