By Bob Crawford
Nick Latta, a native of Pelting, Germany, is the first German-born player to suit up for the Hartford Wolf Pack in its 17-year history. You’d never know, though, that Latta was not North American by talking to him.
The 20-year-old centerman, who signed an Amateur Tryout (ATO) deal with the Wolf Pack on Tuesday, speaks with only the slightest trace of a European accent, having grown up in a totally bilingual household. Latta’s mother Karin is German, but his dad, Ken Latta, was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario and played in the Ontario Hockey League, roughly 30 years before his son would do the same.
“My dad, he was drafted to Philadelphia in the fourth round in ’81,” Latta said Thursday. “He played over here (North America) for a bit, and then he went over to Germany, played first league over there, and that’s how he met my mom. And obviously I got right into hockey when I was young, and fell in love with the game right away.”
Latta played hockey in Germany until the age of 17, when he headed over to his dad’s home province to follow his footsteps into the Canadian Junior ranks. Although Germany boasts one of Europe’s more prosperous pro leagues, the level of interest in the game is much different from what Latta found in North America.
“It’s (hockey in Germany) not as big as over here,” he said. “Here Junior hockey fills rinks, back home you’re lucky if you get a hundred people for a game. I like it a lot more over here to play hockey.”
On the other hand, Latta is grateful for his international background, and for the ability to switch seamlessly back and forth between two very useful languages.
“I think it’s helped me a lot along the way here, with my dad speaking English and my mom speaking German all the time,” he said of his upbringing.
Also, his being of German nationality has allowed Latta the opportunity to represent his country a number of times in international events, a chance he might not have gotten if he had grown up in Canada. Many Canadian kids would give their eye teeth to be able to go to even one World Junior championship, and Latta has been to three with the German National Junior Team.
“That was always a blast,” Latta said. “The first time I played at World Juniors was in Buffalo, I was just 16 years old and it was a great time. Even though we moved down (relegated to a lower level), it’s just unreal how much they (North Americans, particularly Canadians) care for Junior hockey and how good the level is.”
And although there have been a number of good NHL players to come out of Germany in recent years, Latta always looked toward the land of the Maple Leaf for his hockey heroes.
“Ever since I started playing hockey, my goal was to play in North America,” he said. “I always followed the NHL, and I kind of picked my favorite players through that.”
The top sporting icons in his native country are soccer players, and Latta is proud to identify himself as a big fan of the iconic Bayern Munich soccer club.
“I actually used to play soccer,” Latta said, “until a soccer coach actually gave me the option between soccer and hockey, so I obviously went with hockey on that one.”
Right around his 17th birthday, Latta moved across the Atlantic to Sarnia, Ontario, where he would play four OHL seasons with the Sarnia Sting. Culturally, that transition was no big deal for Latta, considering he had spent many a summer in Thunder Bay, but hockey-wise he found it quite a step up.
“I thought the biggest thing at the start was the small ice surface,” Latta said. “Over there (in Europe) you have a lot more time and space. So I think that was really the biggest thing when I came over, and then obviously the speed too.”
With every new step he has taken in hockey, Latta has had the advantage of being able to benefit from his dad’s experience, as well of that of his uncle, David Latta. David was a first-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1985, and played ten years of pro hockey in the NHL, AHL, IHL, WCHL and Germany.
“They always tell me how it is, and how you have to work so much harder every level you get to,” Latta said of his dad and uncle. “I don’t speak to my uncle too often, just in the summer when I go up to Thunder Bay, but my dad, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what he’s done so far in my career.”
Latta’s Sting had a tough season as a team this year, finishing with the worst record in the OHL at 17-44-2-5 for 41 points, but he had a good year individually. Latta’s career-high 38 goals were good for a tie for the team lead, and he added 28 assists for 66 points in 65 games. After landing the ATO from the Wolf Pack, Latta stepped right into the lineup and had an assist in his first game, helping set up a key third-period goal in the Wolf Pack’s 4-1 home win over Bridgeport Wednesday.
“I was happy with my game,” Latta said of his pro debut. “I was a little nervous at the start, but after the first couple of shifts I got settled in, and it was good to get an assist my first game, too.”
As for the difference between the OHL and the AHL, Latta found that to be a mixed bag.
“On the one side it’s harder, on the other side it’s easier,” he said. “In Junior hockey, I’m not going to say no one knows their place, but here everyone knows their job, and not too many guys make mistakes. Obviously the pace is quicker, and it gives you less time to make plays.”
Compounding the challenge is the fact that Latta plays center, a position that carries with it a host of different responsibilities on both sides of the puck. That, however, is one thing that does not seem to faze Latta a bit.
“I’ve been actually playing center my whole life, except for the first two years in Sarnia, so I think I know my job real well as a centerman,” he said. “You’ve just got to be solid defensively.”
Being good on faceoffs is obviously another component of being a successful pivot, and it was that element of the game that led to Latta’s first mark on the scoresheet as a pro. He won a draw in the offensive zone, getting the puck back to defenseman Danny Syvret, and headed right to the front of the net, screening Bridgeport goaltender Kevin Poulin as Syvret fed to McIlrath for a shot that would beat Poulin low to the stick side.
“I always work on my draws,” Latta said. “I think it’s a big key in the game to get the puck right off the start and have puck possession. On that play, the defensemen made a good pass and nice shot.”
So a fine start to Latta’s first taste of pro hockey, but he is being careful not to look too far ahead, mindful of the fact that the ATO arrangement offers no guarantees.
“I’m just happy to get the opportunity here,” he said. “I always want to make sure I play hard and keep working hard here. I’m happy to get the chance here, and hopefully I can make the most of it.”
photo credit: chris rutsch