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Germany's Uber Hockey Dad

June 1, 2010 - Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Windsor Spitfires

At the arena in Landshut, Germany, the town that the Kuhnhackl family calls home, there is a large portrait at one end of the rink of Erich Kuhnhackl shaking hands with legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak.

It was the first thing that caught the eye of Windsor Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel when he travelled there to touch base with Erich's son and Spitfires Canadian Hockey League import draft pick Tom Kuhnhackl.

To meet Erich Kuhnhackl is to realize that he is a big man.

He stands six-foot-five, after all.

To travel to his homeland, as Rychel did, is the only true way to grasp the size of his legend.

Erich Kuhnhackl is the Gordie Howe of German hockey.

In 2000, he was named German player of the century.

"Going around town with him, it's like spending time with Wayne (Gretzky) in Canada," Rychel said.

"Everywhere he goes, he's signing autographs."

In Germany, they know Erich as "Kleiderschrank auf Kufen."

English translation -- the wardrobe on skates -- a reference to the powerfully impressive way in which he stood out among others on the ice.

These are the skates that Tom Kuhnhackl must fill, and they are skates that he fills willingly.

"One day, maybe I hope, maybe I'm one day like my dad," Tom, 18, said.

"Maybe I can be a player like my dad was."

The Spitfires wouldn't mind that one bit.

Anticipating a goal-starved roster when they return to the ice in the fall, the two-time defending Memorial Cup champions were thrilled to officially add the younger Kuhnhackl to the mix this week, signing him to a contract while he visited Windsor for the first time with his family.

"Taylor Hall and maybe some other guys are gone, but other guys are coming," Tom said.

He's one of those guys and Rychel believes Kuhnhackl can help to fill the offensive void that the Spitfires figure to be facing.

According to NHL Central Scouting, he is the eighth-rated European skater available for the 2010 entry draft.

Kuhnhackl scored 12 goals in 38 games this season playing for Landshut in the German second division.

Turning pro at 16, he was named German Division II rookie of the year in 2008-09.

"He's a great skater and he's gifted with the puck," Rychel said of the six-foot-two, 172-pound Kuhnhackl, selected by Windsor in 2009 CHL import draft.

Kuhnhackl figures he can bring some of what his dad brought to the ice during a career that spanned from 1968-89.

"I think I'm the kind of player that my dad was," Tom said.

"He's tall, I'm tall. I use my body to protect the puck. I can get the puck to the net to create scoring chances, see the open guy."

What Tom never saw for years was the sort of impact that his father had on hockey in their homeland.

Erich Kuhnhackl came to Germany with his family from their native Czechoslovakia following the 1968 Soviet occupation.

He started his career with Landshut that fall and in 772 Bundesliga games, the elder Kuhnhackl tallied a record 773 goals, including a Gretzky-like 83 goals in 48 games during the 1979-80 season. Erich won eight league scoring titles.

On the international stage, he helped Germany to the bronze medal at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, with 5-5-10 totals in five games.

He was the leading scorer at the 1978 world championships (8-7-15 in 10 games) and the 1984 Winter Olympics (8-6-14 in six games), and his 131 goals for his country in 211 games are a German record.

In 1997, Erich Kuhnhackl was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.

All of this was news to a young Tom.

"The first time I was on the ice I was two years old, but I had no idea that my dad was a great hockey player," Tom said.

Fumbling through some family heirlooms one afternoon, Tom stumbled on to his father's legacy.

"When I was five or six, I found a DVD," Tom said. "I watched it and my dad was on it. Somebody told me he was, and still is, the best German hockey player.

"At the first moment, I was shocked, because I had no idea my dad was a famous person. After a while, it was great to be the son of one of the greatest hockey players in Germany."

His parents thought it best to keep Erich's career a secret to allow Tom to choose his own athletic path.

"It was my opinion that he must want to do it, not because of who his father was," Erich, 59, said. "He liked playing hockey. He chose it as his sport. I wanted that choice to come from within him."

Once the cat was out of the bag, Erich figured nothing but good could come from Tom following in his father's footsteps.

"On one side, it's good," Erich said of the hockey knowledge he's able to pass along to his son. "On the other side, it's also good."

Erich believes the expectations it places on Tom's shoulders can only push him to greater heights.

"Whether you're young, or you are older, you have to learn to deal with pressure," Erich said. "I think it's good.

"In the whole life, everyday, there is pressure. You must take the pressure and turn it into fun."

Tom has lived with and thrived while facing such expectations, and he's prepared to help the Spitfires deal with the expectations that will come as they seek an unprecedented third straight CHL crown.

The Spitfires gave Tom a whirlwind tour of the area on the weekend, including a trip to his first major-league baseball game in Detroit and a stop at the WFCU Centre

"I saw the rink," Tom said. "The stadium is awesome -- brand new, huge, amazing. I don't know what to say. Everything is perfect.

"When I play in Germany, there was nothing special. Here in Canada, everyone is going crazy about hockey. It's great.

"Maybe we have a chance to get the third Memorial Cup in a row."

Read more: http://www.windsorstar.com/sports/Germany+uber+hockey/3095380/story.html#ixzz0pcgUYLK4

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Ontario Hockey League Stories from June 1, 2010


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