And there’s a new team in town for the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championship, one that has every intent of not only sticking around, but making a whole lot of noise throughout the tournament.
We’re speaking of Germany, which managed to gain promotion to the world’s top group last winter by spectacularly and convincingly paving its way through the opponents at the Division IA on home ice in Fussen. Leading the march was a later first-round NHL draft pick in defenceman Moritz Seider, who was not only dominant in eating up the most ice time at the tournament, but also took a regular shift for DEL champion Adler Mannheim before playing for Germany at the men’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He was joined by another recent first round NHL draft pick in Dominik Bokk, who was loaned out by his SHL team and led the attack with aplomb.
Both will now be leading the way again at the upcoming World Juniors as well, but are far from being the only argument Germany has for being a team to watch out for. A good handful of last year’s participants will be back on the attack (including Florida draft pick and DELer Justin Schutz), and maybe the most important of them will be goaltender Hendrik Hane, who has spent the bulk of this season playing pro hockey for Dusseldorf of the DEL. He was basically unbeatable in last winter’s tournament in putting up an incredible 0.98 GAA and 94.9 save percentage.
These are fine prerequisites to enter the World Juniors with, but what has both the German Ice Hockey Association and the NHL scouting world most excited is the new wave of players who will now benefit from getting to play on the world’s biggest stage – at the tender young age of 17. Put simply, we may be in the midst of the greatest batch of players the nation has ever produced at any one time and it’s something that has the German top league, the DEL, experiencing what feels like a rebirth of sorts.
“The DEL is on a great way as a league and is showing that it can still be a major contributor to developing top end talent and being a good route to get to the NHL,” explains former national team member and current Eisbaren Berlin assistant coach Craig Streu. “The exposure of the game has helped with players starting at a younger age. There’s focused coaching at the younger levels and we’re now seeing the investments in the work started years ago. There will always be special waves with special talent, but hopefully we’ll be seeing more of those moving forward.”
Extraordinarily early success in the DELGermany will now have a handful of these talents that Streu is speaking of, with none more impressive than international shooting star Tim Stutzle, cool-headed playmaker JJ Peterka, and all-rounder Lukas Reichel, all of whom are forwards. They are also each taking a regular shift at the DEL level and making a scoring impact. Stutzle has already accumulated 23 points while playing in the top 6 for league champion Mannheim. Peterka has more of a lower line role with the youngsters on a stacked powerhouse Red Bull Munich team.
Then there’s Reichel, who in his own right is the most interesting of the three. Nothing was expected of him entering the season and it was felt he’d be loaned out to a second or even third league team to kick off his pro career. Instead, he’s impressed from day one and now has eight goals and 15 points while taking a regular shift with former NHLer Maxim Lapierre, who knows a future NHLer when he sees one.
“First of all, there’s lots of hard work,” explains Lapierre when asked how Lukas has been able to get this far in such a short time. “But he’s a natural talent. It’s something you’re born with. He’s a very strong skater, he’s comfortable with and without the puck, and he’s got a great eye, seeing everything really well.”
But did this comet-like ascension of Reichel’s come out of nowhere?
Having played a heavy role in aiding the most recent U18 squad to promotion back into the world’s elite at that level, Reichel was starting to make a file for himself internationally. He did a little bit of everything and seemed to be a crafty playmaker when needed or the guy who crashes the net and looks for the garbage goals when things got tough. It’s been hard pegging him as any one type of player as he seems to be able to simply do it all. But that this form of success would already come in a pro league as competitive as the DEL wasn’t expected in the least.
“Lukas is a great surprise! We knew he was a special player with special skill but, he surprised us early with his compete level. We rewarded him by putting him on a line with Max Lapierre (694 NHL games) and putting him in a role on the power play, where he could be successful and build his confidence. His development soared and he’s had an immediate impact on our team,” explains Streu, whose son Sebastian also plays for the Eisbaren and was a cog in the U20 team’s promotion last winter.
Considering Eisbaren Berlin did not only feature Maxim Lapierre and James Sheppard as ex-NHLers, but a good handful of players who have some past connection with North America’s top league, Lukas’ achievements to date make him seem like he’s absolutely in the right place at the right time. You’ve got to be a sponge in his situation, as everyone is giving you advice and trying to help you along, but what kind of a future do his colleagues see in store for him?
“You don't need an NHL background to see that Lukas has huge potential,” Streu continues. “The boys see it and they know he has a definite shot at being an impact player in the NHL. They encourage him and push him as well every day in practice. I'm sure some of them are sending tips to their NHL connections… As those in the you know have surely noticed, Lukas has jumped up draft prospect lists considerably over the last couple of months.”
It’s something other teammates with NHL ambitions can see as well, “Lukas’ development has been a sensation. It’s hard to believe he’s only 17 years old,” states back-up goalie Max Franzreb, who has taken part in no less than one Los Angeles Kings prospect camps.
“What’s really impressive to me is that he knows exactly what he’s capable of, regardless of whether he has a good or bad game. He doesn’t get down on himself or waste his time over-analysing things. He immediately starts concentrating on the next game. He just doesn’t seem to need to think too much. He just plays. This is an incredible and clearly uncommon trait for a player his age.”
It’s the kind of trait the German U20 national team is banking on this holiday season.
The IIHF World Junior ChampionshipWith the early season success in mind and an eye firmly fixed on a future NHL career, the 183-cm tall Reichel understands very well that everything will be determined by hard work.
Germany will need him to be rolling on all cylinders and Lukas is up to the challenge. “I’m so excited about this tournament. We’ve got such a good team together this year. Even Moritz Seider is going to be there. It’s such an important tournament for us young guys, as there are so many NHL scouts there and we all have that league as a goal in our eyes. And speaking of goals, our primary aim to maintain the class, but we fully believe we can and will make more noise than that.”
