In 2007, Jonas Hiller left Switzerland to conquer the NHL. Now he’s back in Europe for the first time since then to play at the 2014 Olympics.
The Swiss immediately found his place with the Anaheim Ducks and is in his seventh season with the franchise from California. Since then Swiss fans have only had the chance to follow him twice in the red-and-white national team jersey: in the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Quebec City and in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Both times the team bowed out in the quarter-finals.
“I’m really looking forward to playing for the national team. It’s been ages – at the last Olympics – but I have great memories,” Hiller said.
“I think we have the best Swiss team I have ever played for in my life and I’m looking forward to competing with our team and hopefully celebrating success.”
For the 32-year-old late bloomer, who was already 21 when he debuted in the top Swiss league and never played at an U20 or U18 World Championship, it is also the first appearance under head coach Sean Simpson, who took over from Ralph Krueger after the last Olympics.
“We met in summer and we had phone calls and e-mails. Getting to know a new coach is learning something new and I’m very motivated,” Hiller said.
After seven years on Americas west coast, Hiller has developed into a star. His save percentage has never been below 91 per cent in any of his seven NHL seasons. Recently he broke a franchise record with 14 consecutive wins. After a difficult start of the season, Hiller hit some red-hot form: since December he has had a 92.44 save percentage.
And he has also been busy changing masks and equipment on various occasions, finding something special for things like the retro game, an outdoor game and now the Olympics. He likes to identify himself with the event he’s playing in and is ready to defend Helvetia’s colours here in Sochi.
After the last game in Nashville, he – along with Swiss Predators players Roman Josi and Simon Moser – flew to Sochi via Atlanta on one of the charter planes organized for NHL players.
After reaching and being ousted in the quarter-finals, Hiller wants more this time. He dreams of a medal. Silver at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship has shown that nothing is impossible. Hiller missed the event because he was busy in the play-offs with the Ducks.
“We lost and I was far away but followed it on the live ticker,” Hiller said. “It’s a pity that it didn’t work out in the final but it was a great success anyhow.”
“The Olympics are a different tournament than the World Championship but like there one important game decides the outcome. The World Championship gave the guys the confidence that they can win the games that matter and that we shouldn’t just be satisfied with reaching the quarters otherwise you’re not going to win.”
And he’s also aware that it will need a strong goalkeeping performance to achieve an upset. He and Calgary Flames netminder Reto Berra are expected to share ice time in the Swiss net but Hiller gets the start tonight against Latvia.
“On every team here there are great goalies. To be able to make the difference you definitely have to play great,” Hiller said. “I’m confident in the way I’m playing right now. I’ve been quite successful this season and I hope I can prove again at this level that I’m one of the best goalies in the world – and then I can maybe steal a game.
“To move on to the quarter-finals, semi-finals, it’s just about winning a game and if a goalie can win the game it’s huge for the team.
“Against Latvia we have to play at a high level to win the game. We must be strong from the first game and if we are, I have little doubt that we’ll succeed.”
The 2014 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament starts at 21:00 local time in Sochi. Switzerland faces Latvia in the Shayba Arena while the Czechs play the Swedes at Bolshoy Ice Dome.