Swiss captain leaves stage

Mark Streit a pioneer for his country

31.10.2017
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Two international captains: Canada’s Sidney Crosby and Switzerland’s Mark Streit won the Stanley Cup as Pittsburgh Penguins teammates this year. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

ZURICH – Switzerland’s greatest NHL career has come to an end as Mark Streit confirmed to Swiss media on Monday that he will conclude his career as a player.

The 39-year-old was well known for being ambitious and persistent. These aspects and his talent in the own zone and as a playmaker were the attributes that made him the first skater from Switzerland who had his breakthrough in the NHL at a late age.

Streit was a late bloomer in the NHL but unlike others before him, like goaltender Martin Gerber, not at home. When he didn’t get much ice time as a junior at SC Bern he moved to neighbouring Fribourg-Gotteron where he had his debut in the top senior league as a 17-year-old.

Streit played two IIHF World Junior Championships making the All-Star Team in 1997 and debuted for the men’s national team as a 20-year-old. His first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was in 1998 on home ice in Zurich and Basel where Switzerland surprised with a fourth-place finish.

He seemed to be on track for a great career in the Switzerland’s National League and with the national team like others before. But he wanted more. His dream was the NHL where no skater from the country had played before. After four years of pro hockey in Switzerland with Fribourg-Gotteron and HC Davos he left for North America. He was undrafted and had to learn that nobody was waiting for him in the NHL. He split the season in the second and third tier of hockey in North America with the Utah Grizzlies (IHL), the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks (ECHL) and eventually the Springfield Falcons (AHL) and returned to Switzerland after a season without the prospect of getting signed by an NHL team.

Streit signed with the up-and-coming ZSC Lions Zurich in 2000 and worked his way up in the league and on the national team where he became captain for the 2002 Olympics – a function he continued until his last appearance for the Swiss national team at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He won a Swiss championship with ZSC and individual awards. His numbers went up and eventually NHL scouts had a closer look at him. The Montreal Canadiens drafted him in 2004.

During the 2004/2005 season with the NHL lockout he had his biggest season in Switzerland with 58 points in 59 games as a defenceman and seven points in as many games at the 2005 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He showed he was ready to perform against NHL players and got signed by the Canadiens.

His first step to make the NHL was fulfilled in 2005. After his first camp with the Canadiens he made the roster, had his NHL debut with Montreal – in the classic match-up against the Toronto Maple Leafs – and although he didn’t appear in every game or sometimes had to help out as forward, he was in the league he wanted to be.

His development continued and in 2007/08 he had his most productive season with 62 points in 81 regular-season games although part of those as a forward. That’s why he was looking for a change and getting a more impactful role as a defenceman elsewhere. He got a big contract at the New York Islanders where he played for five years, became the first Swiss to play in an NHL All-Star Game in 2009 and the first Swiss to captain an NHL team in 2011. Four seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers followed.

His last year, 2017, was full of emotions, good and bad ones. He got to know all facets of NHL business. Before the trade deadline he was traded twice on the same day. A member of the Tampa Bay Lightning for about an hour, he eventually landed at the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens took him as a joker. As a backup he appeared in 19 more regular season games he had just three playoff games but despite that was handed the fifth Penguins player to be handed the Stanley Cup trophy on the ice. After having played for teams with little hope in the playoffs he unexpectedly became the third Swiss after David Aebischer and Martin Gerber to have his name engraved on the holy grail and he took the trophy to his hometown of Bern less than three months ago.

There he talked about how his NHL career would come full circle with a fresh one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens. That his second stint with Montreal came to an end after just two games was a shock for him. The underperforming Canadiens, who recently moved up from last place in the Eastern Conference, have already released two players during the season. Streit already made it clear earlier that he would want to end his career in the NHL. Reporting to the farm team Laval Rocket wasn’t an option for the 39-year-old, neither was returning to play in Switzerland. Two weeks after dissolving the contract with the Canadiens he officially announced the end of his career.

Streit leaves as the Swiss player with the greatest NHL career. He played 786 regular-season games (96 goals, 338 assists) and 34 playoff games (4 goals, 11 assists) – no other Swiss-trained player has come close to these numbers. And he’s still the all-time scoring leader with 434 points. Despite all these numbers he managed to represent his country in 13 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships and four Olympic Winter Games. Last year he was also named to Team Europe for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey where the team surprisingly made it to the final before being stopped by Canada.

In the meantime top Swiss players in domestic play and juniors dare to dream of the NHL rather than staying at home in one of the economically fittest leagues behind the NHL. That’s also thanks to pioneers like Streit.

One day he may be overtaken by other Swiss in the NHL’s all-time rankings. Roman Josi, another defenceman from Bern, is second in points and recently became the second Swiss to captain an NHL team at the Nashville Predators. Luca Sbisa, despite being a less spectacular defenceman, has had a steady career with 475 NHL games, second behind Streit, and is on the way to having his most productive season with the expansion team Vegas Golden Knights. Nino Niederreiter became the first Swiss forward to have his breakthrough, at the Minnesota Wild. And Nico Hischier became the first Swiss number-one draft pick and recently had his first year of his entry level contract with the New Jersey Devils activated when he played his 10th NHL game totalling 2 goals and 5 assists in his young career.

For all of them Mark Streit was an inspiration as the first established NHL skater from a country that was previously best-known in North American hockey for goalies like Aebischer, Gerber and later Jonas Hiller.

Streit has moved back to Philadelphia where he will undergo a shoulder surgery in November before moving back to Bern with his family. He will celebrate his 40th birthday and for once Christmas back home in Switzerland and will enjoy the time with his family and to think in which capacity he’ll stay involved in the game.

MARTIN MERK

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