UNIONDALE, USA – Go to the website of the New York Islanders and you will see a bit of history on the cover photo. Since Wednesday, the poster boy wearing the C is Mark Streit from Englisberg, a village of less than 400 people near Berne, Switzerland, the first Swiss captain in NHL history.
Having European players as captains is not that exotic anymore in the NHL. Zdeno Chara led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup in his sixth season wearing the C. Nicklas Lidström in Detroit, Mikko Koivu in Minnesota, Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa, Henrik Sedin in Vancouver and Alexander Ovechkin in Washington were the other European captains at the beginning of last season.
But an NHL captain from Switzerland, the small Alpine country of seven million inhabitants? No Swiss player had even been close to that honour, until Streit was handed his jersey with the C on September 21st at a press conference where the Islanders owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow announced Streit as 13th captain of the franchise’s 40-year history. He follows after Doug Weight, who stepped down as a player to join the staff as an assistant coach and senior advisor to the GM.
“There have been many legendary players before me who’ve been captain of this team like Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin in the past and Dougie Weight and Billy Guerin. (I have some) very big footsteps to fill, but I’m really excited. This is an unbelievable day for me,” Streit said at the press conference. “There’s never been a Swiss player named captain in the NHL and it’s a big honour.”
Having a captain in the NHL is a new milestone for Swiss hockey. The country might have medalled in the old days and Switzerland is a stable number seven in the IIHF World Ranking, but the impact of Swiss players in the NHL has been marginal in comparison, as these milestones show:
- 1976: Jacques Soguel of HC Davos becomes the first Swiss drafted by an NHL team. However, it took a while until he learnt about it and the St. Louis Blues never contacted him.
- 1995: Goalkeeper Pauli Jaks becomes the first Swiss to play an NHL game. As an emergency goalkeeper Jaks played 40 minutes for the Los Angeles Kings and saved 92.0% of the shots, but it remained his only NHL game.
- 1997/1999: Switzerland medalled at U20 and U18 World Championships and Swiss draft picks become more common. Michel Riesen (Edmonton/Biel, 14th overall) in 1997 and two years later Luca Cereda (Toronto/Ambrì, 24th overall) became the first Swiss first-round picks, though later they became known as Swiss misses. Riesen left after only 12 NHL games in three years while in Toronto, doctors discovered a heart defect that eventually ended Cereda’s career after a few years in the AHL and back home.
- 2000: Reto von Arx becomes the first Swiss skater to play and NHL game and scores two goals in his second game for the Chicago Blackhawks, but he didn’t become an NHL regular.
- 2001: Colorado’s David Aebischer, as a backup of Patrick Roy, becomes the first Swiss Stanley Cup champion and takes the trophy to his native city Fribourg. Later he became the first regular Swiss player in the NHL when he was the starter for Colorado and Montreal during three years. In 2006 Martin Gerber became the second Swiss to win the Cup, as a backup with Carolina.
- 2005: Mark Streit transfers from Zurich to Montreal where he becomes the first Swiss skater to regularly play in the NHL.
- 2006: Martin Gerber becomes the first Swiss hockey player to receive an annual multi-million dollar salary when he signs a three-year deal worth $11.1m with the Ottawa Senators. In 2008 Mark Streit signed a five-year, $20.5m deal with the Islanders, and Jonas Hiller extended his contract with the Anaheim Ducks for four years and $18m in 2010.
- 2009: Mark Streit becomes the first Swiss to play in an NHL All-Star Game. Jonas Hiller follows in 2011.
- 2010: Nino Niederreiter becomes the highest-drafted Swiss player when Streit’s Islanders drafted him fifth overall. He played nine games in the NHL last season before he was sent to Portland for his second year in Canadian major junior hockey. In 2011 Sven Bärtschi became the second Swiss first-rounder in the last few years when the Calgary Flames picked him 13th overall.
- 2010: Luca Sbisa (Anaheim, three years WHL) and Yannick Weber (Montreal, two years OHL, two years AHL) become the first regular Swiss NHL players, who did not transfer directly from Europe to the NHL, but developed through years in Canadian junior leagues and/or farm teams.
And now comes Mark Streit as the first Swiss NHL captain.
His nomination doesn’t fully come to a surprise. In 2007 in Montreal and 2009 with the Islanders he was nominated the franchise’s candidate for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey by a poll of journalists. Such a nomination doesn’t come out of nothing, but is usually based on leadership qualities a team captain needs.
Wearing the C is nothing entirely new for the blueliner. He did it in Zurich before he left for the NHL, and he has been the Swiss national team’s captain since 2006 in two Olympic Winter Games and three IIHF World Championships.
Streit has had an unusual career for an NHL player, but not for a Swiss. As most Swiss players who cross the ocean at an early age to play in junior or farm teams, Streit struggled as a 22-year-old when he split one season between the AHL, IHL and ECHL before returning to Switzerland.
During the next five years, Streit developed to a star defenceman of the Swiss league with the ZSC Lions Zurich and on the national team. In his best year, during the NHL lockout, Streit notched 58 points in 59 NLA games as a blueliner, and he had seven points in as many games at the 2005 IIHF World Championship. He drew interest from NHL teams, eventually signing a contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
This time, as a fully-developed 27-year-old, Streit didn’t fail in North America. He spent three years in the hockey-crazy city, but his offensive-minded style didn’t fit well to the game plan. He played only 48 games in the first year while being scratched on many occasions. In the next two years he was often used as a winger and as a blueliner on the power play. In 2007-2008 he had a career-high 62 points in 81 games.
Streit was offered a new contract in Montreal, but he decided to search a team where he would be a better fit and found it in the New York Islanders. After two great years, back as a defenceman, he missed the entire 2010-2011 season due to a shoulder injury from the pre-season camp. But now he’s back, this time with a C on his chest.