Of the 110 Europeans playing Division I hockey in the NCAA, only six are from the soccer-mad nation of Germany, and three of those six happen to be playing for Minnesota State.
They are not foreign exchange kids riding the bench — Parker Tuomie (Bremerhaven), Marc Michaelis (Mannheim) and Julian Napravnik (Hessen) are all impact players for Mike Hastings’ Mavericks. Michaelis and Tuomie are his top two scorers, and Michaelis is the first European in memory to wear a captain’s “C” for an NCAA hockey team.
How coach Hastings got this Deutsch troika from the fatherland to the State of Hockey is a combination of serendipity and opportunism.
Opening the German Pipeline
It turns out that Tuomie’s dad Tray was a U.S.-born college player before going to Germany, where he’s been playing and coaching since 1991. Tray Tuomie first taste of NCAA hockey was at St. Cloud State, alongside a fellow Minnesotan: Mike Hastings.
“We both played for Herb Brooks our freshman year,” said Hastings. Tuomie ended up transferring to Wisconsin a year later, but the one-time classmates crossed paths a generation later. Tray’s son Parker was a fixture on Germany’s national junior teams, and he returned to his father’s homeland to facilitate his own NCAA dream. Parker’s first U.S. junior stop was with the Wenatchee Wild of the NAHL. Wild coach Bliss Littler is from Hastings’ hockey universe, and the Minnesota State coach quickly sized up his former teammate’s son.
“We just started a little communication,” said Hastings, whose history with Parker’s father put young Tuomie in his comfort zone. “He came in for a visit, stayed in contact and we offered him a scholarship.”
“The entire program was set up really nicely for me,” recalled Tuomie, now a junior at Minnesota State. “I thought it was a great fit.” After a season in Wenatchee, Parker finished his junior career for Sioux Falls of the USHL. He had an idea that ended up helping three parties.
“Marc [Michaelis] and I played junior hockey together over in Germany. We always had good chemistry, and we wanted to play college hockey together. So right when I committed, I suggested Marc, and I kind of got the ball rolling.”
“I didn’t know much about college hockey,” said Michaelis, “but as soon as I came to the U.S., [Minnesota State] Mankato reached out to me.
“We went and watched him,” Hastings said, “and within probably seven to eight days he was committed to us.” The Mavs offensive profile was immediately upgraded.
As soon as the German tandem strapped on the purple and gold of Minnesota State in the fall of 2016, the pair became a scoring force for Hastings, producing nearly two points per game over three seasons. The root of their success is just chemistry 101. “It’s always been there,” said Michaelis about Tuomie. “We started playing together when I was 15 years old. He does the things I’m missing, shooting and stuff. We just fit each other’s game pretty well.”
The recruiting of current freshman Napravnik, a reliable forward with 11 points his first 24 games, is natural residue from Hastings’ trust in his Deutsch double. “We built a relationship with those two, and then we asked about Julian,” said Hastings, who targeted Napravnik as soon as he arrived in the USHL two years ago. “They knew him, they liked him. It’s through relationships that got this started.”
College Hockey’s Only European Captain
The German experiment is blooming in profound ways in Mankato, not only with their prolific scoring, but with team leadership as well. Michaelis is the first NCAA European to wear a letter on his jersey since Swede Gustav Nyquist wore an “A” for Tim Whitehead’s Maine Black Bears in 2010-11. Michaelis is one of three players wearing a “C” for Hastings, something that the German junior earned outright. “He was somebody the guys decided they wanted to be their leader,” said Hastings. “He handles himself very well on the rink or off the rink, great leadership qualities.”
“In juniors I’ve never seen a foreign kid, a teammate, captain,” said Michaelis. “It means a lot to me, obviously. You have to speak the language to understand the guys, it comes along. I’ve been in the United States long enough to understand the lifestyle and the culture.”
Hastings marvels at how his German players manage the challenge of books and pucks.
“You want to have guys that balance the academic piece, the social piece and the athletic side,” said Hastings. “It’s not an easy path for Europeans to come over and be productive in the college game, but they’ve all done a very good job of that.”
Having two countrymen fully established in Mankato has eased Napravnik’s homesickness, but he still misses German culture, the food in particular. “Yes, I miss my favorite food, schnitzel,” said the freshman in halting English. He tries to immerse himself in his new country’s language, even with his fellow Deutschlanders. “Most of the time we try and speak English. Just when we are by ourselves we speak a little German.”
Germans in the State of Hockey
The three hockey lifers love playing in Minnesota, and are fully aware of the state’s moniker. “It’s called the State of Hockey,” said Tuomie, the most outgoing of the three Germans. “It’s great. People come to the arena every day and they know how the game is supposed to be played.”
“When you’re in a restaurant, there’s hockey on everywhere,” said Napravnik. As hockey players from a country where soccer is king, playing hockey in Minnesota finally puts them in the spotlight. “It’s great playing in a state like this, people know who we are,” said Tuomie. “We get a lot of attention, and it’s something we can thrive on.”
Germany’s Own Miracle on Ice
Tuomie and Michaelis have both been fixtures on German national teams, and when their countrymen made their own miraculous run to an Olympic silver medal last year, beating Canada along the way, it trumped even their own playing success. The night before the 2018 gold medal game from PyeongChang, Michaelis scored a shorthanded goal to salvage a tie with in-state rival Bemidji State. Although he did not recall his own feat, he will never forget watching the gold medal game at a Mankato restaurant after the game
“We watched the last two periods,” said Michaelis, who was sweating out Germany’s bid for gold, when they led Russia late in regulation. “I didn’t want to measure the heart rate going through that game, it was great to watch. Unfortunately, we came up short.”
“It wasn’t as tough for us as it was for them,” said Tuomie, who knew several players on Germany’s crestfallen Olympic squad. “But we were crushed, too. We really wanted that gold medal. In hindsight, it was a great tournament and a proud moment.”
The Deutsch Mission
Tuomie has nearly recovered from his “lower body” injury, but on Saturday stated that he is willing to break down doors to get the Mavericks some of their own glory. The year Team USA won its Lake Placid Miracle, 1980, Minnesota State won its only NCAA championship, claiming the Division II title as Mankato State. These three German nationals are willing to make any sacrifice necessary to add to that lonely banner in the Mankato Verizon Center.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.