In his native Germany, Leon Draisaitl is often referred to in the national media as a ‘wunderkind.’
Translation: a person who achieves great success when relatively young; a child prodigy.
Draisaitl may be just 19, but the Edmonton Oilers’ prospect and newest member of the Kelowna Rockets has already achieved a level of stardom in Germany rivalling that of a national soccer star.
In a country where global hockey heroes are few and far between, he’s even been dubbed ‘The German Gretzky.’
It may sound like a lot of pressure for a teenager to endure—but so far, so good for Draisaitl who is driven by his desire to help boost the profile and popularity of hockey in his homeland.
“It’s not the biggest sport, but attention on hockey in Germany is getting bigger and better all the time,” said Draisaitl. “My goal is to help make hockey bigger in Germany and getting kids to play hockey instead of soccer or other sports. It’s a great game and I want it to grow there. I think so far it’s been good.”
Eight Germans have appeared in the NHL this season, including Draisaitl, Boston’s Dennis Seidenberg and Pittsburgh’s Christian Ehrhoff.
If Draisaitl gets his wish, those numbers will steadily increase in the years to come, while Germany’s national program also grows stronger.
Based on his bloodlines, it’s not entirely surprising that Draisaitl is carrying so much of Germany’s hockey pride on his shoulders. His dad, Peter Draisaitl, is one of the country’s best known players ever, having starred for Germany in the 1988, 1992 and 1998 Olympics.
So it would seem Leon’s skill and passion for the game were both preordained.
“My dad played for over 25 years, it’s something that’s always been in the family, even my grandpa played hockey, so I’ve always been around it,” said Draisaitl. “It’s something I always wanted to do from a young age and follow them.”
A native of Germany and a keen observer of sports there, Kelowna’s Dirk Stroda has been tracking Draisaitl’s rise to prominence in his home country over the last couple of years.
Stroda, who grew up in Dusseldorf—40 kilometres from Draisaitl’s hometown of Cologne—is a mental coach and has worked with many world-class athletes over the years.
Stroda said Germany’s largest online source of sports news, Sport1.de, reports on Draisaitl’s every move, most recently posting a story on his first goal as a Kelowna Rocket on Wednesday night.
This summer, Draisaitl was drafted third overall in the NHL draft by the Edmonton Oilers, the highest a German-born player has ever been selected.
According to Stroda, it was a national event of major proportions.
“When he was drafted it was a very big announcement in Germany,” said Stroda, the High Performance Mental Coach for Equine Canada. “It had never happened before that a player went anywhere near that high. We have a long history in Germany with Canadian hockey players going there to play, so to have a German going the other way to the NHL with that much attention was a really big deal.
“Every hockey fan in Germany knows him,” added Stroda. “Everybody is proud of this young man and is hoping he brings greater potential to Germany’s national teams.”
On Saturday, as Draisaitl prepares for his Kelowna Rockets to host the Medicine Hat Tigers, a major hockey event will be taking place back in his home country.
In Dusseldorf, more than 50,000 fans are expected for an open-air game between Dusseldorf EG and the Cologne Sharks, the second such hockey spectacle in the country’s history.
Draisaitl, for one, is thrilled with the concept.
“This will be great for hockey in Germany,” he said. “I think the outdoor event is a great event and it’s going to draw in a lot of people.”