ZURICH – With the end of the regular season in Switzerland, Damien Brunner has written history as the first Swiss to win the scoring race in the National League A in 30 years.
The Swiss national team forward of EV Zug notched 24 goals and 60 points – nine more than his next follower, fellow countryman Julien Sprunger of Fribourg-Gottéron.
The best import players were Czech forwards Jaroslav Bednar (Lugano, 50), Petr Sykora (Davos, 49), and with 45 points each Canadians Jeff Tambellini and Simon Gamache.
It was 1982 when the last Swiss player ended up on top of the scoring stats. 30 years ago it was Guido Lindemann who won the scoring title. At that time, the championship was decided in a round-robin competition.
Lindemann played just 38 games (25 goals, 67 points) en route to the championship. His club EHC Arosa won its last championship that year, but hasn’t played in professional hockey for the last two decades.
Lindemann had his three World Championship participations in the B-Pool at that time. Today Switzerland is ranked seventh in the world of hockey and hasn’t left the top division since getting back in 1998.
And the name Lindemann is represented by Guido’s son Sven, who’s also Brunner’s teammate in Zug.
Many great names have won the Swiss scoring title since. Vyacheslav Bykov, his “twin” Andrei Khomutov, and Gaetano Orlando are among the title holders. Or more recently former NHLers such as Oleg Petrov, Stéphane Lebeau, Randy Robitaille, Glen Metropolit and Juraj Kolnik. And even two defencemen, Ron Wilson and Petteri Nummelin.
And now Damien Brunner can be added to this list of illustrious names, exactly three decades after the last Swiss.
In the end it wasn’t a surprise anymore for Brunner to be awarded the best scorer of the regular season.
“I had been scoring leader since the fifth round and was always asked about, so I realized the historic facts early and it wasn’t a big surprise in the end,” Brunner said at a ceremony in Berne on Tuesday. “I was even at Guido’s home and we talked about it. I didn’t put myself under pressure. I just tried to become better. It was a motivation for me. Sometimes everything pans out.”
Had somebody bet on Brunner winning the scoring race three years ago, they would have been called foolish. At that time Brunner was playing for the Kloten Flyers, or with their B-league affiliate. Unlike other talented players in Kloten, he wasn’t able to show his potential.
Brunner was a late bloomer who was never called upon to play at the U20 or U18 World Championships. His NLA debut with his childhood club Kloten Flyers came in 2006 at age 20.
“My first year with Kloten was great. I made the team as a junior although I wasn’t on the national junior team,” Brunner looked back. “But in my second year new prospects came up and other players were seen as more talented.”
Kloten and Zug decided to trade players that performed below their expectations.
Trades during the season are normal business in the NHL, but exchanging players in trades is very seldom in Europe. It was a trade of almost historic lopsidedness. Brunner became a star with EV Zug while Thomas Walser, who was traded to Kloten for Brunner, had to leave after that season and ended his career as a 27-year-old.
“In Kloten I played on the fourth line or I was scratched. I had to play dump-and-chase hockey, which doesn’t fit so well with my style of play,” Brunner said. “But in Zug I got more ice time. Our coach Doug Shedden was a big mentor for me.”
“He always spurred me on, told me I can become even better,” the Zurich native said. “It’s nice as a player if your coach has such high expectations.”
Brunner is not a normal Swiss forward. Most Swiss forwards are trained to become good all-rounders and team players since their peewee days. That’s one reason why only few Swiss forwards shone at the international stage with great individual performances, and no Swiss player has become a good NHL forward.
Brunner is different. He’s more skilled, more ambitious, braver and sometimes he can also appear roguish, or even arrogant.
But he scores points. Many of them.
“The scoring title means much to me,” Brunner said. “It’s also about developing offensive qualities [in Swiss hockey]. We must be honest, we lack of quality. We did a step into the right direction. It’s not only me or Julien Sprunger who are scoring leaders this year. There are also other upcoming players.
“That’s the way we have to go. We need to have players who want to achieve more so we can become stronger internationally and compete for a medal. It cannot be that we regularly fail by a one-goal margin in the quarter-finals.”
Could Brunner become Switzerland’s first offensive superstar of the modern hockey era?
