Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Hockey Night in Dusseldorf
German leagues awash in Manitobans, former Moose players
Sven Butenschon's National Hockey League dream didn't end with a soul-crushing call from a general manager or head coach. No, his farewell to the premier league on the planet was much more simple and less dramatic than that.
Butenschon doggedly chased his NHL dream after a junior career with the Brandon Wheat Kings and then lived it, pulling on four different big-league jerseys -- Pittsburgh, Edmonton, the New York Islanders and Vancouver -- during an eight-year span that also had included minor-league stops in Cleveland, Syracuse, Houston, Scranton, Hamilton, Bridgeport and here in Winnipeg with the Manitoba Moose.
Then reality set in and life got in the way of the fight to keep that NHL dream alive.
"I had a wife, two kids and a mortgage," begins Butenschon from Nuremberg, Germany.
"And after the last lockout I played a year in Manitoba and a few games up in Vancouver... it just wasn't enough games up top (in the NHL) and at that time you couldn't make more than $75,000 in the minors.
"So to come over to Germany just made a lot more sense financially. Plus, I've always had my German passport and had it in the back of my mind it would be something I would like to check out.
"My NHL dream? It was a good run, and I guess you could say I had a good crack at it. But coming here when I did was the right thing to do."
Butenschon is just one of many Manitobans of German descent currently carving out solid careers playing professional hockey in Germany, whether it is with the elite in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) or in the second division Bundesliga. And the list of others who have preceded him in making the overseas trek from Manitoba to Germany over the years is extensive.
Butenschon's father was stationed at CFB Shilo in the 1970s when he met his mother, who was from Winnipeg but came from a German household. He was born in Itzehoe, in Germany, but the family moved back to Winnipeg when he was two.
What the German league provided Butenschon was the chance to extend his pro career for seven years, to play for Germany in the World Championships and at the Olympics and to earn a comfortable living. In the DEL, the average salary is $250,0000.
But now at age 36, the same factors that attracted Butenschon to Germany are now pulling him away again: His family has remained in Vancouver the last two years -- his wife works and his kids are in school there -- while he returned to the DEL. And that's not easy.
"When we were here together, I could put my kids to bed almost every night," he said. "There's no long road trips, no call-ups or trades or sending down. They treat us great here. When you get off the plane here when you show up, they give you a brand-new car and an apartment, and you don't have to pay for either of those things. Whatever you make is basically your cost of living and expenses. You can definitely pocket a lot more playing over here.
"My kids went to an international school while I played in Mannheim, and it was a great experience. But now... it's brutal being away from them. We start training camp early here, on Aug. 1, so that drive to the airport in August is brutal. But at least in November there is a break for a week (for national team camps) and there's a break at Christmas for three weeks so I'll come home then, too, and then just grind it out after that."
Ralph Krueger was named head coach of the Edmonton Oilers on June 27, 2012. And if you have a minute or two, the Winnipeg-born/Steinbach-raised product will explain how an impromptu meeting with a gentleman in Winnipeg in 1977 pointed him to a professional career in hockey that began in Dusseldorf many, many moons ago.
"I had just finished playing in a summer league game with the Assiniboine Park Monarchs when I met a fellow by the name of Bob Reiss, who was playing in the second division of Germany," recalled Krueger, reached by the Free Press while in Switzerland on a scouting trip with the Oilers.
"He said, 'Are you German? Are your parents German?' I said, 'Ahhh... yes' and I'm wondering where this is going. And then he says, 'Would you like to come to play one year in Europe?' It was late August, and I had already registered at the University of Manitoba. But I thought, 'Why not?'
"I've never forgotten that because we were the last two guys in the dressing room after everybody else had showered and taken off. That's how close it came to me not even meeting him. I can still remember him sitting on the opposite side when he asked the question that changed my life."
Asked if he would be the Oilers' head coach today if not for that meeting, Krueger added:
"No chance. No chance. I was going into commerce. I had everything set up because I thought the academic life would be more stable for me at that time. I was a good goal scorer, but not an elite skater, and I was pretty honest with myself. I didn't think I was quite fast enough for the NHL and didn't want to go through the American league, up-and-down thing.
"And then I met this guy. You never forget where you came from, right?"
Krueger's career in Germany included stints with club teams Dusseldorfer EG, Schwenninger ERC and ECD Sauerland and also allowed him to suit up for the national team. He parlayed that into a coaching career in Germany and in Austria and as the head coach of the Swiss national team before joining the Oilers in 2010 as an associate coach.
"I was one of the first German-Canadians who didn't count as an import," said Krueger. "At the time when I first got there, German teams were allowed three imports and the three players on that team all came from the University of Manitoba.
"We kind of launched an explosion of German-Canadians over there. The Manitoba connection was just huge at the beginning of my career. Rob Reiss opening a door, Bryan Lefley being the first NHL player I ever played with and all these Winnipeg guys in Germany that I ended up training with in the summer."
‘WHAT I’ve enjoyed most playing over here is the arenas are great and the atmosphere is amazing," explained Butenschon — whose head coach at Nuremberg is Winnipegger Jeff Tomlinson.
"They've got the European soccer mentality where everybody is singing songs, and it gets louder than in some NHL barns. The standing-room sections are full.
"It's a lot of fun. It's great hockey, I think, somewhere between the AHL and NHL in terms of calibre."
And that's why Butenschon is trying to squeeze out another season in Germany.
"Dusseldorf was an amazing place to play hockey," said Krueger. "We averaged 10,000 people every single night at that time. And so for me, coming out of Steinbach and playing for the Assiniboine Park Monarchs to be suddenly playing in front of 10,000 people every time... I felt so professional and discovered a love for the game. I came that first year thinking I'd play one season and stayed until 2010. It was just too good to leave.
"You know, the NHL remains the dream for everybody. What the German league has become is a mature version of the American Hockey League. It's where players can add another 10 years to their career and earn over six figures and have a good family life.
"I had a blast over there."
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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J16
Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 7:55 AM CDT: adds missing text, adds fact box
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