Aside from the aforementioned names and the young stars the scouting community will be keeping a close eye on, the team has a plethora of players playing in either the DEL or DEL2. This has not always been the case for a German entry. In addition, Iserlohn’s Tim Fleischer, Dusseldorf’s Alexander Dersch, and Heilbronn’s Jannik Valenti all spent last season playing Canadian juniors, the latter of which has taken the DEL2 by storm this fall with 17 goals and 27 points in 26 games. Currently playing Canadian juniors are forwards Taro Jentzsch and Nino Kinder, who’ll be heavily counted on to provide their experience considering Germany faces both Canada and the USA in preliminary round play.
“For my part, I’m really excited about facing Canada and the USA,” says Reichel. “When I think about being on the ice against guys like Lafreniere and Caufield... I mean these guys are the cream of the crop at this tournament and I want to play against the best players in this age group in the world. We know what it means to have an underdog mentality and every one of us wants to enter this tournament as an upstart team that our opponents may underestimate. We’re certainly not going to underestimate anyone.”
Planting the seed and the Czech connectionMuch as has been the case with his hard-earned spot in the DEL, there was no telling coming into this season whether Reichel would be a part of the U20 team’s plans. But it was something he began thinking about around mid-December, 2018.
“When Germany moved up in Fussen last December, I immediately started wondering about what my chances would be of playing for this team at this tournament. Just the thought of it really had me thinking about all the possibilities and it has become a goal of mine ever since,” he explains with a dreamy glimmer in his eye. “And now I’m going to be part of it all.”
“The fact that it’s in the Czech Republic makes this tournament all that much more special. It’s like things are going full circle and I have to admit that I feel all that much more motivated to face every challenge the tournament will have to offer.”
There’s good reason for this statement and when thinking about Lukas’ unexpected success this season, it would be good to take a step back and ask if it should have been all that unexpected after all?
Lukas’ father, Martin, born in Czechoslovakia, had a very long career in the DEL after first heading to Germany for the 1990/91 season, shortly after the fall of the wall. The bearer of a German name, the offensively gifted Czech was a second-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, but never made his way overseas. Instead, he became a German national and spent a total of 19 seasons playing pro hockey in Germany, which has become his home. Lukas’ slightly older brother is also a hockey player for the Eisbaren organization and plies his trade for the team’s DEL2 partner, Lausitzer Fuchse from Weisswasser.
That info alone makes it clear that the sport runs in the family, but this is where things get even more interesting!
Lukas’ uncle is former NHLer and Czech ice hockey hero Robert Reichel. A gold-medal winner at the 1998 Winter Olympics and collector of 661 points in the NHL, Reichel is also a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame. He’s currently an assistant coach for the Czech national team and his son Kristian, a direct cousin of Lukas, is in North America looking to one day forge an NHL career of his own in the Winnipeg Jets’ organization.
“You know, I really haven’t seen my uncle much in recent years. I knew him much better as a child, when we’d visit in the summer or during the holidays. I always loved going on holiday in the Czech Republic. It’s a special place for me.”
“I naturally know of his hockey career, what he achieved, and that he’s very much active in the Czech ice hockey scene, but he’s a busy man and we haven’t gotten around to talking about the upcoming World Juniors. The same is the case for my cousin Kristian (ed. note: who played for the Czech Republic in the past two WJCs). We used to know each other a bit better as kids, but we’ve both been very busy with our hockey careers in recent years. I’m pretty sure that my path will be crossing with Uncle Robert’s pretty soon.”
It’s one of those stories that makes Lukas’ remarkable season all that much more fascinating. In light of his heritage, how far his development has come in such a short time, his ambitions to one day be an NHL player, and the upcoming showdown with a Czech U20 team his uncle is oh so familiar with, it’s hard to believe that any script writer could have thought up a juicier plot.
Germany is the new kid on the block and will be playing in a monster of a group. Along with the USA and Canada, the Germans will face Russia and the host Czech Republic, a game that will likely bring a sell-out crowd with it. Throw all this together and you can imagine the kind of adrenaline, passion, and motivation Lukas and his colleagues will be entering play with.
“You know, we’re not concerned about who the opponents are,” Reichel explains confidently. “And the fact that every game in the preliminary round will be huge has us very excited. It will be no problem getting motivated for every single game. We can’t wait to face all of these teams and show the hockey world what we’re capable of.”
“We don’t have to hide from a Canada or USA. We also don’t need to be boxing ourselves into our own zone, letting the opponents attack as they will, then hoping for the odd counterattack to perhaps score a lucky goal on. We’re looking to play with the big boys. We’re going to give it our best and we’re going to take it to them. For so many reasons, we’re really hoping this is going to be special World Junior Championship for our program.”
It’s hard to doubt that a Cinderella story of sorts is possible when hearing these words. They’re brimming with confidence, as is this team full of kids that want to show the entire hockey world what they are made of. But pundits will surely preview this tournament with the realistic thought that there are just too many loops to jump through for this German squad to avoid the relegation round. And what if it can’t?
Lukas and his teammates seem ready to cross that bridge when they get to it.
“I’m not worried about teams in the other group just now. Whatever we’ll be playing for after the preliminary round, our goal is and will continue to be beating whoever our opponent is - in every single game.”
After two strong outings and victories over Switzerland in pre-tournament test play, it’s easy to understand this mind frame.
Indeed, Lukas Reichel is just one of many teammates getting ready to go to war for each other as an underdog of sorts. His story is different though. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts. And it’s coming at a point in his career where his star is rising, both as a pro in Germany and with respect to his goal to one day play in the NHL. He’s here to show everybody – scouts included – just what he’s all about.
Expect him to do just that for 10 long days, with the whole adventure starting on 27th December against the USA.