Kuhnhackl Thriving in North America
Wednesday, 07.20.2011 / 8:14 AM
Features By Michelle Crechiolo
Tom Kuhnhackl may be the son of a German hockey legend, but the 19-year-old forward is busy carving his own path to success.
Kuhnhackl’s father Erich, a member of the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, was a five-time Olympian for his country and is widely regarded as the greatest German hockey player of all time.
But rather than staying in the country where his father built a storied legacy, the younger Kuhnhackl decided to move to North America and suit up for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) – who chose him fourth overall in the 2009 CHL Import Draft – for the 2010-11 campaign.
It’s an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up in order to fulfill his goal of reaching the National Hockey League.
“In Germany, hockey is not as popular,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to Canada and play there, so I made the step and now I’m looking forward to the next couple of years.”
And so are the Penguins, as Kuhnhackl, the team’s fourth-round pick (110th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, posted some dazzling statistics in his first season playing in North America.
“Do I get excited about the prospects and the guys we have in our system and what Kuhnhackl can do? I do. I really do,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Kuhnhackl admits the transition to major junior hockey in North America took a few weeks, as he explained that hockey in Germany is “much slower and a lot less physical.”
“It was pretty tough,” Kuhnhackl said. “The rink was smaller and the game was way more physical, so it takes some time to get used to.”
But Kuhnhackl credits the Spitfires coaching staff, especially head coach Bob Jones, with helping him get acclimated. He also credits the family he billeted with for helping soften the cultural shock of assimilating to a brand-new country.
“The coaches helped me a lot,” he said, adding “(My billet family) last year was unbelievable. They did everything for me. It was the best family I could have ended up with.”
Once he felt comfortable in his new surroundings both on and off the ice, the left winger finished the regular season with a team-leading 39 goals and 68 points through 63 games.
He ramped up his game even more in the playoffs, where the Spitfires advanced to the conference finals before falling in five games to eventual league champion Owen Sound.
Kuhnhackl led Windsor in playoff scoring, finishing with a team-leading 11 goals and 23 points through 18 games.
While he certainly posted some outstanding numbers, what impressed Bylsma the most about Kuhnhackl was the compete level the 6-foot-2, 183-pound forward brought to the ice, something the Penguins look for when drafting prospects.
“He’s got a knack with the puck and he’s got a hockey sense with the puck,” Bylsma said. “He’s got some skill around the cage with his shot and he is a competitor. … The compete level and the goal-scoring around the net is something we thought he got and really showed that. It was great to see him show up in the playoffs as well. “
While Kuhnhackl may be taking a different path to hockey stardom than his father did, he still continues to lean on Erich for advice and support as he has throughout his young life.
“When I’m in Canada, we Skype two or three times every week,” Kuhnhackl said. “He watches every game.”
And what does Erich tell his teenage son when those contests end?
“I still have to be better in my strength and conditioning,” Kuhnhackl admitted. “I have to work on that. I can improve in every single area.”
Kuhnhackl recently completed his second prospect development camp in Pittsburgh last week. He impressed the Penguins staff there with his development over the past year, and although the plan is for Kuhnhackl to return to Windsor in the fall, they’re looking forward to seeing him at training camp in September.
“Tom Kuhnhackl is a kid who’s gotten taller, gotten bigger,” said Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins assistant to the general manager. “He’s a very skilled individual. He comes from great genes. His dad is a legend in Germany. We feel we’ve got a really good player there. This is a big summer for him to get stronger and bigger and come to his first NHL training camp, and get off to a great start.”