MANNHEIM Ė The talk of the World Championship is about Russia, with its gunning for a third straight world title, and Russiaís perfect record. And there is lots of chatter about surprising Denmark.
But the team with one of the best overall performance at the end of the Preliminary Round was... Switzerland.
This is not a surprise by any means.
The Swiss are no longer the underdog and have become a stable top-eight nation in the world of international hockey in the last five years. The Swiss won their preliminary-round group two years ago in Quebec City and their performance here at the 2010 Worlds is impressive under new coach Sean Simpson.
The Swiss have shown they are one of the top teams in the world.
Like many of the best teams, the Swiss are missing their top players from NHL and AHL teams. Thirteen candidates for the national team declined an invitation to the World Championship, most due to injuries. And only seven players who were on the Olympic team in Vancouver are on Simpsonís roster, which represents a low number considering the minimal roster turnover the Swiss used to have.
But that hasnít stopped or slowed them for a heartbeat.
Like the underdog teams in the tournament, the Swiss are motivated to win and now they are atop the standings in Group F, much to the delight of the red-white Swiss folk that fill Mannheimís SAP Arena to see hockey history written.
IIHF.comís Martin Merk talked to Switzerland captain Mathias Seger the day after the historic 4-1 victory against Canada.
Seger is playing in his 12th World Championship. The defenceman recently became Switzerlandís all-time leader in games, having played 242 matches for the national team. Since his debut in 1998, he has only missed one world tournament, in 2007, and also participated in three Olympic Winter Games. In Switzerland, he has played for the ZSC Lions Zurich since 1999, and has won three Swiss titles, the 2009 Champions Hockey League and the 2009 Victoria Cup.
Whatís the secret behind the surprising performance of the Swiss national team in Mannheim?
There are no secrets. Itís just tough work and team play. Everybody battled for everybody. Thatís what we did for 60 minutes against Canada.
Is the atmosphere in the dressing room different with the new coach and the new players?
We have a good mix of experienced and young, hungry players. We have success and the atmosphere in the team is great, as it always is when you win the games. So itís not that different.
How would you describe the differences between the new coach Sean Simpson and his predecessor Ralph Krueger?
Theyíre different personalities, but still kind of similar. Both have a great passion for hockey and they demand 100 per cent from each player. Of course there are little differences in the team management and the strategy. We have a bit more freedom for example when it comes to the question when we can have dinner and with whom. Thatís not bad for the atmosphere. But on the ice he asks for discipline as Krueger did. Itís our goal to have a solid defence as the basis to play our game like under Krueger, just that we put more pressure and we have more forechecking. Itís an aggressive system, similar as in Zurich.
Does a national team coach have a huge influence, or is it rather the players that make the difference?
Itís both. A coach always has a huge influence on the team. And a new coach means a new impulse. He motivated us well for this game, but motivation needs to be within the team no matter who the coach is.
Do you have to take more responsibility now as youíre the captain, the record national team player and with former captain Mark Streit missing in the defence?
All experienced players must take more responsibility in the situation we have. We have many young guys and the older guys must be role models.
You had huge wins with Zurich and Switzerland, all under Sean Simpson. You defeated Russian powerhouse Metallurg Magnitigorsk to become European club champion, the Chicago Blackhawks to win the Victoria Cup and now the Canadian national team. Which victory did you enjoy most?
Thatís difficult to say. Itís always a difference if you play with a club team or with the national team. Every victory was very special. The wins against Magnitogorsk and Chicago were final games, here it was just the preliminary round. We must be aware that it was ďjustĒ a victory in a preliminary-round game and if we want to succeed, we also need wins in big games like in the quarterfinals and semi-finals.
When did you realize that your team wrote history by defeating Canada?
It was when a journalist told it to me after the game. Itís really a nice victory for us and Swiss hockey, and itís another step to gain more respect for Swiss hockey. But we also know that it was not easy for the Canadians. They lost Smyth before the game, and Stamkos during the game. This Canadian national team doesnít have the same class as the one we played at the Olympics. But itís still a huge success to defeat Canada. Itís not like a long time ago when nobody knew us. They know us well and they donít underestimate us anymore, but we could still dominate the game. Usually we needed luck and a hot goalkeeper to win such games, but this time the reason was that we were clearly the better team.
You were also playing in Switzerlandís only victory against Canada at the Olympics four years ago in Turin. What do you remember from that game?
We had a great defensive performance and Martin Gerber in the net had a very strong game. Canada had all its stars on the ice and the atmosphere with many Swiss fans was great. What is still in my head is the moment after, when we all sat in the dressing room, looking at each other and starting to realize what happened. Also the victory against the Czechs at the Turin Olympics shouldnít be forgotten, that was a huge victory, too.
Do you also remember your first World Championship games on home ice in 1998?
Sure. We reached the Qualification Round with some luck after a victory against France and had to move from Zurich to Basle for the game against Russia the very next day. It was hot, the arena packed and filled with great atmosphere, and Russia had stars like Kovalev. And then we won 4-2 and reached fourth place. We didnít have great expectations and that game initiated a euphoria weíve never had before.
Some players, from Switzerland and other nations, are missing because of injury or tiredness. And youíre here as the all-time leader in national team games for Switzerland. What does it mean for you to represent your country?
Itís always a huge pleasure to play here. Itís really fun and we always have great guys in the dressing room. Itís a new challenge every year and I really like to come to the World Championship. I canít talk for people who are not here. Some denials are valid and we simply have to accept them. There was much talking about players who didnít come and those who are here want to show that they can perform and I think we gave a statement in the preliminary round.
Three games, nine points and 10-2 goals, the best record even before Russia. Do you see it as a statement that Switzerland is capable to play more offensive hockey than the team dared to in the past?
I think we have a huge potential and what we can see here is that the Swiss league is a strong league. We have many offensive players with big potential. Simpson is also the type of coach that tries to tap the full potential.
You achieved much under Simpson. Do you even think about winning a medal here or do you keep your feet on the ground?
Of course. Itís the goal of every team to win a medal, but we shouldnít tell it to the media and we shouldnít think about it as a goal at the very beginning. You have to go step by step and thatís what weíre doing here. We had a very good preliminary round, but we havenít reached the quarterfinals yet. A win against Canada can be meaningless if we lose to Norway.