The first day of his first training camp 16-year old Stefan Ulmer made an impression with the Spokane Chiefs.
Scrutiny was expected, Ulmer came to Spokane from Austria.
“The first time I saw him at camp he was playing ping pong – and he still had the European mullet cut,” captain Jared Cowen said of their first meeting as rookies in 2007. “He was just a regular kid.”
On ice, where the glare of the spotlight is harsh as Europeans still deal with the old perception of being skilled but soft as defensemen, Ulmer couldn’t afford to live down to the stereotype.
“Right from Day One he was never afraid to take a hit,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter, then an assistant, said. “We saw it right off the bat. His very first training camp, I remember like it was yesterday. He always put himself at risk to take a hit and make a play. Sure enough, the first day he gets hit in the teeth.”
That’s when Ulmer, minus seven teeth, found out what he had gotten into, although he was sitting in the dentist’s chair listening to coach Bill Peters.
“They told me I would need more (dental) work in sixth months,” Ulmer recalled. “Coach said that was right after the Memorial Cup, so we’ll win the Memorial Cup and then I could come back to the dentist.
“I actually laughed but he seemed pretty serious. In the end that’s pretty much what I did. The coach believed in us from Day One.”
Not that that memorable Memorial Cup season was as simple as a ping pong game for Ulmer – but it wasn’t as bad as being in a dentist’s chair every day.
“Definitely the smaller ice and playing the body,” he said of the toughest adjustments. “The systems are different. The positioning on the big ice and then you come to the small ice and you stand totally wrong.”
Ulmer played in 37 regular-season games, picking up three goals, 10 assists and 20 penalty minutes.
“I got frustrated with myself because I can’t play my style I wanted to,” he said. “I had to make myself to the North American style but I tried to keep as much European style as I could.
“The coaches told me I was a good player, I need to adjust, I need time. I was 16-years old, here by myself, didn’t know much English … when you come over, you don’t play very much, you get frustrated. All you can do is battle and battle in practice. In the end I got it. It took me a whole year.”
Ulmer played in every game of the playoff run and became the first Austrian to be part of a Memorial Cup champion, a fact that he said was prominently reported at home.
Ulmer said he still tries to keep the European influence in his game.
“I think I skate a lot with the puck, stickhandle with the puck, not always look for the easiest pass,” he said. “I like to make a pretty play, mostly. It works out sometimes well, sometimes not. I’m still adjusting, still trying to find the perfect way.”
Spokane general manager Tim Speltz said import players are drafted for those skills.
“We think a European player has to end up in the top six forwards or top four D-men,” he said. “We don’t need gritty wingers or stay-at-home defensemen. We can find those in Canada. We’re looking for upside skill.”
Ulmer certainly fits the bill.
“I think he can be a dynamic offensive player, he borders on being a pro,” Speltz said. “He had a lot to learn and he has learned a lot. He’s very competitive. He has really rounded out his game. Now if he can bring that ‘A’ game every night, he has a chance to be a pro in North America.”
Sauter said he would like to see Ulmer be more offensive.
“If we can get him shooting the puck more that would benefit the team greatly,” he said. “The ability is there, he has an excellent shot, he just sometimes doesn’t use it as much as I’d like.”
So far this he has four goals and 13 assists in 24 games. Last year he had 10 goals and 43 points in 75 games, counting playoffs.
And he has made an impact on an international stage.
Ulmer played hockey because he wanted to be like his brother, who is playing professionally in Austria. They played together on the national U-20 team that won a silver medal in the B pool of the world championships in Germany a couple of years ago and last year was named the best defenseman at the tournament as he led all scorers with five goals and 11 points as Austria won the gold medal. Austria and Ulmer step up to the A pool for the tournament next month in Saskatoon.
“His offensive skills have always been there,” veteran defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “He proved that his first year. Since then he’s gradually improved in the D-zone. Now he’s one of the most reliable guys we have back there with his speed and his smarts. He’s always put out there in pressure situations.”
Pressure comes from leaving home at 16, though that never bothered Ulmer.
“It was not a hard decision,” he said. “I always wanted to leave my home town, leave my family, and see the world. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I think I made the right decision.”
He has found the perfect situation, living with a family with three young children. Ulmer enjoys the family games, going to church, visiting grandparents.
“I’m used to that from my family back home,” he said. “I think that’s the perfect family I have here. I love Spokane, it’s grown on my heart. It’s a beautiful city; I hear it’s real beautiful in the summer.”
Koper scores for WHL
Chiefs forward Levko Koper broke a scoreless tie Wednesday with a third-preiod goal as Team WHL defeated Russia 2-1 in game five of the 2009 Subway Super Series in Victoria, British Columbia. Team WHL won on a late goal by the Medicine Hat Tigers’ Wacey Hamilton.
The WHL team won again 4-2 on Thursday night in the final game of the series.