Leon Draistaitl's choice to hone his game in Canada wouldn't have been worth it if he had never run into any doubts.
The Prince Albert Raiders playmaker will cop to having had some during his first season away from home, when he began showing the promise of becoming the highest-drafted German in National Hockey League history. He's put that in his rearview mirror in Year 2 with Prince Albert, breaking out with 19 goals and 54 points over 35 games for the Raiders. Just like the basketball star Andrew Wiggins, there's an obvious story hook in a teen thriving at a game that's on the periphery of his country's sporting focus. Back home, the Cologne-born Draisaitl has been labelled "The German Gretzky."
"The attention is starting to get more," says the 18-year-old Draisaitl, whose father Peter was a 20-year pro who competed in three Olympics and now coaches in the Czech Republic. "Obviously, Germany not a big hockey country. People care more about soccer and other sports. Hockey’s maybe on position three, four. It’s starting to come. The media’s coming more and more.
"At the beginning, I had maybe not doubts but I was concerned who I was doing," adds Leon Draisaitl, who is NHL Central Scouting's second-ranked North American skater. "How my English was going turn out. Or how I was going to do on the ice. It turned out to be really good."
Draisaitl, a robust 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, has the size to protect the puck and keep his teammates' plates piled high with on-the-tape passes. He made a fast impression as a 17-year-old last season with the Raiders, averaging nearly a point a game (58 over 64) while immersing himself in culture and a schedule that was twice as long as what he played the prior year in Germany.
"I had to get used to the physicality and the quickness," says Draisaitl, whose intro to Canadian life last year included a couple days 'out at the lake' with Raiders D-man Sawyer Lange, a hometown Prince Albert native.
"You have less time to make decisions. The guys are bigger, that's the biggest difference. The North American style is really aggressive. They don't sit back. They don't trap a lot. They just go hard. That's a big difference."
Draisaitl and Halifax Mooseheads forward Nikolaj Ehlers, a Dane who previously played in Switzerland, are two players from second-rung hockey nations who are near the top of the NHL draft class of 2014. Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting, is quite forward about putting Draisaitl on a pedestal alongside other players who left their homelands to play in a bigger hockey country, albeit not necessarily in Canadian junior.
"If you look past drafts like Thomas Vanek in 2003 and Anze Kopitar a few years later , teams have shown they’re not scared to take a player who’s come over from a smaller hockey country and advanced his development," Marr says. "Vanek did it in the U.S.; Kopitar did it in Sweden."
Vanek, now with the New York Islanders, was 15 when he moved to the U.S., eventually becoming a No. 5 overall pick. Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings forward, ventured from Slovenia to Sweden before going No. 11 in '05.
Draisaitl moved up in the Central Scouting ranking in the wake of a rough go during the world junior. While he only has 18 penalty minutes in the WHL, he was ejected from two games during the tournament, imperiling Germany's prospect of staying in the top flight for the 2015 WJC. International tournaments are officiated much more by the letter of the law than in North America, but there was still a lesson about discipline.
"I'm not a dirty player at all and I'm not used to that situation of being kicked out of games," Draisaitl says. "That was why it was a really a tough time for me. I definitely learned from it.
"Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself. The coaches on my team, they expected a lot. I might have put a little too pressure on myself."
Germany ultimately scraped by Norway in the best-of-3 'survivor series' to determine placement for next season.
"That was huge for us," Draisaitl says. "I'm really looking forward to it next year in Toronto and Montreal."
1. What do you miss most about most about Germany?
"The people. It's different people, different attitudes. The city of Cologne, the atmosphere and the traffic downtown, it's definitely something I miss."
2. Is there a particular player in Prince Albert whom you credit for helping you adapt to your new environment last seaon?
"Yes, Josh Morrissey [a Winnipeg Jets first-round pick]. Even when I wasn't in P.A., he had already texted me. He took me around and showed me the city. He was really helpful to me."
3. Who is the most challenging defenceman you've faced in the Western Hockey League?
"I didn't like playing against Graeme Craig very much, but now he's on our team [after a trade between the Raiders and divisional rival Saskatoon Blades]."
4. Where is your favourite road rink?
"Definitely here [Scotiabank Saddledome, home of the Calgary Hitmen], and Edmonton. Getting to play in the big NHL rink is really special to a young player."
5. Who's your favourite team in the Bundesliga?
"Bayern Munich, ever since I was a little kid I was always a big fan of them."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to email@example.com.