BERNE – Nico Hischier returned to his homeland after writing history. The 18-year-old centre from Naters in the canton of Valais became the first Swiss player to be picked first overall in the NHL Entry Draft.
Hischier, who played his junior hockey in Switzerland until 2016 including 15 games in the top senior league, was considered a first-round pick already one year ago. But this past season with extraordinary performances at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship as well as a Rookie of the Year season in the Canadian junior league QMJHL made him move up in the various prospects ranking. In the months leading up to the draft he was mostly considered the potential number-two pick behind Nolan Patrick but eventually the New Jersey Devils used their first choice for Hischier.
“It’s been very emotional at the draft in Chicago. It’s hard to describe the feeling. The pulse went high, I got nervous,” he said looking back at the moment his name was called. That’s also when he overtook Nino Niederreiter (5th in 2010) as the highest-drafted Swiss player in hockey history.
It was special three days that followed. The next morning the Devils staff took him straight to New Jersey to check out the facilities, dine with some players and coaches, go to a football (soccer) and baseball game, a couple of media events and at a partner he created his own sandwich that is now on sale in Newark under the name New #1.
“I added grilled chicken, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, honey mustard and salad. I liked it,” he said. “It happened a lot in a short time but I was able to enjoy it. It still felt a bit like a dream.”
After the days in the U.S. it was time to see friends and family again back home and work out. He wants to improve his shooting, his speed but mostly to become strong and be able to play tougher. For that he aims at gaining three to five kilos of muscles mass during the off-season. He started his off-ice training at his former club team SC Bern and stays at the place of his brother Luca, who still plays for the club.
Some media speculated what would happen if he didn’t make the team from the beginning. Back to the juniors in Halifax? Or a year of pro hockey in Switzerland like Auston Matthews did before his rookie season? But for the Devils and Hischier this hasn’t been a topic so far. The Devils put high hopes and he’s expected to make the NHL from the very beginning.
“I’m in touch with the GM. I know that they’re all fully behind me and don’t put pressure on me and let me develop. They said they have a spot for me free but they were clear that I have to earn this spot,” Hischier said. “It’s clear that when you’re drafted first overall that there are some expectations. It’s important that the team is behind me and doesn’t create pressure. Like that I can focus on myself. I know what it needs to reach my goals and make the team. I’m confident that I can play there but I also know what I need to work on to reach that level.”
The positive thing about Hischier is that the young man from the Swiss mountains is very much down to earth and the hype doesn’t seem to take away his focus on the game and on developing as a player.
Practising in Berne during summer is special for him. Not only because his brother lives there but because he spent his last two seasons in Switzerland there with the club that has the highest attendance in Europe before moving to Halifax for the last season.
“A game I’ll surely never forget was my first game in the National League A here against Lausanne. And I’ll keep in my memories for a while the World Juniors in Montreal and Toronto,” he says about his most memorable moments on ice before joining the NHL.
Tomorrow he will fly back to New Jersey for the Devils’ development camp. “I’m happy that the New Jersey Devils chose me, we’ve had good discussions. They have a lot of history with players like Kovalchuk, Elias, Brodeur. And I knew that another Swiss played there with Damien Brunner,” he said.
One of the current players he looks forward to playing with is Taylor Hall, another player who was once drafted first overall, seven years ago. And if available, he hopes to get the jersey number 13 once the Devils open the pre-season camp in September.