Former Niagara Ice Dog Alex Friesen is in the thick of his third season playing professional hockey in Germany. The centre has notched six goals and nine assists in 17 games this year for the Fischtown Pinguins, who play out of the port city of Bremerhaven.
The 30-year-old has missed more than a dozen games with a groin tear in a season already truncated by the pandemic. The Pinguins sit comfortably in second place in the Northern Division of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the top-tier German professional hockey league. With 10 games left to play, they are almost certainly assured of a spot in the shortened playoffs, which begin after April 18.
The son of Helmut and Lucy Friesen of Virgil has been playing professionally since his five years with the IceDogs came to an end in 2012. Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the sixth round in 2010, his second year of eligibility, Friesen spent five years playing in the American Hockey League, three with the Utica Comets. He crossed the Atlantic for a spot with Leksands Idrottsförening in the top-tier Swedish Hockey League in 2017-2018, then moved to Bremerhaven the following season.
Friesen is enjoying the competition level in the league. “At the last Olympics, Germany came in second,” he says. “The German talent pool has grown over the last 15 years. Each team can have nine import players. We have players from Canada, the USA, all over Europe.”
He continues, “Tim Stützle played in our league. He was drafted third overall last year. He played for (Adler) Mannheim last year, and obviously he’s doing pretty well with Ottawa. The league has a lot of good young and older German players, and players from around the world.”
Reflecting on his days in the AHL, Friesen admits the goal was always to crack the roster of an NHL team. But he kept his options open in the back of his mind.
“The best way to get a spot in the NHL is to play in the American Hockey League,” says Friesen. “But it was always a thought that, later in the career, if things didn’t work out that it could be a possibility to play over in Europe.”
Friesen did get the call from the Canucks, making his NHL debut at home on February 15, 2016 against the Minnesota Wild. It would be the only game he played in the league.
“That was one of the highlights of my career,” he enthuses. “My parents, my girlfriend (now wife, Allie), my aunt, my sister, a bunch of people all came out to watch the game. It was a great experience. Obviously it would have been nice to stick around and play a little more, but it was awesome.”
He remembers fondly his three seasons in Utica, only a few hours away in New York state. In 2014-15 he helped the Comets reach the Calder Cup Final, where they fell in five games to the Manchester Monarchs.
But his days with the IceDogs, whose first year in Niagara coincided with Friesen’s first season with them, remain some of his favourite times. He and fellow NOTL native Johnson Andrews were two of the most popular players amongst fans.
“It was definitely a fun five years,” Friesen reflects. “Getting drafted by them, having it be my hometown team, was a huge factor. In terms of community outreach, every week we were out at some school appearance or community event.”
In 292 regular season OHL games, Friesen notched 91 goals and 244 points. He added another 51 points, including 14 goals, in 61 playoff games. In Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa, Friesen was the hometown hero, scoring the game winner in the second period, sending the Niagara IceDogs to their first ever appearance in the OHL Championship Series.
As well, Friesen received the 2008 Ivan Tennant Award, given to the OHL’s top academic high school student. He was also named a third team all-star during his final OHL season, after recording 71 points (26 goals and 45 assists) in 62 games.
“I’m still in touch with some of the guys,” he says. “Johnson and I have been friends since we were five years old. Guys like (Andrew) Aggozino, (Steven) Shipley, (Mike) Schwindt, we get together at least once a summer for a round of golf.”
Last summer, Friesen and Allie were back home helping out at his grandparents’ business, Pillitteri Estates Winery. They were both enlisted by his brother-in-law, Michael Zappitelli, to support him with his BarrelHead Pizza operation. With the pandemic still a factor in Germany, they had an extended time at home, as their return to Europe was delayed until September.
“We had exhibition games and practices in November,” Friesen recalls, “but the season didn’t start until December. There are 14 teams, in two divisions, North and South. For the first 24 games all we did was play the northern teams, so we didn’t have to stay over in hotels. Now we’re playing the southern teams, playing one game away, then one game at home.”
Life is different for the couple this year with COVID-19 of course. When they arrived in November they were still able to get out to restaurants and enjoy much of what Bremerhaven has to offer. But with cases spiking in December, lockdowns became a reality, as traditions such as the popular Christkindlmarkts were cancelled.
Normally the couple takes advantage of short breaks in the hockey season to travel through Europe. That hasn’t been possible this past year, but they are still enjoying their time in Germany.
“We live close to other families, guys from the team,” he says. “We’ve been able to socialize within the parameters of what is allowed with our teammates. It’s nice, because we have a kind of network around us.”
Like in Canada, Friesen says the frustration in Germany of late has been with how slowly the vaccines have been administered across the country. Though not in a complete lockdown as of press time, Friesen says that only grocery stores are currently allowed to open.
He worries about the ability of the DEL-2 teams to continue beyond this season without fans in the stands.
“I know next year, this league needs to have fans in some capacity to play,” Friesen laments. “The hope is that things go smoothly with the vaccine so that come September we can have some fans in the arenas. This year, all contracts were reworked. For next year some teams are now putting in clauses where, if there’s 50 per cent or 25 per cent fans, your salary is going to reflect that.”
Assuming the league can weather the pandemic storm, and he can stay healthy, Friesen plans to play a few more years in Germany before considering a career beyond professional hockey. Options for the future include starting a hockey school back here in Canada, and immersing himself more fully in the family’s wine business.
You can be sure if he runs that hockey school out of Virgil’s Centennial Sports Park, his popularity from his IceDogs days and his professional experience will make it a popular choice.