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Switzerland’s biggest successes

Alpine country waiting for medal for 60 years

18.05.2013
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Two Swiss players control the puck in the game against Czechoslovakia to win the fifth World Championship medal and the third European title in 1939 on home ice in Basel. Photo: Birger Nordmark Collection

STOCKHOLM – Switzerland’s status as a top hockey nation is historically a rather short one. But the men’s national team collected seven World Championship and two Olympic medals among other international success stories.

As a founding member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1908, Switzerland can look back at a long history in hockey before the game was played in countries such as Finland and Russia.

The aforementioned medals were all claimed in the old days with black-and-white pictures and hockey still played in fresh air. The first medals were awarded at the 1928 Olympic Winter Games on home ice in the mountain resort of St. Moritz and for the last time when the 1953 Worlds ended in Basel.

A few years later, team sports came to a standstill in Switzerland. During three decades the national team mostly played in lower divisions. It was similar with the football national team, now a regular World Cup and Euro participant, which was away for 28 years. The reason was that the country’s two favourite team sports remained amateur sports in Switzerland until the 1980s despite their popularity. Since then, Switzerland has caught up and now produces some world-class talent.

Let’s have a look at some of Switzerland’s best moments in international men’s ice hockey.

European champion in Davos 1926

Switzerland was among the first nations to play international games. With the limited number of nations participating, that also meant they were one of the top nations. In the 6th IIHF European Championship in 1922, the Swiss won their first medal, a bronze, on home ice, in St. Moritz. They repeated the placing in Italy in 1924 and in Czechoslovakia in 1925.

In 1926 the Swiss hosted the European Championship – which was a stand-alone event from 1910 to 1932 – for the third time. As long as the event may date back, as surprising was the gold medal since the Swiss had a terrible record in international competition before: 1W-2T-19L. It took 14 years to get the first victory in IIHF hockey, at the 1924 IIHF European Championship, 12-0 vs. Spain.

In 1926 the team’s fortunes changed. The Swiss managed to beat the top European hockey nations of that time including Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, and Austria to claim gold. Heinrich Meng of local HC Davos (12 goals) and Louis Dufour of HC Rosey Gstaad (11) were the stars of the first Swiss moment of glory.

Olympic medal premiere in St. Moritz 1928

It was the third international tournament with the world’s top hockey nations, and for the first time the event was hosted in Switzerland. Two years after being crowned European champion the Swiss again made use of their home-ice advantage, just a few kilometres from Davos in St. Moritz.

It was tight and competitive clashes that brought the Swiss to the podium. The host nation tied Austria 4-4 and defeated Germany 1-0 to win their preliminary-round group.

In the final round they started with a 4-0 victory against Great Britain, but in their second game they lost to Sweden by the same score. Thanks to the victory Sweden won its first medal, silver, while the Swiss had to settle with bronze after losing to eventual winner Canada, represented by the University of Toronto Graduates, 13-0. But the upside was that the Swiss won their first “global” medal.

Silver at 1935 Worlds

The next big highlight for Switzerland came seven years later. Again it was a tournament where they seemed to make perfect use of the mountain air in the Grisons, this time at the 1935 World Championship in Davos with 14 participants.

The Swiss topped their group with Sweden (6-1 win), Hungary (1-1) and the Netherlands (4-0). They also won the secondary-round group where they played Austria (1-1), France (5-1) and Great Britain (1-0) to make the “Final Four”.

The Swiss took over their points from the win against Great Britain and swept Czechoslovakia, 4-0.

In their last game against Canada, represented by the Winnipeg Monarchs, the Swiss had the chance to claim gold. Despite missing some of their top players for the last game due to flu, they were surprisingly close. In front of 5,000 fans at the full open-air rink, Canada defeated the Swiss, 4-2.

The 1930s were the birth of the most successful offensive line in Swiss hockey history. The “ni-line” with Richard “Bibi” Torriani and the Cattini brothers, Ferdinand and Hans, all played for the local HC Davos team and were later inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame. During this era the Swiss won six medals at Worlds and Olympics.

Seven wins at 1939 Worlds

It was Switzerland’s winningest World Championship campaign until 2013. The Swiss played ten games and had a 7-1-2 record to claim the bronze medal.

Again the success was celebrated on home ice but this time not in the thin mountain air but at the big open ice rinks in Zurich and Basel, the biggest cities in the German-speaking area of the country.