Switzerland has had several players in the NHL, but they are either goalkeepers like Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller, or defencemen like Islanders captain Mark Streit. But both were late bloomers, like Brunner, who made their way to the NHL by developing in their native country.
Swiss forwards have had a tough life in the big league. Patrick Fischer played 27 games with Phoenix (4+6=10 points) in 2006/2007, Reto von Arx 19 games for Chicago (3+1=4) in the 2000/2001 season. And the New York Islanders’ first-round draft choice (fifth overall) from 2010, Nino Niederreiter, has played 39 games (1 goal) this season, although only on the fourth line, and most recently he has been a healthy scratch.
Despite the high draft status of Niederreiter and Sven Bärtschi (13th overall in 2011, Calgary), Brunner is currently the hottest Swiss forward.
Guido Lindemann might keep his record of being the last Swiss to win two scoring titles (1981, 1982) in a row as Brunner will leave for the NHL in summer. The only open question is which franchise he’ll sign with.
“I think I’ve reached a point at which I’m ready to think about going to the NHL and find out whether I have potential enough to play in the NHL. It’s a situation that has evolved in the last two, three years,” Brunner said about his decision. “I first want to finish my season with Zug before talking to NHL teams.”
The 2010 IIHF World Championship was the highest level he has played so far and he notched five points (one goal, four assists). It’s been the only IIHF tournament for Brunner. He missed last year’s world tourney due to an injury, but might be seen this year when Switzerland travels to Helsinki for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. And he knows he will be seen not only by fans, but also scouts.
“I just play my game although I sometimes know that there are scouts on the tribune. I want to play my best game for Zug in the playoffs, and for the national team at the World Championship,” Brunner said.
“I’m looking forward to playing for the national team. It’s good to play with other guys, another system, to have new experiences. It’s good when players on a line are familiar with each other, but it’s also good when you have to think ahead and find new ways as a player, that’s a good way to develop.”
But for now all focus is on the playoffs that start Thursday with the best-of-seven quarter-finals. And then comes the national team, and perhaps the NHL. His agent has already been in contact with several clubs.
“I don’t know all the teams that showed interested, but I want to find a team that trusts in me,” Brunner said. “It wouldn’t make sense to play three years in the AHL. I could also imagine an out-clause to spend another year with Zug if the coach decides I’m not NHL-ready yet, same as other European players do nowadays. It’s important to develop as a player at a high level and according to one’s style of play.”
- EV Zug starts the quarter-final series on Thursday with a home game against EHC Biel.
- It’s the third time Zug won the regular season after 1995 and 1998. In 1998 the club won its only national championship.
- For EHC Biel it has been the first playoff qualification in 19 years. During the last two decades the club has mostly played in the National League B, but made it back to the top league in 2008. Biel got the playoff berth on the last day at the expense of Genève-Servette.
- HC Davos vs. ZSC Lions Zurich, Fribourg-Gottéron vs. HC Lugano and Kloten Flyers vs. SC Bern are the other quarter-final pairings in the league.
- While Brunner won the scoring title, the captains and coaches of the 12 clubs selected Reto Berra as MVP of the regular season in an unofficial poll. The goalkeeper was one of the key players in getting Biel into the playoffs and had one more vote than Brunner.
- At a recent league meeting the clubs were in favour of the committee’s proposal of not coming up with a transfer agreement with the NHL. Since the international player transfer agreement between the NHL and the IIHF had not been extended in 2007 due to lack of interest from some leagues, several countries have signed individual agreements with the NHL instead, among them Finland, Germany and Sweden. Other top countries than Switzerland that didn’t enter a transfer agreement are the Czech Republic and Russia. The conclusion of the Swiss clubs was that a transfer fee of $200,000 to $350,000 wouldn’t adequately compensate them for the loss of a top player at the transfer deadline in July.
- Lausanne, Langenthal, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Visp have applied for promotion to the National League A. To get promoted they need to win the B-league, defeat the last-place team from the NLA in a best-of-seven series and fulfill the financial and infrastructural criteria of the league. The NLA teams battling against relegation are Genève-Servette, Langnau, Ambrì and Rapperswil-Jona.