It’s shaping up to be a fascinating season for Winnipeg Jets prospect Leon Gawanke, which could include skating on arguably hockey’s biggest stage.

It’s shaping up to be a fascinating season for Winnipeg Jets prospect Leon Gawanke, which could include skating on arguably hockey’s biggest stage.

Gawanke, a German-born defenceman selected by Winnipeg in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, will be working hard this season to prove his worth. He’s in the final year of his entry-level deal and will likely spend the 2021-22 campaign trying to carve out a bigger role with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. He’s also looking to turn some heads at the international level.

Gawanke, 22, is projected to crack Germany’s 2022 Olympic roster ahead of the February Winter Games in Beijing. He hasn’t been officially selected just yet, but it seems like only a matter of time before he does.

"It’s going to be one of the biggest years of my career. It’s my last year of contract, obviously, that’s a big thing, too. I want to earn another one," Gawanke said following Day 2 of Jets minicamp. "Olympics, I’m not on the team yet. I hope I’m going to make it. It’s going to be a special event. Just talking to all these guys that already went four years ago and won silver there, it’s been one of their greatest memories for life. If I can achieve that, it would be really nice."

The chance to play before a worldwide audience at the Olympics, and the success by Germany in 2018, when they claimed silver after losing to Russia in the gold medal game (NHL players were not permitted to play in the tournament), brought on a broader conversation about the growth of hockey in Germany. Gawanke said the game has grown immensely over the years, even since he was a kid.

"I think honestly the biggest thing is that there are more people coming over (to North America) from Europe. You can see it in the junior leagues," he said. "When I was in the junior league, I was the only German in my league. Now there are plenty of guys in the CHL. Even getting drafted to the NHL, there are more and more. We had two first rounders two years ago. It’s getting better and better. The development in North America is a little better than in Germany. I hope it keeps growing and growing. It’s good for us."

If Gawanke is able to crack the German roster, it will be the first time he’ll get the chance to play with Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl was born in Cologne, Germany, and played his minor hockey in the country before he was selected by the Prince Albert Raiders second overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft. Since then, Draisaitl has blossomed into one of the NHL’s top players, with the Edmonton Oilers.

In 2020, he became the first German player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL, the Hart Memorial Trophy as the regular-season MVP and the Ted Lindsey Award, which recognizes is the NHL’s most outstanding player as voted by the league’s Players’ Association.

"He’s been one of the best players in the world for several years now," Gawanke said. "I think German hockey overall is getting bigger and bigger over there. The Olympics were a big thing. People were watching it. Even people who didn’t have hockey knowledge or anything, reached out to me saying ‘wow. Ice hockey is a cool sport.’ I feel like it’s getting bigger and bigger. There are more players over here in the NHL compared to other years. It’s going in the right direction."

Gawanke was more than happy to chat about the growth of hockey back home, but his focus remains on his season in Winnipeg. To better prepare for this year, he hired a personal trainer while working out in Berlin. For years, he had worked with a group of players but wanted a regimen tailored strictly to him.

He played 26 games for the Moose in 2021, registering a goal and six assists. In 2019-20, he had four goals and 22 assists in 48 games with the Moose, before COVID-19 ended the season early.

He feels more confident entering a third season, and with the work he put in over the off-season, he hopes to get off to a strong start for what’s shaping up to be an important year ahead.

"When you come in for your first year, you don’t really know what to expect — everything is new. Now I know coming in what to expect, even though I wasn’t here really for the camp (last year)," he said. "My mindset is just not being so shy in some situations. I feel way more comfortable now and obviously I want to show that on the ice too."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.