Switzerland swept its group in Zurich without conceding a single goal against Latvia (12-0), Yugoslavia (23-0) and Czechoslovakia (1-0).

In the secondary round in Basel the winning streak continued against Poland (4-0), the United States (3-2) and Hungary (5-2).

The streak ended in the final round when Switzerland faced Canada, represented by the Trail Smoke Eaters, and lost 7-0. The home team also lost its second game against Team USA, 2-1.

The last game against Czechoslovakia became virtually a bronze medal game. But nobody scored, neither after 60 minutes nor after three overtime periods. It ended with a 0-0 tie.

Three weeks later, it was decided to play a rematch. Czechoslovakia travelled back to Basel. In front of 15,000 fans at the classic outdoor St. Margarethen rink, which still exists not far from the central station, Switzerland won 2-0 for their fifth medal and third European Championship.

Second Olympic bronze in St. Moritz 1948

Switzerland hosted the Olympic Winter Games twice – and both times it won the bronze medal at high altitude.

This time the team captained by Torriani for the last time in his career was even more impressive. The 6-2 record was one of the best tournaments until this year.

It was the first Winter Olympics in 12 years and the first after World War II. And for the first time the athletes were represented at the opening ceremony by and ice hockey player, national hero Torriani.

The Swiss started with six straight victories against the U.S. (5-4), Italy (16-0), Austria (11-2), Great Britain (12-3), Sweden (8-2) and Poland (14-0) before falling to Czechoslovakia (7-1) and Canada (3-0). In this nine-team round robin tournament it meant bronze for Switzerland.

Last bronze, in 1953, a breeze for Swiss

In 1953 the Swiss men’s national team won its last medal in a World Championship or Olympic tournament before falling down the ranking and to lower divisions in the years to come.

It was the second World Championship hosted in Zurich – this time at the indoor arena Hallenstadion – and Basel. It was one of the more unusual tournaments. Due to conflicts Canada and the U.S. didn’t send a team in 1953. The Soviet Union was thinking about playing their first IIHF tournament but waited until 1954.

As a result, the World Championship consistent of only four teams in the top division and five teams who played a Group B on their own.

By the records it wasn’t a successful tournament for the Swiss. In five games Switzerland had only one win, 3-2 against West Germany. But the Czechoslovak team travelled home during the tournament following the news about the death of the country’s President Klement Gottwald. Therefore their games were nullified and Switzerland was awarded the bronze medals as third-ranked team.

Switzerland’s “Prague Spring”, 1992

After several years in lower divisions, Switzerland made it to the top division of the World Championship in 1987 for one year and came back in 1991.

The team, coached by Bill Gilligan and John Slettvoll, was not considered a top team, by far not, when they travelled to the 1992 World Championship in Czechoslovakia. The World Championship was just extended from eight to 12 participants playing in two groups.

In their first three games in Bratislava, Switzerland earned ties against powerhouses Russia (2-2) and Canada (1-1) before defeating France 6-5. After beating Norway in Prague 3-1 and losing 2-0 to Czechoslovakia, the Swiss ended the group in third place.

It was the first generation of professional Swiss players that succeeded such as captain and scoring leader Jörg Eberle, long-time national team goalies Renato Tosio and Reto Pavoni, and forward Felix Hollenstein, whose son Denis plays here in Stockholm.

In the quarter-finals Switzerland faced archrival Germany, which also had a strong preliminary round, and won the game 3-1. The medal dreams ended with a 4-1 loss to Sweden in the semi-finals. Czechoslovakia defeated Switzerland 5-2 in the bronze-medal game.

But the fourth-place finish was a sensation for Switzerland where it was called the “Prague Spring” – a term that anywhere else refers to the Czechoslovak reformation processes in 1968 that were stopped by the occupation of Soviet troops.

With the same coaching duo the Swiss finished in last place one year later and were relegated same as in 1995 when they came back for one year. But the future would become brighter for Swiss hockey.

Krueger’s Miracle of Basel, 1998

Thanks to the extension of the World Championship from 12 to 16 teams, Switzerland, seeded only 15th, made it to the 1998 World Championship – on top of the fact that the team was set anyway since the country hosted the event in Zurich and Basel.

