BUFFALO – It was one year ago when the Swiss U20 national team travelled to Saskatchewan as the lowest-seeded squad of their group. But it overcame Latvia and Slovakia, and later defeated Russia in the quarterfinals to finish in fourth place.
Many things are different one year later in Buffalo where the Swiss entered Group A in second position and even made first place in the standings after two days.
After 11 years coaching the U20 national team, Jakob Kölliker has been replaced just as Ralph Krueger was for the men’s national team after the Vancouver Olympics thanks to winds of change within the Swiss Ice Hockey Association.
Almost the entire team staff has changed for this U20 in Buffalo and the new man in charge is Richard Jost, who has worked as a coach for younger selections within the organization and in several positions with the ZSC Lions Zurich’s youth department.
“It’s a challenge. It’s been a short time although we had our first camp in summer, but there’s a good team spirit and the players are willing to go along,” the 48-year-old said about his biggest coaching assignment of his career.
“My life is just hockey. After playing I started coaching and working in managerial positions. And I was in the coaching staff of the U18 national team. But the World U20 Championship, this is a big thing and a challenge,” he added.
Jost takes over a team just one year after it played above expectations. The Swiss did not only have one of their best finishes at the U20 level, Benjamin Conz was also named best goalkeeper of the event and Nino Niederreiter joined him on the end-of-tournament All-Star Team.
But the team knows its fortunes can also head south. In 2008 the Swiss were relegated to Division I.
Jost knows how that feels as he played in the 1982 World U20 Championship. That event was played in no less than 15 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
“It was at another level than this tournament here. We just had a three-day camp before the World U20 Championship with 40 players before the team was selected,” Jost recalled.
“Each of our games was played in another city with journeys of 200, 300 kilometres after each game. That was pretty special. We were kind of the Harlem Globetrotters. The most important game as so often for that team that went up and down between the A and B Pool was the one against Germany, which we unfortunately lost, 6-5.”
This year, the Swiss fared better against their geographic rivals. By defeating Germany 4-3 to open the tournament, they have made a positive first step towards the quarterfinals.
“We want to win every game and to reach the quarterfinals. We go day by day, but we know we have to win more than one game in the preliminary round,” Jost said.
After last year’s fourth place, which looked like an overachievement compared to the Swiss’ records in the years before, the team is caught between dreams of high expectations and hard-cold reality.
“Of course every player has dreams, but we need to be realistic and focus on the preliminary round first,” he explained. And he knows why. The first of their two exhibition games before the tournament ended with a debacle on Canadian ice.
“We had a 2-1 record against Canadian teams in the World Junior A Challenge in Penticton and were probably too optimistic after that. That’s why we lost 8-0 to Canada in the exhibition game. I’ve never seen us play that bad. Team Canada was like a thunder for us, or rather a hurricane. It was probably a good wake-up call as we played much better in the second exhibition game against Sweden. Now we have healthy self-confidence.”
Goalkeeper Benjamin Conz is one of the reasons why his league team in Switzerland, SCL Tigers Langnau, is in the run to make the playoffs for the first time in team history. The 19-year-old has played in 34 games and 2,072 minutes – second-most in the Swiss top league – and has a 90.45% save percentage.
Niederreiter has scored some crucial goals for the Swiss at the World U20s. He was drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders as the highest-drafted European in 2010 and the highest-drafted player Swiss in history.
The 18-year-old later became the youngest New York Islanders player of all time when he dressed in the Isles’ opening game against Dallas on October 9, 2010. And, he became the fourth-youngest NHLer to score a goal, on October 14, when he beat Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth.
His time with the Islanders, however, ended after nine games after which he was sent back to the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. The Buffalo event will now provide a great opportunity for Niederreiter to showcase his skills at the highest level of junior hockey once again.
“Even if we have players that can decide a game for us, we must not forget that we can only win as a team,” Jost said.
“Niederreiter has both feet on the ground. He’s important for us both as a personality and as a player. Also, Sven Bärtschi has had an extremely good season as a WHL rookie. Both players are very confident. That’s why they play so well in Canada,” Jost says about his two forwards from the Portland Winterhawks. “Inti Pestoni and Gregory Hoffmann, for example, play great in the Swiss top league with Ambrì because of their roles with that team, which is perfect for them.”
The games against Finland today and against Slovakia on Thursday will show which path the Swiss will go this year before facing Team USA on New Year’s Eve.