From The Archives: Lean’s A Mann Of Hockey
This From The Archives feature story about Lean Bergmann appeared in the December 2019/January-February 2020 edition of Sharks Magazine.
All journeys begin somewhere. Lean Bergmann’s journey to the National Hockey League just began in a very unlikely place, a part of the world that features far more sauerbraten and sweepers than saucer passes.
“I couldn’t tell you how I ended up playing hockey,” said Bergmann. “Because I actually lived in the most soccer-crazy area in Germany. In my opinion, it’s the best soccer-playing nation in the world. But somehow I ended up playing hockey.”
To be sure, multiple fine German hockey players have reached the NHL. But those players have generally been from the big cities – Leon Draisaitl from Cologne, Marco Sturm from the Munich suburbs, Christian Ehrhoff from the Dusseldorf suburbs, and so on.
The town of Hemer (population 34,000) is not like those places. It is out there in the industrial-cluster interior of West Germany. There, soccer does indeed rule over all.
But there is a hockey rink in Hemer. For this, you can credit a few dozen Canadian soldiers. In 1953, those soldiers were deployed to a nearby military base. They were homesick. So, they decided to build the area’s first indoor sheet of ice. The town embraced it. Six decades later in Hemer, along came little Lean Bergmann to be captivated by a sport that few folks in his neighborhood were playing.
He was three years old.
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Bergmann’s dad and mom took him to the rink that day just for fun. Neither of them played hockey. They didn’t count on Lean (pronounced “Lee-Ahn”) wanting to go back to the rink again. And again. And again. And that he wanted his own skates. And a stick. And a helmet. And as many faceoffs as possible.
“Hockey was always No. 1 with me,” Bergmann said. “Everything else was secondary.”
That’s the short version of how he ended up here in San Jose. The longer version is more complex, more trying, more challenging and more surprising.
For example? The longer version includes one cold winter when—at age 15–he was living all by himself in small Swedish apartment far from home. The longer version includes an even colder winter playing in an arena across the street from the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field. The longer version includes being snubbed in the NHL entry draft. Not to mention the brightest ugly yellow Hummer SUV in minor league hockey.
But we’ll get to all of that in a few paragraphs. Let’s talk first about now.
Bergmann is spending 2019-20 as sort of a swing man between the San Jose Barracuda, the American Hockey League team, and the big club. The forward began the season with the Sharks and accumulated an assist in eight games. He was then sent down to the Barracuda for 15 games and posted 11 points with five goals. In early December, he was recalled to the Sharks for more roster depth.
None of this was in the original plan.
All journeys have unforeseen twists. When the Sharks signed the 20-year-old Bergmann as a free agent last spring, they arranged for him to play in 2019-20 for the Mannheim Eagles of the German Ice Hockey League. This was calculated to be the best path for his progress and maturity.
Bergmann had other ideas. In June, he was invited to the Sharks’ development camp for their youngest players in San Jose. Off the ice, he sat down in with general manager Doug Wilson, assistant general manager Tim Burke and director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr., who recalls how determined Bergmann was in the meeting.
“Lean asked us, ‘What do I have to do to not go to Mannheim?’’’ said Wilson Jr. “We told him that he’d have to play well enough to make the Sharks roster, the NHL team.”
“Okay,” Bergmann responded flatly. “I’ll make the NHL team.”
Then he went out and did it – first at the development camp, then at the September preseason camp. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Bergmann showed he could play inside and hold his own well enough with grizzled older players, especially in the preseason games against other NHL teams.
“In every single game, he did something to make you notice him,” Wilson Jr. said.
The Sharks told Bergmann he could cancel the flight to Mannheim. They wanted him here in California.
“He made the team on his work ethic,” said Roy Sommer, the Sharks associate coach.
All journeys should feature interesting characters. When you ask people who know Lean Bergmann about his interesting qualities, they begin by telling you that he is a strong and stout character. He has a shot with sizzle. He respects veteran players but isn’t intimidated by them. He’s smart. He likes to play chess. He’d like to learn an Asian language.
Also, he has extremely big feet.
Bergmann’s shoe size is 13 – the same as it was at age 14 when he first left Germany to go play for a team in Sweden.
“When I came there, they all said I had boats for feet and that I could walk on water,” Bergmann said with a grin. “I probably had the biggest feet in the country in my age group.”
He just needed to grow into them.
Bergmann decided to leave home and sign up with the Under 16 Frolunda Hockey Club because he thought the competition in Germany wasn’t as robust and wouldn’t get him where he wanted to go – the hockey mecca of North America. This would eventually occur. But he had to pay his Swedish dues for two seasons — including that age 15 experience living solo in his own apartment, learning to cook and clean, rising before sunrise to jump on a 6:30 a.m. tram for morning practices.
It caused him to mature rapidly. Which means he didn’t blink when a family friend served as his agent and relayed an offer to travel across the Atlantic and join America’s top level of junior hockey, the United States Hockey League.
All journeys do not stop in South Dakota. Bergmann’s would. The Sioux Falls Stampede wanted Bergmann. Bergmann had never heard of Sioux Falls. But he was game. He had learned English in school, was eager to sample American culture. He stepped off the plane in South Dakota as an eager 16-year-old eager to show his stuff but a bit shy.
“He was really quiet at first,” said Justin Wells, a Stampede player who befriended Bergmann and later became his roommate. “Later, we joked that we wish he would have stayed like that . . . He’s definitely not afraid to speak his mind.”
Bergmann’s opinion, then and now, was that Sioux Falls was a pretty cool spot to play hockey, with enthusiastic townspeople supporting the team. He came to love Sioux Falls. He did not come to love his role on the team.
