El Nino’s next step

Swiss prospect looking for a positive note in Helsinki

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Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter (right) looks on during the national anthem at his most recent international event, the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

KLOTEN, Switzerland – 19-year-old forward Nino Niederreiter is one of three NHL players on the Swiss roster. After his first year with the New York Islanders, the youngster is looking to develop further at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Niederreiter already had some ice time at the Worlds two years ago as a junior, but now he’s expected to get a bigger role.

“It’s great that he’s here. He came two years ago to us as a 17-year-old. He had a good camp. He only played two games only, but he was just 17,” national team coach Sean Simpson said after a practice in the Zurich suburb of Kloten. “There are not many people who play even one game in the Worlds when they’re 17 years old. He’s a very mature 19-year-old now.”

There was much hype about Niederreiter in 2010 when he had a great junior season both with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, but also when he helped eliminate Russia in the World Junior quarter-finals in Saskatoon by scoring two goals for Switzerland.

Some months later he became the highest drafted Swiss player ever, going fifth overall. The New York Islanders sent him down to the junior team after nine games, but 2011/2012 became his first NHL season, although he scored just one goal in 55 games.

“On one hand I can be happy, on the other hand the season was disappointing,” the Chur native said. “I was injured two times and always had to battle hard to get on the line-up and stay there. But in the end I’m happy I could play the full season in the NHL. I was able to learn a lot and I was happy I wasn’t sent back to the juniors.”

Playing on a defensive fourth line probably didn’t fit that much to his style, but he said he improved in several areas to become NHL-readier next season, practising one-on-one situations, battling along the boards and staying mentally strong.

“We discussed, coach and player, and said: ‘Let this be a positive end of the season, with a positive and good role for us at the World Championship!’ And that he can take this positive experience into the summer and get ready for the next season in the NHL,” Simpson said about Niederreiter’s situation. “I think that’s his goal. He wants to help Switzerland be as successful as it can, but I think he also wants to have a good ending.”

“He’s only 19. You should want to play all the time when you’re that old, and anytime you get the chance to play hockey in May or June when you’re not in the playoffs.”

In fellow countryman Mark Streit, who captains both the Swiss national team and the Islanders, Niederreiter had kind of a mentor on Long Island who speaks the same language. Streit is another NHL player who joined the Swiss national team. The third one is Anaheim Ducks defenceman Luca Sbisa. The trio practised on one line that also included centre Andres Ambühl and winger Roman Wick, two players from the Swiss National League A who once tried their luck in North America.

“It was great that Mark was there. I lived at his place for the first two weeks until I got my own apartment. We often went out for dinner and had a good time,” said Niederreiter. “It’s good that he’s also here. It would be a long off-season from April to October. It’s good for him that he came and it’s great for the team.”

While some NHL players might prefer beaches to hockey rinks at that time of the year, Niederreiter would even not think about taking a vacation. And he doesn’t forget where he comes from, even following the scores of EHC Chur, even though his hometown team plays just in the third tier after bankruptcy.

“It’s always special to represent your nation. I’m extremely glad and proud to be on the team,” Niederreiter said. “It’s also good for me to get more ice time and experience. The more you’re on the ice, the more you can learn. It’s a good experience to play at the World Championship and it’s also good to be here because I want to play at the Sochi Olympics.”

For Niederreiter it will be the first tournament in Finland, but not the first time he has played there.

“As a junior I was once in Vierumäki,” Niederreiter remembered the IIHF Hockey Development Camp. “The best three juniors from our age group were sent there to represent Switzerland and we had games with juniors from many other nations, also countries like Japan or Turkey. It was fun.”

Swiss fans are looking to Niederreiter and others to put pucks in the net.  Offensive production has been a weakness of many Swiss national teams in the past. But a new generation of up and coming players offer a ray of hope.

Sven Bärtschi, another Swiss first-round draft pick, played five NHL games and scored three goals during an emergency call-up from the juniors by the Calgary Flames this season, but he will likely miss the Worlds while battling for junior honours in Canada with Niederreiter’s ex-team, Portland.

Another interesting forward is Damien Brunner, who became the first Swiss-trained scoring leader in the National League A in 30 years and plans to sign with an NHL team after the World Championship. In a country known for producing world-class goalies and defencemen, players like Brunner and Niederreiter represent an opportunity to take the national team to the next level.

“Swiss hockey has become better and the sport has become bigger in Switzerland,” Niederreiter explained the changes. “More and more players try to cross the Ocean, either through the juniors or the Swiss league. Before me players like Michel Riesen or Reto von Arx didn’t have their breakthrough in the NHL. That’s how it became my dream to make it. And I’m on my way, but I have to continue to work hard on myself.”

The national team camp began well for Niederreiter as Switzerland defeated Sweden on the opponent’s ice in two exhibition games and “El Nino” even scored two goals.

“He wants to play, he’s motivated. He wants to get the games under his belt, get on the big ice surface again and really become part of the team right away,” coach Simpson said. “He scored two goals in the second game in Sweden, and also on the ice in the camp you can see his big confidence in there. He’s a big body, he goes to the net, he has all the skills – that’s why he was the fifth overall pick.”

On Sunday Switzerland lost an exhibition game to Canada 2-1 in shootout. The teams will face each other against on Tuesday in Kloten in what will be the last pre-event game for both teams before travelling to Helsinki.

Switzerland is the fourth-seeded team in its preliminary-round group, but lower-seeded opponents like Slovakia or Belarus will be eager to challenge the Swiss for a quarter-final berth while the Swiss hope to upset one of the big teams in turn: Canada, Finland and the United States. And Niederreiter will be carrying hope to have a better offensive yield than last year when the Swiss lost the quarter-final berth to Norway.

“The fans are going to be very happy,” Simpson said about his youngest player. “I’d think he’s going to have a very good tournament. He’s going to work hard every game, he’s going to play for the team every game. They’re going to see a highly motivated player. With his skill level that’s a dangerous combination.”




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