GLENDALE, Ariz. — Arizona Coyotes right winger Tobias Rieder says that soccer will always be number one in Germany – but in his small town of Landshut about half an hour outside of Munich, he says that hockey is king.
“We actually have a very good minor team in my hometown,” said Rieder, whose father is a former Tier II German hockey goaltender, “so I would say that hockey is the primary sport where I come from.”
That’s not the case everywhere in Germany, though.
Rieder talked Today’s Slapshot through the hockey landscape in Germany, both from a youth perspective and from a pro standpoint.
Some towns, like Landshut, have popular professional teams with well-developed youth systems and strong coaching. Others, though, don’t have hockey at all — and even in the ‘bigger’ hockey towns, there’s often only one rink.
“You know how it is, each team gets an hour or so of rink time because all the teams, all the ages share the same rink. You know this and you make the best of it. You don’t waste your time when you’re on the rink, and you work hard with your off-ice workouts.”
When Rieder, who turned 23 this January, was a child, his coaches came from other nations. For about five years, his youth hockey coach was from the Czech Republic; that meant a lot of skating. He then had a Finnish coach for a few years — that was an era of stickhandling and skills drills.
He had his father to help him out as a kid, but when he was gently pushed away from goaltending and towards being a forward, his development needs obviously changed.
He said that the coaching and development staffs in Germany try to be diligent about keeping up with North America, though. Even today, he said his old coaches call him to learn more about the development and training regiments Rieder has experienced playing in the OHL, AHL, and NHL in the United States and Canada.
The youth players travel, competing against the five or six other major youth programs within Germany and heading across the border to play against other teams in Europe. During his time in youth hockey, Rieder said that he got to play in Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and even Russia. Even without major competition in his home country, his teams growing up made sure their players were pushed to play against the best year after year.
Soccer is the default sport for so many families and children in nearly every region of Germany, despite the growth of hockey. It’s tough to convince parents to instead put their kids out on the ice — not only is hockey a secondary sport to the region, it’s an expensive sport, as well. Rieder said that the cost of equipment can be a huge deterrent for some parents when their kids are first becoming interested.
That said, the sport is still growing nonetheless.
“We teach a lot of kindergarteners how to skate, we try to use outreach programs to help kids learn to play and help their parents afford the cost of equipment.”
Rieder mentioned that the Landshut Cannibals, who run the youth hockey programs in Landshut and serve as the minor pro team in the small town, have a similar hockey development program to the ones that NHL teams like the Arizona Coyotes are implementing in their communities.
The Coyotes send coaches out to schools and offer free (or inexpensive) clinics to teach kids basic hockey fundamentals, both on and off the ice. Rieder said that the Cannibals have pushed for development and exposure in a very similar way.
Despite it’s relative newness, though, Rieder confirmed that German hockey still has its own distinct identity.
“When we play other nations at international tournaments, we know we obviously don’t have the skill yet to beat teams like Sweden. Every player, from the first line to the fourth line, is expected to contribute to defense; you’re expected to be there blocking shots and shutting the other team down. It’s about the hustle and the effort, no matter how good you are.
“All the ones that hit the pros come from the same towns and same areas, because that’s where hockey is popular, and you know the same guys your whole career,” Rieder said.
Defensive hockey may be Germany’s go-to system in an attempt to offset the lack of superstar talent, but it’s certainly serving the ones that do hit the NHL well.
He certainly has a perfect example of that; his childhood best friend, Tom Kuhnhackl, has now hit the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and recently signed a two year extension with the club. He and Rieder still spend all summer together in Germany, and they played together from the time they were very young. The two forwards from Landshut have both finally made it big, and they’ve got years of history to look back on when celebrating where they are now.
You still likely won’t see as many children in the streets of German towns playing street hockey or roller hockey as you will playing soccer. According to Rieder, you likely never will, either, even though roller and street hockey have already grown noticeably in popularity just from the time he was a child to today.
The amount of exposure that players are seeing is promising, though.
During the offseason, Rieder often returns to his hometown to try to give back to the community, and he said that people recognize him and congratulate him on his success. Children openly look up to players like him and Kuhnhackl. Former players have started to retire and coach in the area, and they’re growing closer to being considered household names.
There’s still plenty of growth left to go, but things are looking up from here.