HELSINKI – It’s certainly fitting that Gerhard Unterluggauer played his first men’s national team game on November 11, because today, he is number one on the all-time list of games played for Austria.
He entered the tournament with 234 games under his belt, so Sunday’s loss to France was the 236th time he represented his country in the national team.
Now, if you see a greybeard, a Albus Dumbledore lookalike, in your mind’s eye, you’re mistaken because at 36, the youthful looking Unterluggauer can be considered a player in his prime.
“I played my first game when I was sixteen. Or, I started the season as a sixteen-year-old, so by the time I played in the Worlds, I had turned seventeen,” he told IIHF.com.
The date was November 11... 1993.
Austria played against Italy, and lost the game 3-1, but a star was born.
It may be frivolous to list all the things that have changed in the world since Unterluggauer made his national team debut, so let’s just note that the game report was not posted on any internet sites. Unterluggauer is not the only player from the 1994 tournament that’s still active - France’s goaltender Fabrice Lhenry, for example, was also in the 1994 Worlds in Italy - but the faces around him have changed a lot.
And so has the game. Back in 1986, the average height of an NHL player was 182 centimetres, and by 2001, the average height was 188 centimetres. Unterluggauer is listed at 177 centimetres. While he’s never been big, he can now be considered small.
“Hockey’s changed. I used to be heavier early in my career. You had to be heavier because you had to battle with big guys in the corners and along the boards, and in front of the net, but the rules are different now,” he says.
“Now you have to be mobile, and be able to skate well as a defenceman. If you’re going to get hit, they’re going to do it anyway whether you weigh 88 or 95 kilograms,” he adds.
So at 36, Unterluggauer makes sure he stays at his listed 88 kilos, and that the feet keep on moving. And they do. In the game against the U.S., he played almost 18 minutes, most of all Austrian defencemen.
“Even a smaller player can play on any level, even in the NHL, if he can skate. Have a look around and you’ll see small players because there’s no grabbing and holding, and putting the stick between another player’s legs anymore,” he says.
Born in Villach, Austria, Unterluggauer played for his hometown team, VSV Villach, before he headed over to North America, to play in the Western Hockey League. He returned to Villach, but did another tour elsewhere, playing in Germany, and Innsbruck in the Austrian league, before returning to Villach.
“Austrian hockey is getting better, the league is pretty good. Both the Vienna Capitals and Salzburg have made it to the European Trophy semi-final in recent years, so Austrian club teams have beat some good teams. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, though,” he says.
The national team recently qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a tremendous feat that will be good for the game in Austria.
“It was huge for us, and it’s going to be a big push for the game. If you play on the big scene, with the big boys, you get TV exposure and sponsors, so for us, it’s very important to be in Sochi,” Unterluggauer says.
It also wouldn’t hurt to stay in the top division in the World Championship.
“Ten years ago, it was no fun playing against teams like the U.S. Now we can battle. We’re getting better too, on every level. The players are better, the whole infrastructure, the training. Now we have players in the NHL, and it does make a difference when we have young players in North America and Europe,” he says.
Unterluggauer has two years left in his contract with Villach, and he’s not looking back, he’s looking forward.
“The moving around is behind me, so I’ll play in my hometown, but I’ll play for as long as I feel that I can compete, especially at this level. We’ll see what happens with the Olympics,” he says.
Now that he’s the record holder, he’s been asked to think back at his career a lot, so the memories of the first game are vivid in his mind.
“But I don’t remember my second game, and a month ago wouldn’t have remembered my first one. I haven’t really kept any stats,” he says.
Like all players, Unterluggauer has his focus on the the next game.
Game number 237, this afternoon against Latvia.