By Rich Hammond
If Marco Sturm wanted to play the NHL's game, he had to speak its language.
Both literally and figuratively.
As the 1996 NHL Draft approached, Sturm realized his limitations. A native of Germany, he spoke little English and also realized that his status as a 175-pound European player might reflect negatively on some NHL types who viewed overseas players as soft.
So, Sturm went to work. He learned English with the help of the wife of an assistant coach from his pro team in Germany. He took boxing lessons in order to build up his body.
Even with little depth to his hockey-playing resume as a teenager, Sturm became the first German-born player to be drafted in the first round when the San Jose Sharks took him at No. 21 in 1996. Sturm hasn't disappointed. Now in his 13th NHL season, Sturm is known as one of the league's fastest skaters and a responsible, hard worker.
Sturm has 234 points and 232 assists in 855 career NHL games.
``At the time, I was just surprised that I went in the first round,'' Sturm said recently. ``They always told me second or third round. I think it took me a while to actually realize all that. It should be something that I'm proud for.
``There aren't too many Germans who make it, but I'm glad for how my career here. I'm proud of getting to 850 games. I definitely didn't think about that at the start of my career.''
The Kings hope he can add a little spark to their attack this season. Acquired on Dec. 11 from the Boston Bruins for ``future considerations,'' Sturm is on the verge of his second comeback from knee surgery in the past three seasons, and is eager to prove himself.
Sturm tore up his knee during a May 1 playoff game and has not appeared in an NHL game this season, but Kings coach Terry Murray tentatively has Sturm slotted in the Kings' first-line left-wing role, a testament to the esteem in which Sturm is held.
Sturm will need to prove that the knee is strong, that he hasn't lost a step on the ice, at age 32 and after two major knee surgeries, but proving himself is nothing new to Sturm.
Germany is, to put it politely, not exactly a hotbed for international hockey.
Before Sturm arrived, only a handful of German born and raised players had made an NHL impact.
Germany -- or, at least, West Germany until the 1990 reunification -- has had its own professional hockey league since 1957, but Germany has won only two medals in Olympic men's hockey, in 1936 (when it was a four-team tournament) and in 1976.
Even when Sturm was growing up, in the late 80s and early 90s, and developing his hockey skills, he didn't have much to go on, in terms of making the leap to the NHL.
Before Sturm was drafted in 1996, only eight German-born players had ever appeared in the NHL, and most of those spent their young, formative years playing in Canada.
Walt Tkaczuk was the first, and perhaps most successful, German-born player. He was born in Germany but raised in Ontario. Tkaczuk joined the NHL in the 1967-68 season and had 678 points in 945 career games with the New York Rangers.
Randy Gilhen was the Kings' only German-born player until they acquired Sturm.
He, too, was a Canadian kid -- he grew up in Winnipeg -- and played half a season for the Kings in 1991-92 before being traded to the New York Rangers.
Uli Hiemer is believed to be the first player born and raised in Germany to make the NHL. Drafted in the third round by the then-Colorado Rockies in 1981, the defenseman joined the NHL in 1984-85 and played 143 games.
German forwards were even more rare. Stefan Ustorf was drafted in the third round by Washington in 1992 but appeared in only 54 games over two seasons.
So those were the odds that a young Sturm faced in the mid-90s, circumstances that limited Sturm's ability to get noticed in North American and be taken seriously.
He did what he could, though. Sturm played in the Under-18 European Junior Championships in 1993 (at age 15), 1994 and 1995 -- with 11 points in five games in the 1995 tournament -- and also played in the much more well-known Under-20 World Junior Championships in 1995 and 1996.
Sturm didn't record a point in seven games in the 1995 tournament, but in 1996 he had four goals and six assists in four games for a German team that went 0-3-1.
Sturm finished third in scoring in the entire tournament, with only two points fewer than the tournament leader, a youngster from Edmonton named Jarome Iginla.
``I think that helped,'' Sturm said. ``I was only 15 or something, so I played with a lot of older guys, and it was hard but at least I got my name out there and I think that helped a little bit.''
It was also during that time that Sturm made his professional hockey debut, joining EV Landshut of the pro league in Germany. As a teenager, playing against older Germany players and many former NHL Canadians and Americans, Sturm totaled
12 goals and 20 assists in 47 games.
Growing up, Sturm had few German role models, in terms of the NHL, but he found some when he started playing professionally.
``No German players, but at (age) 16, I played my first two years pro in Germany, in the elite league,'' Sturm said. ``I played with guys like Mike Bullard. He was around for a long time in the NHL, and some other guys too.
``Those were kind of my idols. They had been around and they played in the NHL for a long time, so I think those were kind of the guys I looked up to.''
Around that time, Sturm also caught the eye of a young NHL GM named Dean Lombardi.
Lombardi was then the GM of the San Jose Sharks, and the 1996 NHL Draft would be his first, calling the shots, and Lombardi veered far from tradition. The Sharks had the No. 2 overall pick, and Lombardi took Andrei Zyuzin out of the then-Russian Super League. Zyuzin eventually turned out to be a journeyman NHL defenseman.
The Sharks also had the 21st overall pick and used it on Sturm, making him the first German-born player ever selected in the first round of an NHL Draft. San Jose had its eye on Sturm, and held a couple interviews with him before the draft.
Those interviews went well because of Sturm's planning. In the months leading up to the draft, Sturm took English lessons, displaying his focus toward making the NHL.
``I could understand a little bit from school, but it's just totally different,'' Sturm said. ``At the draft, I think I had 12 meetings, and I just wanted to make sure I came a little bit prepared and not like I didn't understand anything.''
After one more season in the German league, Sturm came to San Jose as a 19-year-old winger in 1997 and had 10 goals in 74 games. Within four years, he was a 20-goal scorer and, when healthy, he has been a consistent 20-goal scorer for the past decade.
Sturm also opened the NHL door for some of his countrymen. Since 2001, German born-and-bred player such as Dennis Seidenberg, Christian Ehrhoff, Marcel Goc, Christoph Schubert, Thomas Greiss and Alexander Sulzer have found success in the NHL.
Ehrhoff and Goc became Sturm's teammates in San Jose, and Greiss was also drafted later by the Sharks.
``I think, especially in San Jose, it kind of got started and they drafted a lot of Germans after that,'' Sturm said. ``I was glad to see that. There are good players over there, but it's tough, because the national team is not really good.
``So it's kind of tough to stand out against Canada or the U.S. So it's tough, and you've got to be lucky. I think that's where I was too.''
Sturm has been known as one of the NHL's fastest skaters, making it sadly ironic that knee problems have slowed Sturm in recent seasons. He had major knee surgery in 2008 and then again this May, after severely injuring his knee in the playoffs.
After a summer and fall of recovery, Sturm found himself being asked to waive his no-trade clause because his team, the Bruins, was in a salary-cap crunch.
Lombardi, Sturm's former GM, showed interest, and Sturm agreed to join the Kings.
Sturm was scheduled to make his season -- and Kings -- debut on Tuesday night against Colorado, and the Kings believe he can add speed and a scoring punch to the lineup.
``I can feel it every day, getting more comfortable and stronger,'' Sturm said.
``I've got to be patient, I know that, with that injury.''