ZURICH – 16-year-old Swiss defenceman Phil Baltisberger has had a year that was as remarkable as it was surprising, even for himself.
Until last year Baltisberger had been a “normal” junior. He was 15 and played with the Novices (U17 league) of the ZSC Lions Zurich organisation.
In the summer he was ready for the next step. He was practising with the Elite Juniors (U20 league), coached by Polish player legend Henryk Gruth, and the U18 national team.
Suddenly everything changed – for good. The organisation was lacking in defencemen for their farm team GCK Lions that plays in the poshy suburban town of Küsnacht and participates in the National League B. It’s second-tier league of the country that consists of semi-professional teams from smaller towns, but also ancient-era top teams such as Basel, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lausanne or Visp.
Baltisberger debuted as a 15-year-old in the senior league under Finnish coach Matti Alatalo, who came back to Switzerland after coaching Jyväskylä, Hämeenlinna and Kärpät Oulu in the Finnish SM-liiga.
The GCK Lions are different. They play as a classic farm team with mostly young players, while the opponents are independent club teams that also include veteran players and well-paid imports.
“The season went well for me. Everything went pretty fast in the pre-season. Because some players were leaving I had the chance to battle for a roster spot,” Baltisberger said. “It’s special to play in the league with such a young team. Everybody knows we’re a development team, but one that is nevertheless eager to make the playoffs.”
Suddenly he was on the radar of U20 national team coach Manuele Celio. He joined the camp and he even made it to Calgary where he was again the youngest player on the Swiss team at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“I was surprised to be called to the U20 team at first,” Baltisberger said. “I thought it’s cool to work with the team, and suddenly I was on the final roster. I had never played at and U20 or U18 World Championship before, so it was really special. It was a great experience in a hockey-crazy city with hockey crazy-fans. To play in front of so many people is truly special.”
Recently he even had his debut in the National League A when he was on the game roster of the ZSC Lions Zurich in a quarter-final game against HC Davos. At least on paper.
“I was the seventh defenceman and didn’t get a shift,” the Oberengstringen native said, “but it was a great experience anyhow.” Next year he’ll be on the extended roster for the NLA team, with which he might practise in summer before either making the team or being sent back to the farm team.
After skipping the U20 league and the U18 national team in his year on the fast lane, he had the chance to catch up with his teammates in the end of the season after the GCK Lions had been ousted in the quarter-finals.
He won the junior championship with the Lions’ U20 team before joining the Swiss team last week for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
Now he’s in Znojmo, Czech Republic, with the red-and-white team. Switzerland lost 5-4 to Finland after Baltisberger had scored the 1-0 lead, but they defeated Denmark 3-1 in the last pre-championship game on Tuesday.
“I’m really looking forward to playing in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. It has been my goal since the beginning of the season. Now everything went a bit faster, but I made sure I’ll be in shape for the event,” the 16-year-old said.
And guess what, he’ll once again be the youngest player on the team.
Switzerland will play Latvia, Sweden, Russia and Germany in the preliminary round. The goal is clear for “Balti”.
“It will be difficult, but we should be able to make the quarter-finals in our group,” he said. “I don’t want to play in the relegation round again like at the U20 World Championship. After that everything is possible. You just have to beat a big team and then you’re in the semi-finals. We’ll see, but I think we don’t have a bad team.”
The team of Alfred Bohren is preparing in Znojmo with currently 22 players while hoping that one key player will join soon. 18-year-old forward Christoph Bertschy is another player on the fast lane. He earned decent ice time with SC Bern during the regular season of the National League A and the “boy with the face mask” even scored eight goals in 31 regular-season games.
Currently he’s battling for the Swiss championship against the ZSC Lions Zurich, who have Phil’s older brother on the roster, forward Chris Baltisberger. Bern leads 3-1 in the best-of-seven final series and could claim the trophy on home ice with a win on Thursday.
Switzerland opens the U18 Worlds on Friday against Latvia.