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Simpson’s Red Machine

Team ticking like Swiss watch, aiming for historic gold

19.05.2013
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Sean Simpson and his coaching staff have so far led the Swiss national team to a victory in every game. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

STOCKHOLM – History will be written today when either Sweden will end the home-ice curse or Switzerland will become World Champion for the first time.

The Swiss national team is, of course, aiming for the second goal. The Swiss have had a historic and unexpected run with nine straight victories. And they have no plans to stop upsetting big hockey nations.

They reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1998. By defeating the United States 3-0, they have at least equalled their best-ever placement to date, silver in 1935.

“We skated hard and stuck to the system and showed desire to win the game and to do something for Swiss hockey and for Switzerland itself,” head coach Sean Simpson said.

“We have seen many good games at this tournament, but in the semi-finals it was very special. It shows the willingness and character of this team. You can go through the whole line-up and behind every name is a great performance in this tournament.”

Ueli Maurer, the President of the Swiss Confederation, travelled to Stockholm to witness history and congratulated coach Sean Simpson after the game. Never before has a Swiss team in any major team sport performed with such an impressive record.

“What happened today is of historic dimensions for Switzerland,” Maurer told him after the press conference.

Maurer stayed away from the locker room before the final, but wants to congratulate the players personally afterwards – preferably for the gold medals.

“We prepared well, we have a good team and we had a good start. We got the best out of our team,” Simpson said after the semi-final.

“I think the people in Switzerland are very proud of us, and I hope we can make them even prouder.”

Simpson didn’t have an easy time before the start of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship though.

He took over a team in April 2010 that had been coached by Ralph Krueger for 13 years and was coming off a good outing at the Vancouver Olympics. Expectations were high since Simpson had led the ZSC Lions Zurich to the European club championship one year earlier.

This year the expectations in the Swiss media were rather modest, as the national team had missed the quarter-finals – usually regarded as the dividing line between a good and a bad result in Swiss hockey circles – two years in a row. It was speculated that Simpson couldn’t afford to place outside the top eight nations again.

Now he doesn’t have to worry about his job.

Here, much like with Zurich in 2009, he has eventually found the right mix between up-and-coming players and national team legends, between defence and offence. When he made his final cuts before the World Championship not everybody agreed with him, but the critics have been silenced with each win in Stockholm.

The British-born Canadian coach, who considers himself almost Swiss after having played and coached there since the ‘80s, is a perfectionist. It was his mentor Andy Murray who transferred him from Salzburg to Zurich during the 1984-85 season as a backup for legendary Czech player Milan Novy. Simpson didn’t play a single game in his first stint in Switzerland, and Murray gave him his car to scout other teams. It was his first inspiration for his later coaching career, and he would return to Switzerland four years later.

Simpson’s great skill is analyzing opponents and finding the right recipes for each game. They haven’t always worked, but 2013 appears to be the year for the Swiss.

“The difference between having success at this tournament or not is very small. We didn’t find the way to win some games last year and this time we found them,” Simpson said.

“It’s a two-week deal. If everybody believes things can happen, they can happen.”

His methods can be unique at times. For instance, how often have you seen rotating goalkeepers from the first game in the preliminary round until the last game in the knockout stage? Simpson put Martin Gerber into the net in the quarter-finals against the Czechs and stuck with his pattern. He let Reto Berra play in the semi-finals against the U.S., and will bring back Gerber in the gold medal game. So far it has worked very well. Both netminders have been impressive.

The Swiss national team has ticked, ticked, and ticked as perfectly as a Tissot watch. The Russian fans at the arena probably booked their tickets to watch another team here in Stockholm. But the way the Swiss have dominated – in addition to the jersey colour – might have reminded them of the “Red Machine” that nobody has been able to stop yet. That even applies to Switzerland’s foe in the finals. Host Sweden lost its opener to the Swiss, 3-2.

“To get to this part of the tournament is something very special for the country. Our guys deserve to play in the final. We’re going to give everything,” Simpson said.

It’s hard for him to find the right words to describe the reasons behind the sudden success, and he wants to keep his ace up his sleeve. But, obviously, if it works, it works, and players are buying into the coach’s system and words.

“The players really fought and they believe in each other,” Simpson said. “It’s a team sport. If a group is really a team, a lot is possible. We’ve showed it every game. That’s why hockey is so special. You can only win as a group that plays together.”

Another reason is that Swiss ice hockey has simply improved a lot in the last 30 years. The national competition has become more competitive and clubs more professional. There has been more emphasis placed on development and coaching. It’s hard to imagine that roughly 40 years ago Switzerland battled in the C Pool against the likes of Australia, Bulgaria, and DPR Korea.

However, over the years, there have been signs that Switzerland would one day play for a medal again after the surprising fourth-place finishes in 1992 and 1998. The main difference this year was that the Swiss didn’t only rely on strong goaltending and counter-attacks, as in the upsets in the ‘90s. They were also able to dominate opponents with big names on the ice.

“A generation ago Switzerland really invested in the youth program and in good coaches,” Simpson said. “The players that started in that program have now been coming through in the last few years. It has to start somewhere and it has to start in the youth and it needs commitment. We have a pretty good league and now our national team plays well here.”

And now comes the rematch against Sweden, with the whole country experiencing hockey fever in front of their TV sets.

“Everybody is so happy. We‘ve reached something that no Swiss team has reached before and now we want to see what we can do in the final,” Simpson said. “We will give everything. It won’t be easy against Sweden in Stockholm in a full house. But what a dream it is to play here!”

The preparation will be business as usual, Simpson said. For him it means analyzing videos, getting his team ready for a new opponent. Historically, Sweden hasn’t been an easy foe. It was Sweden that destroyed Swiss medal dreams in the semi-finals of 1992 and 1998. And here in Stockholm, only the Swedes and the Czechs have managed to get more shots on goal than Switzerland in their head-to-head games.

“We’ve studied the videos, we know the players and we will enjoy playing against them,” Simpson said.

But he also knows that Sweden has brought its game to a new level, especially thanks to Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

“Their team has grown over the tournament and they have the Sedin twins here now. They have the two best twins in the world now. They have skill and leadership,” Simpson said.

“But our team has grown too and our team has also won against top players in this tournament,” Simpson said. “It’s a thrill for our country to be in the final in Stockholm against Sweden. We’re playing for the World Championship title.”

“Switzerland’s playing for the World Championship title, imagine!”

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