TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs are using their prospect camp as more than just a chance to educate and evaluate future members of the organization.
The camp is also doubling as a foreign exchange program with Germans Matthias Plachta and Florian Kettemer among the 42 players participating this week. They're the beneficiaries of an innovative agreement the Maple Leafs have established with the Mannheim Eagles that sees the teams send players and coaches back and forth during the off-season.
It's certainly a hit among the participants.
"My team manager gave me a call and said 'Would you like to go to the Leafs for prospect camp?' I couldn't believe it," Plachta said Wednesday. "I was excited about it and now I'm here I'm even more excited. It's a pleasure."
Mannheim will return the favour in August by hosting two members of the Toronto Marlies, plus assistant coach Derek King and pro scout Rob Cowie, during its training camp.
This is the third summer the teams have done the exchange. Marlies players Christian Hanson and Darryl Boyce travelled to Germany in 2009 while Luca Caputi and Simon Gysbers went a year ago.
Mannheim coach Harold Kreis and assistant Mike Schmidt each made the trip to Toronto this year and have made a point of exchanging information and ideas with the Marlies staff.
"Really I'm just trying to be a sponge," said Schmidt, a Toronto native who has spent three decades playing and coaching in Germany. "You're sitting with the coaches and listening to what they're saying, you have conversations. I think sometimes it's just good to hear other coaches and see how they feel or view things.
"Sometimes it just kind of solidifies what your thoughts are."
The program has yielded some tangible benefits as well. When Mannheim was looking to add an import defenceman this summer, Eakins suggested former Marlies player Jamie Sifers and the Eagles ended up signing him to a deal.
"I think it's going to come the other way at some point too," said Eakins.
The Marlies coach is a big advocate of the exchange program. During his playing days, Eakins would often train with teams abroad prior to the start of training camp and also spent time with Tampere in Finland when he was an assistant coach with the Leafs.
The organization is still in the process of deciding which two players will travel to Mannheim next month.
"To me, it's all about taking in as much as you can," said Eakins. "What a great opportunity for these players. We've got guys who have never even been to Europe. They go over, it's a good trip and it's really beneficial for them hockey-wise."
Getting a small taste of life in the NHL is just as valuable for the Germans.
Kettemer is a 25-year-old defenceman—the oldest player participating in Leafs prospects camp—who has spent the last two seasons playing in the top German league. He can't get over how much faster and more physical the game is on the smaller North American ice surface, but still dreams of one day playing in the NHL.
"Yeah, why not?" said Kettemer. "That's why I'm here. Everybody's got the same chance so you should use it."
While the agreement between the Leafs and their German counterparts remains fairly informal, the exchange program seems to have a bright future.
Everyone involved speaks enthusiastically about its benefits.
"We're sitting around talking hockey and training techniques and how they handle their players and the different systems on the bigger ice versus the smaller ice," said Eakins. "When you're able to sit around and talk like that, you always give something but you always get something back.
"So far it's been a real solid relationship."
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