The Stampede coaching staff, gazing upon Bergmann’s size and strength and big shoes, decided that he should play a strongman role on checking lines. He was asked to dump and chase, bang hard into opponents, jump into the occasional scrap.
Bergmann wasn’t against that. He simply wanted to work on the other parts of his game, as well. He wanted to be a good all-around player. But he received little top power play time for the Stampeders, received slight opportunity to build or showcase creative shooting or skating skills. In 69 games over two seasons, he scored just 12 goals.
This time in Bergmann’s career is a sensitive subject. He prefers not to talk about it. Which is fine, because his friends will do it for him.
“Lean is a driven guy,” said Wells, who now plays college hockey at Bowling Green State University. “He was in a third- or fourth-line role. He thought he could do more. And now, he’s proving he can.”
He is. But back in 2018, he wasn’t given the chance. The frustration drove Bergmann to request a trade to another USHL team. He wound up with the Green Bay Gamblers, neighbors of the Packers, some of whom would take in a game now and then. Unfortunately, they saw the same Bergmann that Sioux Falls fans saw. The Gamblers also wanted him to be mostly a muscle man. In 56 games, he accumulated 25 points – and 132 penalty minutes.
Bergmann, approaching his 18th birthday, knew that those numbers were not going to put him on any NHL team’s draft board. So, he wasn’t totally crushed when every team ignored him. He was more disappointed when a hockey scholarship offer from Western Michigan University was sabotaged by a NCAA eligibility technicality. Bergmann was forced to contemplate staying on in Green Bay as an overaged junior or . . . or what?
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself,” Bergmann said.
All journeys need honesty. Bergmann’s led him back to Germany. More specifically, it led him back to his hometown and his old room in his old house, where he hadn’t lived for seven years. The new plan was to sign a pro contract with the Iserlohn Roosters, a German League team in an adjacent city.
The Roosters are not a traditionally dominant Deutsche Liga franchise. For Bergmann, that was perfekt.
“I wasn’t going to get much ice time on the big German teams,” Bergmann said. “So, I went to Iserlohn. I thought I would have the best chance to get ice time there. It was a little bit odd living at home. But it was a great year. I was coming to that league as a nobody, as a junior player who had never played pro before. I had to hit the reset button. I thought the only chance I had to make it to the NHL was maybe if I go home and play pro and have a big year.”
Bergmann performed so well as a Rooster – 20 goals and 29 points in 50 games – that he was selected for the German national team at the World Championship. He was the youngest Deutsche Liga player to ever reach the 20-goal plateau. The German League is stocked with older players, many from Canada or other countries, some with NHL experience.
“In that league, no 20-year-old scores 20 goals,” said Wilson Jr. of the Sharks.
Assistant general manager Joe Will flew to Germany and met up with the Sharks’ chief European scout, Shin Larsson. They liked what they saw.
From there, it was a matter of the Sharks out recruiting a few other NHL teams for Bergmann’s services. They didn’t realize he was sold on San Jose almost from the start.
“The Sharks are known for getting and developing non-drafted free agent players,” Bergmann explained. “They’re always in the top of the NHL which means they don’t have a lot of high draft choices. They need to land and train free agents. So, I thought I my chance would be the greatest here.”
He signed a three-year entry level deal and is embracing the opportunity. Bergmann was also pumped to take advantage of California weather in his vehicle of choice, the aforementioned bright yellow Hummer. He purchased it his second year in Sioux Falls.
“He loved riding it around town with hard rock on the sound system,” Wells recalled, chuckling at the memory. “You know, AC/DC or Bon Jovi, blaring. He just thought he had the best car there.”
In Sioux Falls, maybe. In Silicon Valley, Bergmann does not have the best car. But he does still have the most yellow car in the practice rink parking lot. He still has those large feet and large skates, too. The question is, where do those skates take him over the next few years?
All journeys can have mysteries. And every NHL prospect is one.
The Shark front office brain trust believes that Bergmann could eventually develop into a solid NHL power forward if he concentrates and makes progress. Timo Meier would be the ideal template. No guarantee, of course. But so far, Bergmann is concentrating. He is making progress. He is gradually losing his tendency to over-stickhandle. He is making better decisions about zone entries. Keep in mind, he just turned 21 in early October. He’ll likely be back and forth from the AHL to NHL for a while.
“We want to put him in a position to succeed,” Wilson Jr. said. “He can’t be happy just to be a checker. It could be a few years. But to find 6-foot-2, 210-pound forwards isn’t an easy thing.”
“Lean plays fast, hard and heavy,” said Sommer. “He’s got a good body for doing that, does everything at 110 percent. He’s still got work to do—he’s still a kid and everyone forgets that– but he is really dedicated. You don’t need to worry about that part. You know, his will is sometimes bigger than his skill.”
That’s not just good. That’s ideal. Bergmann’s self-awareness might be his best mental asset.
“You can never only be skilled and never only be physical,” he said. “You always need to have both. It’s a hard balance to find. Since coming here, I’d say that I’ve improved the most in learning the system. Also, little bit in details and hockey intelligence – you know, where to go, when to go, stickwork, I’ve put a lot of effort into that here. I think I’ve learned a lot. So far, it’s been great here. I was coming in with the goal of making the NHL and I’ve played in it a little bit already. That’s more than I would have expected coming in here this year.”
Every journey can change lives a little bit where you least expect it. When Bergmann played his first NHL home game in San Jose back in October, his father and uncle flew in from Germany. They were suitably thrilled and proud. But they couldn’t stay away from their jobs long. They had to fly back the next day. So how, exactly had their lives changed? They weren’t talking much soccer on the plane ride home.