SASKATOON Ė Switzerland has quality NHL representatives in Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller and New York Islanders star blueliner Mark Streit, but there hasnít been a star forward so far.
Sure, there have been players who've made the attempt. Luca Cereda and Michel Riesen even became first-round draft picks, but they didnít succeed at the NHL level and became known as Swiss misses. Reto von Arx, Thomas Ziegler and Patrick Fischer were other players who tried their luck, but they had little impact. Fischer was the most successful Swiss forward to date, notching ten points (4+6) in 27 games with the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2006-2007 season.
Three other forwards failed to crack NHL rosters and are playing in the AHL at present: Olympian Andres AmbŁhl (Hartford), plus Juraj Simek (Norfolk) and Daniel Steiner (Rochester).
Nobody really knows if they will get a shot, but the most promising Swiss NHL prospect is just 17 years old, and is currently playing in the 2010 World U20 Championship. The guy weíre talking about is Nino Niederreiter, who led the Swiss in scoring with six points (3+3) in four preliminary-round games.
The Chur native played junior hockey in Switzerland for EHC Chur and HC Davos, and even played three playoff games with the pro team when Davos won the Swiss league last spring. However, he decided to continue his career in North America when the Portland Winterhawks, a U.S. based team in the Western Hockey League, picked him second overall in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
With 41 points (23+18) in 37 games, Niederreiter was the highest-scoring WHL rookie prior to the World Juniors. According to what NHL scouts are saying, he could become the fourth Swiss after Riesen, Cereda and injured World Junior teammate Luca Sbisa to be drafted in the first round. IIHF.com sat down for a Q&A with the youngest player on the Swiss roster.
The day after this interview, Nieddereiter scored the tying goal and 3-2 winner in OT versus Russia in the quarterfinals.
Switzerland qualified for the quarterfinal as a team promoted from Division I. Were you surprised?
We were the underdogs in the deciding game against Slovakia, and most people in the arena might have thought that we would lose to the Slovaks. But we gave our best, played physical, and managed to defeat them.
The game was close, and the score was up in the air for a while. What enabled Switzerland to win?
We didnít lose patience, even not when Slovakia took the lead. I think that was the reason. We knew that they had a strong team with some excellent players like Richard Panik and Tomas Tatar, but we didnít give up. We're having a good time together. We have fun. Thatís why we are strong as a team.
And it really looks like the team is having a good time here.
Yes, we have a great atmosphere within the team and itís great to be around the guys.
What do you do when you donít have a game or practice in Saskatoon?
We donít do many special things, apart from going out for dinner maybe.
Youíre one of the best rookies in the WHL. Did you expect that when you went over?
No, I didnít expect it because I didnít know how strong the league would be. But of course, Iím amazed how well it has gone for me. However, the season is long.
What makes you so strong in the WHL?
I have good teammates, a good team, and good coaches in Mike Johnston and Travis Green. Theyíre all helping me to play at the level I currently do.
Youíre playing for a U.S. team in the WHL. Does it make travelling worse for you? It must be quite a difference compared to Switzerland.
I think we're not allowed to fly apart from the playoffs, when, for example, a 26-hour bus ride to Brandon wouldnít fit into the schedule. So we have bus rides, and at the border itís not a huge problem for a sports team.
What do you do during those bus rides?
Weíre lucky that we have internet access on the bus. So most of the players are online as long as their batteries permit. Some play video games, and others watch movies, read something, or sleep.
What were your highlights this season apart from the World Juniors?
It was for sure a highlight to play in the NHL arenas in Calgary and Edmonton. These were great experiences.
Do you think you'll be playing there in two years when the World U20 Championship is hosted in those two venues? Or will you be playing in the NHL by then?
I really donít know. Both sound good, but first Switzerland must play a good tournament next year in Buffalo. Meanwhile, I have to take everything step by step. Of course, I would love to play in the NHL, but you never know what'll happen in the next few years. It depends partly on the situation of the team that drafts you. Or you could suffer an injury.
The scouts seem to be pretty impressed by you. Do you notice that as a player?
I heard about it, and Iíve been asked questions about how I like it in Canadian junior hockey. But you never really know where you stand, and I think you shouldnít be distracted too much from playing your game.
In Switzerland you mostly played junior hockey. How would you compare the Swiss junior league with Canadian junior hockey?
In Canada, you have to look at every little detail which could decide a game. On the smaller ice rinks, you have less time, you must stick more to the system, and you must keep it simple. The ice size and the speed here were the biggest challenges for me in the beginning.
When fans see you on the ice, it looks like youíre enjoying what youíre doing.
Sure. I love hockey. And I gave up a lot for hockey. I left Switzerland, and I gave up my heating engineer apprenticeship. I'm doing everything I can to become a good hockey player.
Do you think you can become the first regular Swiss NHL forward?
The will is here and for sure itís my goal, but it also depends on the team, if they need you in the right moment. I canít do more than to try my best.
The famous Davos coach Arno Del Curto was surprised that you didnít want to develop in the Swiss pro league, but rather in Canadian junior hockey. What was behind your decision?
I simply wanted to prove myself against the best players of my own age. That was the main reason. A second reason was that the NHL is in North America, where youíre better noticed by NHL organizations as a young player, compared to Switzerland.
Are you already thinking about the 2010 NHL Entry Draft?
Sometimes Iím thinking about it, but you shouldnít think too much about it because thereís nothing you can influence apart from playing well.
But you probably hope you'll be a first-rounder and crack an NHL roster.
That would be great. Letís see how it goes.
How would you describe to a Swiss junior the life as a junior in the WHL?
Thereís hockey seven days a week. Otherwise, you have a lot of free time, although in our club, weíre also going to school. Iím living with a host family with my teammate Troy Rutkowski. Sometimes we go to the cinema. I havenít had many free days since the season began.
What can this year's Swiss team achieve in Saskatoon?
I think anything is possible. Letís see what happens in the quarterfinals against Russia. Compared to the last game, we can play without pressure. All the pressure is on Russia. We must play our game, play with patience, and see how it turns out.
Do you really see a chance to reach the semis in the game against Russia?
Itís possible. It would be wrong not to think like that. Of course theyíre a very strong opponent, but maybe we can surprise them.
What do you know about the Russians?
We were informed at the meeting. The goalie, Bobkov, seems to be having a strong year, and they have great key players like Filatov and Petrov.
Knowing that Bobkov has played a strong tournament, does a forward like you analyze him carefully?
No, not so much. Itís more important to create many scoring chances against him.
How difficult will it be for the team after your two most experienced players, Roman Josi and Luca Sbisa, were injured?
Of course itís tough to lose our two most important team leaders. But we still managed to beat Slovakia without them, which gave us much self-confidence.