ZUG, Switzerland – Though they lost their top scorer, EV Zug remains the Swiss team with the most offensive prowess. Last year Damien Brunner became the first Swiss scoring leader in three decades and moved on to Detroit. This time, his former linemate Linus Omark is hoping to make his return to the NHL via Switzerland after taking the 2013 scoring title.
During the period of the labour conflict in North America earlier this season, it was Brunner who led the Swiss National League A in scoring. He formed one line with NHL superstar Henrik Zetterberg, who is also his linemate in the Detroit Red Wings’ top forward line, and Omark.
While Brunner and Zetterberg returned to the NHL in January, Omark came to Zug in August as a free agent and signed a contract for the entire season.
Omark had already played in Europe for Luleå in Sweden followed by one season with Dynamo Moscow in the KHL where he shared a house with his teammate and fellow countryman Johan Harju.
Then came two seasons in the Edmonton Oilers organisation, with a total 65 NHL games played.
“The first year was good. I played almost the whole season in the NHL,” the Swedish forward said. “But then I broke my ankle. It destroyed my [second] season. I didn’t really come back after that, but I was practising a lot in summer and I want to get back to the NHL.”
Without a contract and with the labour dispute on the horizon, Omark decided to return to Europe, at least for a year. He thought Switzerland would be the best place for his development after an injury-plagued last season in North America.
“I want to be a better player. When I play a lot and when I’m a leader of the team, I will become better,” Omark said.
“I didn’t want to go back to Sweden. The skill level is similar to Switzerland, but it’s more defensive. I and my agent thought Switzerland was the best option for me to grow as a player. The league is perfect for that. I’m an offensive player and I love offensive hockey.”
The 26-year-old came to Switzerland with a lot of promise and hope, but also with some pressure to produce consistently after making it to YouTube with some of his highlight-reel penalty shots.
He already introduced his playful offensive skills to Switzerland in an exhibition game before the 2009 IIHF World Championship when he deked Swiss goalkeeper Marco Bührer before lobbing the puck into the net. A goal Omark was asked a lot about a lot when arriving in Zug and he keeps in his memory. In the NHL he caused some surprise when he fired a slap shot in a shootout.
For Omark, his unexpected penalty shots are nothing unusual. “I just go out and try to score,” he said.
“I get most pressure from myself,” he added. “I have to score goals, I have to score points, I maybe have to be the best player on the ice. That’s special, but I like to play like that. I play my best hockey with pressure.”
For the first part of the season some pressure was taken away when Zug capitalized on the labour dispute in the NHL to get back Brunner from Detroit, Raphael Diaz from Montreal and sign Zetterberg.
The line did its job well. Brunner led the league in scoring for a long time with 25 goals and 32 assists from 33 games. Eventually he was overtaken by Omark’s 69 points (17+52) and Lugano’s Glen Metropolit with 65 points (20+45). By points per game Zetterberg was third on the team with 32 points from 23 games and defenceman Diaz fourth with 30 points in 32 games.
For Omark it was fun to play with arguably the strongest line of the Swiss league. Since the NHL stars have left the league, however, Zug’s production of goals and wins hasn’t gone down. Omark now leads the first line with Fabian Sutter and U20 national team player Lino Martschini.
“I think I got to play my game a little bit more because during the lockout I played with two really skilled guys, so we were three guys who wanted the puck all the time but we did pretty well and had success,” Omark said. “Now I have the puck a lot and I think I’ve been growing as a player after the end of the lockout.”
Omark is Brunner’s successor as the league’s best scorer. And he’s not surprised at all that Brunner has had success with the Detroit Red Wings and could become the first Swiss forward to leave his mark in the NHL. With ten goals and 16 points in 22 games, the overage rookie is currently the Red Wings’ top goal scorer.
“I knew he’s going to do well,” Omark said. “He has so much talent and skill. I’ve never played with a better goal scorer. He knows how to find the net.”
After winning a scoring title for the first time, the Swede hopes to go the same way and get a one-way contract in the NHL next year.
“That’s been my goal since I signed here but let’s see what happens,” he said. “It’s fun to play here and we’ll see after the season.”
Also off the ice Omark enjoyed the time at Lake Zug, an area that is known for hockey but even more as a tax haven half an hour away from Zurich.
“The offensive hockey is fun to play and the atmosphere at the arenas is really good,” he said. “But the biggest difference I’d say is travelling. It’s amazing. You can sleep at home every night.”
For now the road trips go south to Lugano. With a little more than two hours to drive it’s one of the longest journeys Omark can have. The teams play each other in the quarter-finals. A narrow best-of-seven series is expected and Zug won the first clash on home ice 2-1.
“Lugano has a really good team with skilled players like Metropolit, so we have to watch out from them,” Omark said. “But we won’t be going to focus on them. We’re going to focus on ourselves and to play our best game.”
The hopes in Zug are high. Since winning the only championship in 1998 the fans hope to see the team reach the finals, but in the last few years it was ousted in the semi-finals.
Omark hopes to win more than just the scoring title in Switzerland. And later he eyes a spot on the Swedish national team’s roster for the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice in Stockholm.
- The top-three ranked teams opened the quarter-finals with wins. Fribourg-Gottéron defeated EHC Biel 4-2, SC Bern blanked Geneva-Servette 4-0 and EV Zug edged HC Lugano 2-1. The fourth series ended with a 3-2 win for HC Davos at ZSC Lions Zurich.
- The Kloten Flyers, who were saved from bankruptcy by billionaire Philippe Gaydoul, who stepped down as President of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and meanwhile assumes the same role in Kloten, narrowly missed the play-offs. Kloten legend Felix Hollenstein, who was fired in summer after having served for almost 30 years as player and assistant coach, was reinstalled as new head coach two weeks ago. The team battles against relegation along with Ambrì-Piotta, the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers and the SCL Tigers Langnau.
- SC Bern forward Ivo Rüthemann will play his 1000th NLA game (regular season and play-offs combined) on Tuesday night. Rüthemann, who represented Switzerland in three Olympic Games and 12 World Championships, will become the third player to crack the mark after Gil Montandon and Martin Steinegger.
- The labour conflict in North America brought many players to Switzerland that influenced the league. After the return of the NHL players, it was the ZSC Lions Zurich who won most points per game, followed by Fribourg-Gottéron. Coincidentally these were the two teams that longest refused to sign NHL players until late when some of their regular imports were unable to play.
- In an unofficial vote by the clubs’ captains and coaches, Zetterberg was voted MVP of the league. Three more “awards” were won by Zug players: Diaz was best defenceman, Brunner best forward and Martschini the revelation of the year. Fribourg-Gottéron succeeded in the other categories: Benjamin Conz was selected as best goalkeeper and Hans Kossmann as best coach.
- Swiss Olympic won’t bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. It hoped to host white and sustainable Games in the Swiss Alps. St. Moritz, host of the 1928 and 1948 Olympics, and Davos were foreseen as venues, the latter as city for ice sports. But the belief in the bid’s chances, the concept and costs didn’t overwhelmingly convince the people in the Canton of Grisons. 52.7 per cent of the population voted “Nein” on Sunday.
- The Swiss Ice Hockey Federation is working on reintroducing a Cup competition with teams from several tiers – a concept that is widely popular in European football but is only operated in few countries in ice hockey. If approved by all involved parties, the knockout competition would start in 2014/2015 with 32 teams from the top-three leagues.