And yet, this is exactly where one of Germany’s bright young up-n-comers, Alexander Blank, finds himself at this very moment.
“I always knew that it’d be really hard to make my way from the DNL2 to the national team, seeing as how the league gets little attention,” reflects the left-shooting forward. “But I was always confident in my abilities and knew what I was capable of.”
Now Blank’s hockey journey will continue with a prime-time appearance at the World Juniors and it’s not something he might have ever imagined being a part of a few years back while in Iserlohn. “Admittedly, I sure didn’t spend much time as a 17-year-old thinking about being part of the World Junior Championship because so many other players in my age group were already playing in much higher leagues and some even in foreign countries. So, I knew it was going to be really hard to make it here.”
Over the next week or two of World Juniors action, the 20-year-old forward will be one of his nation’s go-to guys and will need to be one of the backbones of the attack if the nation is going to have any shot at getting into and then making waves in the playoffs. He’s now technically one of the oldest participants and has more games of pro play under his belt than just about any other player at the event. In fact, he’s been a DEL regular for two straight seasons and was one of the U23 players to have received the most ice time this past season.
The march to a prime-time DEL gigDuring the 2019/20 season, the Berlin-born Blank was lacing his skates for Iserlohn’s U20 squad, coached by his father Boris. The youngster collected 47 points in 31 games for the club’s top U20 team, which nonetheless was only playing in Germany’s second-highest circuit. His efforts there were enough to earn him the opportunity to suit up for the club’s DEL team nine times, going scoreless along the way as one of the youngest players to have seen DEL ice that season.
The following season would see him move to league opponent Krefeld, a club that not only featured a U20 junior team in the nation’s highest circuit, but also a U23-based pro club in the third-tier Oberliga Nord, thus opening the door to a world of opportunity. There was another attraction for Blank though. Krefeld is where he spent much of his childhood. His father spent nine of his best seasons with Krefeld Penguins from 2005 to 2014. And as fate would have it that summer, his father also joined the coaching staff in Krefeld, filling in for a multitude of duties that even had him on the bench for the DEL squad. With so much nostalgia, one might think the two had made the jump together, but that wasn’t the case.
“My transfer to Krefeld had nothing to do with my father,” explains the younger Blank. “I had already decided to make the move to Krefeld and at that time, working for Krefeld wasn’t yet a topic for my dad.”
The switch nonetheless proved very fruitful for Blank moving forward. Blank kicked off the 20/21 season playing for both the U20 and Oberliga teams. His eight points in six DNL contests were really nothing in comparison to his 27 points in 16 Oberliga games, gaudy numbers for just about any player, but especially an 18-year-old. Once the DEL season took flight in December of that year, Blank was immediately part of the DEL club and never looked back. He’d go on to be one of the brightest young players in the league, putting up six goals and 13 points in 36 total games.
Worth mentioning is that this was achieved while his dad served first as the assistant coach, then as the head coach of the team as of the end of January. A truly unique situation that is seldom seen in pro sports. One that brings its challenges.
“It really isn’t easy having a son on the team because everyone’s watching exactly how I deal with him,” explains Boris, himself a veteran of 921 DEL games. “Your son can’t enjoy any advantages. He also shouldn’t have to face any disadvantages. I made it very clear to him that when we’re at the rink, I’m his coach. At home, I’m his father. This situation has been difficult for both sides, but it proved to work out pretty well over time.”
Plenty of ice time in the battle against relegationThe 21/22 season brought a whole new wind of optimism with it, something of great importance after the prior season saw Krefeld end up in last place. A number of recognized international players were brought into the fold and added to a group featuring several solid veterans and a good handful of extremely talented and promising young players, Blank topping the list. Unfortunately, the club seemed to face off-ice problems and scandals right from Day 1 and eventually saw an exodus of its most established German players by the beginning of the season. Coach Clark Donatelli was relieved of duties shortly after the season began and the club found itself changing on the fly both on and off the ice. The elder Blank was once again serving as an assistant and video coach, likely also as an interpreter when the team decided to hire a Russian coach to replace Donatelli.
From a sporting standpoint, things started off better than in the season before, but in addition to the theatre going on around the club, players started sustaining long-term injury and of course Krefeld wasn’t free of its bouts with Covid either. Alas, despite all the trials and tribulations, young Alexander had been given an increased role and built on where he left off the season before. Statistically, he battled his way to five goals and 16 points over 48 games but found himself - like his remaining healthy teammates - in the midst of a week-long battle against relegation. It was a battle they didn’t win.
