Simon says win
by Andrew Podnieks|28 DEC 2020
Simon Gnyp captained Germany's U18 team to promotion two years ago and is trying to help the country make an impact at the World Juniors now.
photo: Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images
It was the best of times and the worst of times for Simon Gnyp. In his early teens he knew he wanted to become a professional hockey player, and he was playing like he could be, but in Germany hockey was at its lowest point. Virtually all of its teams had performed poorly and were in Division I, an unconscionable run of bad luck.

But, as it turned out, Gnyp wasn’t part of the problem—he was part of the solution. He had turned pro with Kolner Haie at age 17, and by the time the 2019 U18 Division I-A World Championship had arrived, he was one of the nation’s best young defencemen. He captained that team to victory and promotion to the top level, a vivid memory for him.

“It was fun with the boys there,” he relayed last night from his hotel room beside Rogers Arena in Edmonton. “We were together for three weeks in Grenoble, France. We had a training camp for one week at Courchevel, 2,000 metres above sea level. It was tough! You couldn’t breathe we were so high up. But we knew why we were training so hard. There was pressure on us to move back up to the top division. We had good team spirit. We were nervous the first two games, playing Denmark and Kazakhstan, and they really wanted to beat us. But we played well and got better and better, and we earned the promotion after four games with one still left. Our coach told us, if we don’t win that last game we can’t go out and celebrate! We won. It was the best moment of my career so far, to win the gold medal and lift the trophy.“

Making the promotion doubly special was wearing the “C”, an honour Gnyp didn’t take lightly. “As a captain, you have to be a leader on the ice and off the ice,” he explained. “I have to do the little things right. I have to show the younger guys what to do and how to do things. One time, I brought the whole team together and told them if we want to be promoted we have to be the best team. We don’t have to have the most skill or have the fastest players, but everyone has to accept their role on the team and play together. And I said if you want to play pro most of you will get offers from the top league, but we have to win the promotion. And we did.”

Gnyp didn’t start his hockey life as a defenceman, but once he made the switch he knew it was the right thing to have done. 

“When I was 14, I moved to Cologne,” he explained. “They had scouted me at the German national camp and made me an offer. That’s when I thought I was maybe good enough to be a pro. We lived in a house with other athletes, about 45 of us, and I moved up to play in the pro league with Kolner Haie when I was 17." 

"I started as a forward in Cologne but my coach moved me back to defence. I didn’t like it at first, but I’m happy he did. I think I’m a two-way defenceman. I love to join the rush. I love to play in the offensive zone, but I’m also not shy about going in the corners and playing a physical game. I love to play a lot, run the power play. But as a defenceman, you have to defend, and that’s the thing I had to improve the most.”

The U20 German team also earned promotion in 2019 and finished 9th last year, but this year’s team now features an incredible 13 players from Gnyp’s U18 champion roster in 2019. That continuity bodes well for the future.

“It’s pretty cool to see how everyone has developed,” Gnyp enthused. “John Peterka, Tim Stutzle, these guys get better and better every year. I love every guy on our team. We have great team spirit, and it’s just fun to be out there with them. We’ve known each other for a few years now. We know how we play.”

The worst part about the team’s miserable 16-2 loss to Canada two days ago is that it doesn’t represent the team. Nine players were quarantined while several other couldn’t make the trip for one reason or another, so the perception that the U20 program is out of its depth is patently false.

“It was frustrating, but we’re not worried about that any more,” Gnyp continued. “We’re focused on the next two games. Those are the most important ones. Our goal is to get into the quarter-finals, and we know we can do that.”

Long term, Gnyp has one eye to improving as a player with Kolner Haie, and another on the best league in the world. Who knows?

“Every kid’s dream is to play in the NHL. It’s my dream, too. But I’m also very happy with Kolner Haie.”

Still, he's draft eligible next summer and watches the NHL closely. And, there are a couple of blueliners he particularly admires.

“I want to be like Quinn Hughes from the Canucks. He’s awesome. His skating, his offensive abilities. He’s one of the best young players. And Duncan Keith. He’s a leader, a vet. You can look up to those guys for sure. And from Germany, Christian Ehrhoff. He’s retired now, but I look up to him as well.”

In the meantime, Gnyp is not only adapting to the bubble in Edmonton, he’s thriving in it. A leader and upbeat person on ice and off, he sees the good in life, and his positive attitude can’t help but rub off on those around him.

“It’s fun with the team in the bubble,” he adds. “You’re with the boys every day, all the time. The bubble is good for team spirit because we have only each other. We’re always together. It’s just us. I’m fine with that.”