PHILADELPHIA – German hockey history was made last weekend when Leon Draisaitl was drafted third overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He became the highest drafted German-born and trained player in league history.
The Oilers had long scouted Draisaitl and put him high on their draft board. Now they finally have a big, skilled centreman down the middle.
“I didn’t know for certain but there was a possibility that Edmonton would be my new home,” Draisaitl said after being drafted. “It’s so great to be here now and wear this jersey.”
For a player dubbed the “German Gretzky” and whose father knew and skated with Mark Messier, the honour of being selected by the Oilers meant even more.
“This is awesome wearing the same jersey as players like Gretzky and Messier and all the stars they have had. Messier used to skate with my dad a little bit in the summer and this is amazing to wear the same jersey he once did.”
Draisaitl grew up playing hockey, thanks to his father Peter. The elder Draisaitl was born in Czechoslovakia but represented Germany at the 1988, 1992 and 1998 Winter Olympics. As well, he hung around hockey rinks a lot when his father coached the Ravensburg Tower Stars. His favourite player was Ben Thomson, who played for Ravensburg from 2007-2012. Draisaitl wears number 29 because that was Thomson’s number.
As a national team member with the German U20’s and the senior men’s teams, the junior Draisaitl established himself as a presence on the ice and more than adept at using his size to create the space he needs to score. He’s got game breaking abilities. At the recently completed Worlds in Minsk, Draisaitl scored a goal and four points in seven games. He believes the experience helped build his confidence at the highest level.
“It was a huge help playing against men for the first time. It showed me what the pace is like and what practice is like at that level. It was really important for me.”
He’s confident in his ability to be able to step into a young but talented lineup and contribute. So much that he’s planning to take the summer to further commit to his goal of reaching the NHL. Despite being the third overall selection by a team that had him tops on their draft list, nothing is guaranteed. Draisaitl will have to attend camp and compete hard for a spot.
“I have to do my job and earn my spot if I plan on playing on that team and in that league,” he said of his prospects for the fall. “I think they are moving forward sure. They made some good trades and I think guys are getting older and more mature.”
Edmonton’s first overall selections since 2010 have brought them Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. But even with those once highly touted junior players in the fold, the Oilers have not made the transition into a playoff team. Hope springs eternal that as the core group develops and gains more experience, the tide will turn.
“They have a talented group there and they really want to be good,” Draisaitl said of his new team. “They are young but some are already stars in the league so to join them is exciting.”
Add Draisaitl to that group and the possibilities on paper are appealing, especially pairing him with Hall. When asked about this, the Cologne native is intrigued by the idea, but knows the decision is not his.
“He’s probably the fastest skater in the league and really exciting player to watch,” Draisaitl said. “He is a star in the league. It might be a good fit but you never know. It is up to the coaches to put lines together and I can only do my job.”
Two years ago Draisaitl decided to leave Germany and continue his junior career in North America with longer game schedules, the travel and the smaller ice surfaces that appealed to his idea of developing as an athlete.
“I did have a couple of offers from Sweden but for me personally the best thing was to play in Canada,” he said. “Living in Western Canada for the past two years I had a really good life there that I think is going to help me make the transition to the NHL.”
It is possible that if Draisaitl is able to realize his dream and successfully play in the NHL and also compete at the highest level of international competition for Germany, he will inspire German youth to follow in his skates. This is something he finds very appealing.
“I want to make as many kids as possible play hockey in Germany,” he said with pride. “I want to be an ambassador to get them to play hockey and have a passion for the sport. This might be pretty good for Germany.”