On the second to last game day of the season, Krefeld found itself mathematically eliminated and will continue its legacy this fall in the DEL2. It’s an experience that impacts and can even haunt a player for months at a time.
“It’s very hard. There’s no other way to put it. Krefeld has a very special place in my heart and that makes this so much more difficult,” relates a retrospective Blank. “I grew up there. All my friends are there. I’ve spent so much time in that ice rink over the years with my father. It’s hard to say how much time it takes to swallow and accept a relegation like this. It’s something I have in the back of my mind all the time.”
Special moment in timeThe heart-breaking conclusion of his best pro season to date did however enjoy a most pleasant intermezzo. His achievements last season made him a lock for the nation’s U20 outfit and by Christmas time, he found himself in Alberta with the rest of his colleagues ready to take on the world. Germany kicked off the tournament with a 4-2 loss to Finland, which showed them to be competitive and able to remain in striking distance of a traditionally higher seeded hockey nation. Blank picked up his first point of the tournament, an assist, in the loss. Then came the team’s second game on 30th December against the neighbouring Czechia and it would prove to be an historic moment for Blank and his teammates.
Blank got his team off to a 1-0 lead at the beginning of the second period after he was found with a pass in the slot and launched a devastating wrister. The Czechs eventually tied the game, and it stayed that way until overtime. There, Blank got the puck deep in his own zone, marched all the way down the left wing side of the ice, shook a shoulder and proceeded to skate around the defender. While doing so, he thrust a bad angle shot right over the shoulder of Jan Bednar to gain a 2-1 victory for Germany, serving notice to the rest of the contestants that Germany was here to make some music.
“That was an indescribable moment for me. I could have never dreamed of scoring two goals in such an important game,” reminisces the swift skater. “But I was just the beneficiary. It was an unbelievable team effort from every single player on the ice. That was definitely a day I will never forget.”
Like many ice hockey fans across Germany, Blank senior was back home watching the game. As one can imagine that overtime goal against Czechia certainly brought a smile to his face, “I was naturally so excited for Alex, but it wasn’t just his doing. That victory was the culmination of the work of every player on the team. They wouldn’t have won that game without strong team play. You could see that the team spirit was at a high point and the boys were giving it their all for the win.”
The team was flying on cloud nine and ready to meet its next opponent, host Canada. The players had already been viewing this game at the one they couldn’t wait for because the rink would be full, the game would be broadcast across Canada, and well, who doesn’t like strutting his stuff against the head-and-shoulders favourite of the tournament. And when better to do so than coming off such an emotional victory. Then the news broke; the tournament was being discontinued for Covid-related reasons.
The high the team was feeling turned into gut-wrenching disappointment.
“We were so revved up for the game against Canada. Sure, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were so confident after the game against Czechia. We really thought like hey, why not go out there and pull off the next upset. We were so terribly disappointed when we found out that the tournament was being cancelled. It just sucked the life out of us. We knew we were in the middle of something special - and now it was over.”
Task at handNow Blank is back in Alberta and has gotten a top-six role in each of the test games played this past week (a 5-3 loss to Slovakia and 3-1 loss to Latvia). Everyone’s playing with a new deck and the cards have been reshuffled. Even the grouping is looking different now.
Germany will kick things off in a tilt against the heavily favoured Team USA before then playing arguably the most important game of the tournament against neighbour Austria - a game that is seen as decisive for both of the countries. Two days later, they’ll face off against their other archrival, the Swiss. If the game against Austria isn’t the most decisive, then this one surely will be. Germany will have to hope they have their card punched for the playoff round by then, because round robin play will conclude with a match-up against another heavy favourite, Sweden.
“Things are right back at ground zero,” says Boris about the weight of the tournament now after losing that momentum in December. ”It’s going to get harder because the expectations from the outside have become greater. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Team Germany that the men are able to go far in the tournament with hard work and a little bit of luck. It’s a shame I won’t be able to stay in Canada to watch the WJC as I’ve got business back home, but I’ll be following things on television.”