Switzerland hired a new coach, Ralph Krueger, and the expectations were rather modest after years of struggle. Nobody could have thought that Krueger would stay for 13 years and lead Switzerland to a fourth-place finish in his first try.

The high placing also included some luck. In a format that looked almost tailor-made for Switzerland’s scores, the host nation just needed two wins and one tie in six games to make the semi-finals.

In the first round in Zurich the Swiss started with losses against Team USA (5-2) and Sweden (4-2). Because the Americans surprisingly lost to France for the first time in World Championship history, Switzerland still had the chance to claim second place in the group in a three-team tie but it needed to win by a margin of at least four goals in the last game against France.

The Swiss got a 4-1 lead with 3:13 left in regulation time and France desperately needed to score a goal to keep their chances for a better placing alive. They pulled the goalie in the last few minutes and Marcel Jenni, who had already scored the fourth goal, shot the puck into the empty net. The red-and-white team got the 5-1 win it needed and would travel to Basel next morning to play Russia.

The Swiss capitalized on the momentum, and despite the tight timing the organizers didn’t have issues to sell out the arena for the three Switzerland games of the secondary round.

One day after their lucky advancing against France, the Swiss had an impressively efficient game against Russia. The Swiss got an unbelievable 4-0 lead and eventually earned a 4-2 victory. It was the first win against the Russians/Soviets in the 13th game at the Olympic Games and World Championships. The Swiss continued with a 3-1 loss to the Czech Republic and a 1-1 tie against Slovakia. Again it was barely enough for second place and a berth in the semi-finals.

As it was six years earlier, the Swiss lost in the semis to Sweden and saw the Czechs taking bronze. The Swiss repeated their upset against Russia two years later when the Worlds were hosted on the opponent’s ice in St. Petersburg.

After 82 years: Swiss stun Canada in Turin 2006

When Switzerland played the first official game against Canada at the 1924 Olympics the players were taught a lesson. They were steamrollered, 33-0, by an amateur team representing Canada, the Toronto Granites.

Some 82 years later Switzerland played against the best possible Canadian team composed of NHL stars. That was in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

The Swiss didn’t manage to beat Canadian teams with weaker lineups for 82 years in an Olympic or World Championship game but in Turin the Swiss reached a milestone.

Martin Gerber, who has also had a strong tournament here in Stockholm, earned a shutout with 49 saves while Canada-born Paul DiPietro, who still plays in Switzerland at age 42, scored a pair of goals for Switzerland’s 2-0 victory.

The Swiss also upset the Czech Republic, 3-2, and ended the Olympic tournament in sixth place. Four years later, Switzerland earned its first-ever win against Canada at a World Championship too.

Zurich beats giants Chicago and Metallurg, 2009

While stakeholders in Europe are sitting together to revive a top-notch European club competition, Switzerland’s ZSC Lions Zurich has remained as the last European club champion after winning the Champions Hockey League in 2009.

In the preliminary round the Swiss champion earned two wins against Sweden’s Linköpings HC and had a 1-1 record against Slavia Prague from the Czech Republic to win its group and make it to the semi-finals where they eliminated Finland’s Espoo Blues with two wins, 6-3 and 4-1.

Coached by now-national team coach Sean Simpson, the successful campaign peaked in the home-and-away finals against Russian giant and defending European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

In the first leg in the Russian steel city, the visiting team silenced the crowd with two first-period goals. Metallurg came back and the game ended in a 2-2 tie.

Everything was open for the second game in Switzerland but this time Simpson’s team played perfect hockey from the first to the last second and swept Magnitogorsk 5-0 for the biggest international success ever by a Swiss club team.

A few months later, the ZSC Lions Zurich represented Europe in the Victoria Cup where the team captained by Mathias Seger defeated eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks 2-1.

Streak of Stockholm, 2013

Switzerland broke many of its past records at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. A streak of eight consecutive victories made Switzerland the top-seeded team in their group going into the final round for the first time ever.

And, after edging the Czechs 2-1 in the quarter-finals, the Swiss made it to the semi-finals for the first time since 1998. Will the undefeated Swiss be able to play in a gold medal game for the first time ever or at least to end their medal drought? Soon we will know.

Note: While the Swiss men’s national team has been waiting for a medal for decades, the country did win some world championship medals in other categories in the last 15 years with the U20 (bronze 1998), U18 (silver 2001) and women’s national teams (bronze 2012).

MARTIN MERK
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