Underdog German hockey team well-prepared for absence of NHL players

Men's squad features plenty of Canadian connections

Underdog German hockey team well-prepared for absence of NHL players
Former Vancouver Canuck Christian Ehrhoff celebrates a goal for Team Germany in their upset victory over Sweden in the men's hockey quarter-final. © Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

In Germany, "there's soccer and there's nothing and then there's other sports."

So says Germany hockey coach Marco Sturm, whose team's unlikely Olympic run is — at least temporarily — helping change that hierarchy back home.

"Every year we try so hard to get more out of it from the media, TV, anything," said the former NHLer. "And all of a sudden everyone talks about hockey.

"It's great for our sport in Germany. And it's already a big accomplishment."

Unheralded Germany takes on Team Canada on Friday in men's semifinal action. The winner goes for gold against either the Russian entry or the Czech Republic. The losers play for bronze.

'It's huge'

Whatever happens, Germany is taking notice.

"I think it's huge," said defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who played 789 games with six NHL teams including Vancouver. "Because the last time the German team had a chance to play for a medal was '76 [when West Germany won bronze in Innsbruck] so it was a long time ago. Last Olympics we didn't qualify so it's been a long time since we've been on a big stage like that. It's huge"

The Germans finished 10th in the preliminary round, edging Norway 2-1 after losing 5-2 to Finland and 1-0 to Sweden. Their unlikely run started with a 2-1 overtime win over Switzerland in the playoff qualification round.

In Wednesday's quarter-final, they upset Sweden 4-3 on Patrick Reimer's overtime goal.

"It feels great. It feels a little bit surreal because nobody really thought it was possible for us, but this group has a lot of character and a lot of will and a lot of battle and we worked really hard to get to this point," said Ehrhoff.

While the Germans were seeded 10th at these Games, they may be one of the teams able to handle the absence of NHL stars better than most.

There are fewer than 10 Germans currently in the NHL, led by Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl. That means much of the team remains intact.

"The key thing is they play in the world championships a lot with that group," said Canada coach Willie Desjardins. "So they've had a lot of experience against high-end competition and that's why they're doing well."

Canadian connections

Canada won 2-1 the last time they met, in the 2017 world championship quarterfinals. Only defenceman Chris Lee returns from that Canadian team, which featured Claude Giroux, Mark Scheifele, Matt Duchene, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Nate MacKinnon, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Mitch Marner. The Germans have 14 returnees.

All 25 Germans play in the DEL, their national 14-team league. They are led by the 39-year-old Sturm who scored 242 goals and added 245 assists in 938 games spread over 14 NHL seasons with San Jose, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Florida.

Centre Marcel Goc had 75 goals and 113 assists in 636 NHL games in 10 seasons with San Jose, Nashville, Florida, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Defenceman Bjorn Krupp, a former Belleville Bull, is the son of former NHL blueliner Uwe Krupp. Winger David Wolf played three games for the Calgary Flames.

Defenceman Daryl Boyle, a former Brandon Wheat King, comes from Sparwood, B.C., but has been playing in Germany since 2011. Others on the roster also played junior hockey in North America.

The DEL is a league that has a fun side.

"Picture 6,000, 7,000 fans every night but standing up, not sitting down, chanting songs. It's like a soccer atmosphere," said Canada goaltender Justin Peters, who plays alongside Ehrhoff at Kolner Haie.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen. I had no idea what to expect going into it. But it's a real good hockey league with an unbelievable fanbase."

Germany's record against Canada is bleak (1-27-1). Canada has won the last 11 meetings, outscoring the Germans 58-15 in Olympic and world championship play.

"Canada is the better team, like all the other teams we've played so far, almost," said Sturm. "For us, nothing really changes. I think it's going to come down to us. We know how Canada plays. We just need that same effort and that same kind of togetherness for the next game.