Ironically, Boris himself has been in Red Deer for the past week working as an assistant coach with the U18 national team as part of the Hlinka Gretzky Tournament. Yet another twist in the father-son story at hand, with both busy with the German Federation for two separate tournaments. Unfortunately, Germany wasn’t able to scratch up a point having lost to the USA, Czechia, Finland, and Switzerland in that order, even if there were a few valiant efforts along the way.
“Everyone in the world of ice hockey understands that the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is big tournament featuring the top ice hockey countries,” he explains. “It’s not easy to play in such a tournament because we’re in the middle of our summer break and we just aren’t in that hockey flow at the moment. We also don’t have the chemistry that is built over the winter. But the boys have put in some good performances. It was even more important for us to see where the team is internationally and how these guys are going about doing what we’ve instructed them to. It was great seeing the team grow together game for game. This is a great experience for these players, and it serves as a nice steppingstone in their development.”
Most of those players will now be watching Alexander and his colleagues duke things out at the World Juniors, knowing very well that it may be their turn in December or the year thereafter. The challenge at hand is something the younger Blank is very aware of as the games approach, knowing the schedule isn’t exactly leaving the team with much room to breathe in between.
“We’re heading into the tournament with a very positive outlook. But we’re bringing a new team to the event with a number of younger players. It’s a new tournament and we’re right back at the starting line. What happened in December is history.”
After his time with Iserlohn’s juniors and the two years in Krefeld, all spent with his father as a coach and team official, Alexander knows his father won’t be able to stick around for this one, even though they’ve been in the same town for a good week now. But dad’s role in Alexander’s development and the fact that he’s now representing his nation here is not something that will ever simply diminish.
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be watching the games from Germany. He’s played a huge role in my life and has always been able to provide me with instruction and advice. He helps me whenever I need it. I’d say that whatever I’ll ever achieve in ice hockey will be thanks to him.”
Blank’s in action throughout the coming winterIn addition to his duties as an assistant coach for the U18 squad, it is widely felt that we’ll be seeing Boris on a pro bench again in some capacity this winter. It’s even likely the reason he can’t stick around in Alberta. But he’s got his finger on the pulse of junior development in Germany, something that has been on the upswing in recent years. As he watches his son play from abroad, he knows there’s still a long way to go before Germany’s junior teams will be where the program wants them.
“Things have naturally been getting better due to our 5-Star program, but we’ve still got a long ways to go and there’s much work to be done. We need to continue to establish a wider range of players who can compete internationally. We need to keep developing concepts that can up the ante in our development into a regularly competitive program, one that may even be regularly competing for a medal.”
Once Blank is done competing for a medal in Alberta, he’ll be heading back to Germany and joining his new pro team, Dusseldorfer EG. He’ll be joined by a couple of his teammates from the U20 side and play on a team that has made some noise with a number of younger players in recent years. The organization has also signed a cooperation with Krefeld, a long-time rival. But now that Krefeld is in the DEL2 and Oberliga, the cooperation looks like it makes a lot of sense so as to get as many players playing regularly as possible.
“I’m a bit excited about the upcoming season with Dusseldorf. It’s going to be a completely new situation for me,” details Alexander about his new employer. “It’s a new team, a new coach, and another environment. Still, I’ve been participating with the organization in summer training, and I feel very much a part of things already. Everything just seems to be right up my alley there. They invest in working with young players and the talent is very evenly spread across all four lines, and also with respect to young and old.”
Indeed, it’s almost hard to think that Alexander Blank is still at the beginning of his ongoing journey in his pro hockey career. He’s been making noise in recent years and has become a cog for his nation at the upcoming WJC. The groundwork seems laid for the next step in his career, one in which he’s hoping and believing he’ll become a healthy offensive contributor for a Dusseldorf team looking to expand on its achievements last season in which it battled its way into the playoffs, putting up quite a fight before bowing out to Munich. Another step in his development may even see him become a topic for next spring’s senior IIHF World championship.
And still, one can’t help but wonder what this means for Boris Blank, who’s heading into the first season in a while without him directly working with his son at either the junior or pro levels. One has to think it’s a sign of growth and new chapters, but it can’t be completely easy on a family used to enjoying their successes and disappointments together, winter for winter.
“I think Alex is big enough now and will go his own way successfully. I even think it’s good that step finally comes and I’m no longer his coach. It hasn’t always been easy. But he’s still going to get some real helpful tips from me and, well, a bit of criticism when I feel it’s warranted,” Boris says with a chuckle.
Sounds like Alexander wouldn’t have it any other way.