FRIBOURG, Switzerland – He was the man of the firsts for Switzerland in the National Hockey League as the first NHL player and the first Stanley Cup winner from his country. Now goalkeeper David Aebischer announced the end of his playing career.
Today 14 Swiss have professional contracts with NHL teams of which 11 have played NHL games this season.
When Aebischer decided to move to North America in 1997 at a time he was virtually unknown even by hockey fans in his own country, many considered him crazy. There had never been an established player from his country in the NHL up to then.
Before the draft of that year, only five Swiss-trained players had been drafted. Jacques Soguel, the first Swiss drafted in 1976, had never been contacted by the St. Louis Blues. Pauli Jaks, the highest-drafted Swiss before the class of 1997 was picked in 108th position, played 40 minutes for the Los Angeles Kings but never again in the NHL. For Swiss players, the NHL seemed to be as far away as the moon.
Aebischer was the 19-year-old number-two goalkeeper of his hometown team Fribourg-Gotteron at that time. After the camp he neither made the team of the Colorado Avalanche nor of their AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. The Chesapeake Icebreakers and the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL were his teams for most of the season.
It was a combination of hard work, determination and stubbornness that kept him going his way. And the international success he had during his first year with third-tier teams in North America helped lift his reputation and self-esteem a lot.
In 1998 Aebischer led Switzerland to its first and only World Junior medal, a bronze, and was named Best Goalkeeper and to the All-Star Team of the tournament. And he did not only surprisingly made the men’s national team for the 1998 IIHF World Championship on home ice in Zurich and Basle, he even dispossessed veteran goalkeeper Reto Pavoni from the net and led Switzerland to an astonishing fourth-place finish that would remain unreached until 2013’s silver medal in Stockholm.
The season after he was the number-two goalkeeper with the Hershey Bears, one year later the number one and after another year the Avalanche promoted him to the NHL. For three years he was the backup of legendary Patrick Roy. During that period he posted solid numbers and won the Stanley Cup in 2001 as the first Swiss-trained player. When Roy retired, Aebischer had a strong season as the Avalanche’s number one in the net.
Then came the lockout and a slump in Aebischer’s career. During his one-year stint in Switzerland he was at the wrong place at the wrong time in Lugano with another national team goalie on the roster and in the post-lockout NHL the game and the way goals were scored changed. Suddenly his strength like his strong physical play in front of his busy net and his classic butterfly style were not in high demand anymore.
During a mediocre 2005/2006 season the Avalanche traded him to the Montreal Canadiens. Aebischer got to know another high-profile NHL team but his numbers were not good enough anymore. He had to leave after the 2006/2007 season and the self-esteem built during many years shrank. After starting the following season with the Phoenix Coyotes organization in 2007 playing one NHL and five AHL games he returned to Europe.
Aebischer spent four years with mixed success with HC Lugano, came back to North America for one AHL season with the St. John's IceCaps and played two seasons for bottom-ranked Rapperswil-Jona Lakers in Switzerland.
The signs went towards the end of his career but again he didn’t want to give up despite unfavourable stats and a knee surgery. He came back and played five games with B-league team Thurgau where he ended up on the bench. He hoped to earn a bigger role in the National League A for the remainder of the season but no club was ready for him. It was the sad and late ending of the career of a pioneer who did not only open the doors as Patrick Roy’s backup during his first NHL years but also to Switzerland as a hockey country in North America.
Pretty much disregarded and overlooked by NHL scouts until the late ‘90s, Swiss star players used to stay at home where they earned significantly more than in the AHL or even than low-paid NHL players while enjoying the welfare and short travel distances in their country.
It was after Aebischer had set the example with hard work that both prospects and respected veterans from Switzerland ventured to leave home and try to make the NHL. Some of the early players like first-round picks Michel Riesen, Luca Cereda or veteran forward Reto von Arx had limited success and returned home.
Others like the other Swiss Stanley Cup winner Martin Gerber, defencemen Mark Streit and Roman Josi or young forward Nino Niederreiter have established themselves in the big league. This was also thanks to Aebischer’s example although the 36-year-old remains modest on his role.
“Everybody who made it (to the NHL) has earned it himself. If I hadn’t made it as the first another would have made it one or two years later. For a long time it was said Swiss are too soft for the NHL. If I was able to contribute to a change in opinions, I’m happy,” Aebischer told Freiburger Nachrichten.
“I don’t see myself so much as a pioneer. What makes me really proud is that I realized the goal I set as a 13-year-old with hard work, willingness and sometimes a portion of stubbornness.”
During his seven seasons Aebischer played 214 regular-season games (91.2%, 2.52 GAA) and 13 playoff games (92.2%, 2.07 GAA) in the National Hockey League. He appeared in 314 games in the Swiss National League A and represented Switzerland in five IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships and two Olympic Winter Games, the last time in 2006 where he was in the net in an upset win against the star-studded Czech team.
“The decision to retire came after the last one or two weeks and is well thought. When I make a decision, it’s final,” Aebischer said.
“My entire career was like a dream. During 18 years I was able to carry on my hobby. I have no reason to complain.”
Now he wants to start a new career and accompanied Fribourg-Gotteron’s goaltending coach Sylvain Rodrigue.
“I want to stay in hockey and turn over a new leaf. I go about my new education. Hockey is part of my life and it shall remain like that,” Aebischer said.