MANNHEIM – Twelve years ago Ralph Krueger led the Swiss national team in his first season on home ice in Zurich and Basle to its last semi-final appearance. After the long Krueger era, Sean Simpson took over as the successor in April, but he faces big challenges.
Many in the Swiss media have dreamed, along with some personalities in Swiss hockey, about having some changes after 12 World Championships with the same coach. About instituting a new era with the best possible team, including players who didn’t get along with Krueger and were excluded from past rosters. By making changes, some argued, Switzerland should be able to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1998 and battle for a medal.
That’s a nice dream. But the present-day reality looks a bit different.
Now the Swiss national team has a new coach in Sean Simpson, who surprised the world when he won the Champions Hockey League with the Swiss club ZSC Lions Zurich in the final against Russia’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk and then took the Victoria Cup from the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks. It seems like a natural fit for this coach, who couldn’t win much more in European club hockey, to take over the national team reins for the country in which he’s been living for years.
However, expectations have been reduced even before the start of the 2010 IIHF World Championship. Only seven players from the successful Olympic squad are on the roster, which is pretty low, considering the minimal roster turnover for Switzerland and other smaller hockey nations. Thirteen candidates are missing due to injuries, and others for other reasons. The list of absentees includes key names like Jonas Hiller, Mark Streit, Severin Blindenbacher, Julien Sprunger, and Roman Wick.
In terms of the players that Swiss media and fans hoped would come back to the national team under a new coach, Beat Forster and Reto von Arx confirmed their unwillingness to represent their country. However, veterans Julien Vauclair and Marcel Jenni are back after going through personal conflicts with Krueger.
Yes, 2010 Olympian Jonas Hiller is missing due to injury, but the Swiss have never lacked depth in goal.
Martin Gerber is back between the pipes after a nasty neck injury that kept him out of action from December to April. The former Ottawa Senator is motivated to show his value after the expiry of his contract in Russia. He will play his seventh World Championship after showing up to perform in exhibition games.
Tobias Stephan will likely be the backup, but unlike at the Olympics, he will probably get some ice time and challenge Gerber. Stephan came back to Switzerland from the Dallas Stars and was one of the reasons Genève-Servette reached the finals this year. He was also the hero when Switzerland won the silver at the U18 level in 2001. Daniel Manzato, another top goaltender from the Swiss league, will be the emergency goalie, just like in Moscow 2007.
With some key figures missing, including the New York Islanders’ 30-minute man Mark Streit, the defence has undergone a facelift and will be built around Mathias Seger. The veteran blueliner will suit up for his record 240th national team game against Latvia today. He’s already served as Simpson’s captain in Zurich, and will get loads of responsibility in his 12th World Championship. At the other end of the age spectrum, 19-year-old Roman Josi wants to show his ability on the international stage after an impressive season as a top-two defenceman for Swiss champion SC Bern, and soon he and the Nashville Predators may hold discussions about the second-round pick’s readiness to play in the NHL.
National team veterans Goran Bezina and Julien Vauclair are other returnees on the blueline, while some players with little or no international experience will get a shot at the start of the Simpson era.
The offensive department of the Swiss team is a mix of Krueger veterans and emerging talents. It includes players like faceoff specialist Martin Plüss and winger Ivo Rüthemann, who were both part of the 1998 fourth-place finish, and will play their tenth World Championship. Players like Andres Ambühl, Thomas Déruns, Romano Lemm, Thibaut Monnet and Kevin Romy are also no strangers to the World Championship stage.
Marcel Jenni will play in his first world tournament after a six-year absence. At age 36, his comeback is somewhat surprising, but although younger players pushed to make the team due to the absentees, Jenni got his shot as he still ranks among the most skilled forwards on Swiss ice.
The new names include Damien Brunner, the EV Zug player who came out of nowhere to make his mark among the top scorers of the Swiss league, Paolo Duca, who captains the legendary mountain-village team Ambrì-Piotta and brings strong third-line potential, and Nino Niederreiter.
“El Nino” will be one of the youngest players to ever play in an IIHF World Championship. He’s even a few days younger than Anze Kopitar was when the Los Angeles Kings star debuted in the top division in 2005 for his native Slovenia.
Niederreiter played junior hockey in Switzerland for Chur and Davos before moving to the U.S. to play for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. NHL scouts expect him to be drafted in the first half of the first round this summer after an impressive performance in the World U20 Championship and ranking among the top rookies in the WHL. It remains to be seen whether he, as a 17-year-old, can lead the men’s national team achieve a miracle similar to the fourth-place finish at the World Juniors, but he will certainly have a chance to show his potential.
Sean Simpson, a British-Canadian double citizen who’s been playing and coaching in Switzerland and Germany for two decades, has made a name for himself in Europe. In 1998 he led Zug to its only championship before a stint and another title with the Munich/Hamburg franchise in Germany. Over the last two years he’s coached the ZSC Lions Zurich, experiencing different fates on the national and international levels.
Although his team was ousted in the quarterfinals of the Swiss playoffs in both years, Simpson came up with the recipe for ousting top international club teams. The Lions defeated Linköping, Espoo, Slavia Prague and Metallurg Magnitogorsk to become the first European club champion from Switzerland in 2009 and qualify for the Victoria Cup. Last autumn at that event, Zurich became the first Swiss squad to defeat an NHL team when they bested the Chicago Blackhawks for the trophy.
Simpson was therefore the natural choice to start a new era after Krueger solidified Switzerland’s number-eight status in the IIHF World Ranking. Although the team looks quite different due to injuries, Simpson will not change the Swiss formula entirely. He will, like Krueger, build on a foundation of strong defence and goaltending. But at the same time, he will emphasize aggressive forechecking and offensive play so that Switzerland can surprise bigger opponents, much like last year in the Champions Hockey League.
The Swiss have been dreaming of winning a medal, but all the injuries in the last few months have forced them to stay realistic. That could mean a finish between seventh and ninth place, the same as they’ve achieved in all World Championships since 2003. In the last few years, it’s been games against Belarus and Latvia, their closest rivals, that have decided whether the Swiss have reached the quarterfinals or not.
This year, the key game against Latvia is slated for Saturday, when thousands of hockey-crazy fans from both countries will create a great atmosphere in the SAP Arena in Mannheim. And for once, the Latvians, who defeated Switzerland 2-1 on the host team’s ice a year ago, look like the favourite against the colourful Swiss team that’s being built up. The Latvians have fewer changes on their roster and they have lots of experience with playing as a team, since many are drawn from the KHL team of Dinamo Riga.
However, the first World Championship for Simpson’s predecessor in 1998 showed that nothing is impossible with a fresh team.