Despite living in British Columbia, Gunther Alzner “brainwashed” his son, Karl, into liking the Toronto Maple Leafs, who he first started watching when they last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. Karl idolized the Leafs’ high-scoring captain, Doug Gilmour, but it was another NHL player that ultimately convinced Gunther that his teenage son was something special.
“I can’t tell you the year, but I think [Karl] was in Bantam,” Gunther, a warehouse manager at power tool distributor Makita Canada, said. “I actually had been in Phoenix on business and when I got back, Ray Ferraro joined the club he was playing at. I didn’t know Ray at all, but I was standing beside him and he started talking about Karl. He said, ‘Look at that kid. That kid’s gonna go somewhere.’ I think from that point there – you have that in the back of your mind – I thought, ‘Okay, well, this guy is an ex-player, so maybe he sees something in him that’s going to help him reach his goal.’”
Karl has since reached that goal, becoming a top-pairing defenseman for the Washington Capitals, but as is the case for most hockey players, Karl’s journey began because of the sacrifice and dedication of his parents.
While hockey parents spend most of their time driving their children to and from practices and games, Gunther was even more involved in his son’s development as one of Karl’s assistant coaches from Novice (ages 7-8) to Bantam (ages 13-14) as well as his teams’ trainer. Gunther wanted Karl to succeed, but wanted him to do it on his own.
“He was great,” Karl said. “He always wanted to stay behind the scenes. He always told the coaches, ‘Don’t treat my son any different because I’m one of the assistant coaches. Yell at him if he needs to be yelled at.’ That was just his style, which to me, is a really good way. I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘He got where he is because he got special treatment.’ He was one of those guys that just made sure you worked hard.”
Gunther always stoked Karl’s inner fire as the two found ways to compete, playing everything from hockey to Nintendo. Karl recently introduced his father to golf, but it is the simple game of Tag that has been a staple in the Alzner household. While Tag may be nothing more than a playground game, Gunther and Karl take it very seriously.
“Even now, if I’m leaving the house, I quickly tag him and run out of the house,” Karl said. “I remember one time, he actually tore his calf muscle. Just as we got out of the car, we were about to walk in the grocery store and I tagged him and ran. He took off and it just popped. It was pretty funny, though, actually. It was the last time he hurt himself, but not the last time we played Tag.”
That innate thirst for competition served Karl well as he spent four successful seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen (which was founded by and named after one of Karl’s non-hockey heroes, professional wrestler and Calgary native Bret “The Hitman” Hart), most notably his final season in 2007-08 after being drafted fifth overall by Washington in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. That season, Karl earned both the WHL Player and Defenseman of the Year awards as well as the Canadian Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Year award (which includes the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) while serving as Calgary’s captain. He later served as the captain of Canada’s gold medal-winning 2008 World Junior Championships team.
Those winning ways continued during Karl’s first professional season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears in 2008-09 as they won the first of two consecutive Calder Cup championships. Even after winning international and professional championships and being drafted in the first round, Karl’s father still gave and continues to give him the same advice that he did when Karl was just starting to play hockey.
“It was always the same thing before every ice time, every game: ‘Work hard and have fun,'” Karl said. “He still does it every time we talk on the phone. I’ve got probably 1,000, 1,050 of those that he has sent to me.”
Now Karl has another chance to give back to his father during the Caps’ fifth-annual “Mentors’ Trip,” which began Saturday in New York as the players’ dads, significant others and other family members will watch the Caps face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden Sunday.
“I get to drive him to the rink now and he just gets to sit back,” Karl said. “Instead of having to be on the ice coaching or anything like that, he just enjoys himself, has fun. Instead of him taking me to hockey, I take him to the golf course, just pay him back in a bunch of different ways.”
Karl made his NHL debut on November 26, 2008, but Gunther got his first chance to see his son play in the NHL about two weeks later. Less than two minutes into the second period , Alzner corralled a loose puck and fired a left-handed wrist shot (both Gunther and Karl are right-handed, but Gunther, who shot left, taught Karl to do the same so he could save on sticks) that beat the goaltender for his first career goal. That goal came against Gunther’s beloved Maple Leafs.
At any other moment, Gunther might have been upset that Toronto allowed a goal (though if he was, he would not have had to watch it again; he accidentally recorded over the game on his DVR), but his allegiances now lie with the team that gave his son a chance to live his dream.
“They’ve been really, really good to all of us,” Gunther said of the Caps. “The fans here are unbelievable. They’re just fantastic.”
“It’s really exciting,” he continued. “You want to watch your kid. I basically have lived to watch him play.”
Alzner’s mother, Karin, will soon share her side of the story in the second installment of “Building Of A Capital,” the in-game miniseries which is set to premiere later this season at Verizon Center.