by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Kaufbeuren, Germany, is a beautiful, historic town, the type of place you should not be in a rush to leave.
That’s where first-year Milwaukee Admirals defenseman Alexander Sulzer is from. Sure, he inched a few hours away as his younger years passed, playing for Elite teams in Hamburg and Dusseldorf. But the safety net of his hometown — with its medieval towers and walls, burgher houses, busy streets and cozy squares — was always within nostalgic reach.
“Everybody has single houses, with gardens,” Sulzer said. “It’s close to the Alps. If it’s good weather, you can see them.”
Many of Sulzer’s buddies skied down those mountains. Not him. He was always scared of zipping down some of the most dangerous courses in the world face-first, so he took up another hobby — hockey. That sport has its perils, but falling off a cliff is not one of them.
He became great at hockey, using it to elevate himself to the highest level of that sport in his country. Then he had no choice but to let it push him off a metaphorical ledge, a leap of faith that took him from his postcard backyard to North America.
Sulzer is a third-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 2003 who finally sensed it was time to try the pro game here.
“It is best, for hockey,” he said. “You have to leave town.”
The early returns suggest that the journey to the AHL is leading somewhere. Sulzer, 23, has been a versatile, steadying addition to an Admirals defense that ranks fourth in the AHL with an average of 2.54 goals allowed per game.
“He’s a real big part of the reason we have had a decent start defensively. He’s contributed in all areas for us,” said Admirals coach Lane Lambert. “He’s knocking on the door (of the NHL).”
Not so long ago, Sulzer was uncertain when he should start approaching that portal.
He played four seasons in the German Elite League after the Predators took him, letting his talent ripen at just the right pace.
“I was thinking about it for two years,” he said. “I was pretty close to signing last year, but I decided to play one more year in Germany.”
Sulzer isn’t quite sure what single signal made him decide to stamp his passport to Milwaukee. Maybe it was a culmination of honors extending back several years.
He played for Germany at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games and at the 2005 World Championships. He was named the outstanding defenseman at the D1-Group A World Championships in 2004, leading all defensemen and tying for sixth overall in scoring. He suited up for his country at the 2003 World Juniors.
“I wanted to wait and feel ready to come over. That took me until now,” he said. “If you establish yourself there and get a spot there, you can come over here. I wasn’t nervous. I was excited about seeing something new.”
As it turns out, there was no reason for anxiety. Sulzer’s adjustment so far has been as smooth as a waxed pair of skis going down one of those flat sides of the Alps.
At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he’s big enough to rudely introduce himself to his new competition. With two goals and five assists, he can also be a factor in the transition game and on the power play.
“I think you get better every day. It’s pretty close to what I expected,” he said. “It’s just a little more physical than in Germany. It took me like three to four weeks, then I was good. We have a good mix on our defense. That’s what’s important. We have six or seven defensemen who can play every shift. I think I’m more the playmaker than physical. But I tried to change my game to be more physical.”
Lambert was intrigued by the way Sulzer sharpens the nuances of his game, such as body positioning, decision-making and the way he uses his stick. Lambert attributes that to Sulzer’s extra seasoning in Germany.
“His age, maturity have put him ahead of the game. He doesn’t panic,” Lambert said. “You can tell he’s been taught well. He does little things very well. He’s a reliable guy in all situations. He’s a very confident, mature guy that is very focused. He knows where he’s going and he knows how to get there.”
And Sulzer knows how to best use his time while waiting. When asked if he has the typical free time interests of most players, like playing video games or watching a lot of television, he laughed.
No, he and his wife, Julia, prefer some more educational adventures, like going to museums and sightseeing.
“It’s always nice to see new places, to see as much as you can,” he said. “It’s a good chance in hockey to see much of the world.”
His tour through Milwaukee, and perhaps Nashville, will last at least two years. That’s how long Sulzer signed for with the Predators. He plans on giving himself every minute of that stretch to evaluate whether he’s got the game that will translate to a longer stay in the NHL, or whether he should play again in his homeland.
“I’m not putting pressure on me. I knew before that (starting in the AHL) was how it was going to be,” he said. “If I’m not making it in two years, maybe there’s another team that wants me.”
Besides, Sulzer knows the beauty and appeal of Kaufbeuren is always there, awaiting his return. He’d rather walk its streets as one of the handful of Germans to ever make it in the NHL.
“I’m really proud that I can be here and get a chance to play in the NHL,” he said. “It’d be a good feeling. People know me (at home), but it would be more if I was in the NHL.”