UFA – Any team that does not lose a game in regulation through five games to the quarter finals should rightly assume they’ll have qualified for the semi-finals, right?
Wrong. Such are the vagaries of the sport that overtime and shootouts can do in a team that has played well for 65 or 70 minutes against world-class opponents.
And such is the blemish on Switzerland’s sensational run at the 2013 U20, an event full of hope and promise, yet one marred by four straight losses in extra time, taking what should be a celebratory effort and turning into one writ large with confusion, frustration, and coulda-woulda-shoulda upset.
“It hurts,” admitted goalie Melvin Nyffeler, one of the great surprise stories of the tournament. “Four times we went to extra time, four times we lose. I’m very, very proud of our team. We felt we could have done a lot here, but we had no luck. We’re a big team, the coaches, the staff, everybody. We battled hard for everything. Now it’s finished.”
Switzerland came into this tournament as it does every tournament – on the outside of the big six, looking in. Coach Sean Simpson said as much after last night’s heart-breaking 4-3 shootout loss to the Russians. “It’s impossible to crack the big six. We have to look behind us, not ahead.”
And yet for two magical weeks, the Swiss were part of that big-six mix, moreso than, say, Finland in some ways.
Consider this. The Swiss started with an impressive 7-2 win over Latvia, then followed with a 3-2 shootout loss to the 2012 gold medallists Sweden despite leading 1-0 after the first period and 2-1 after the second.
Against Finland, the Swiss led 2-0 after the first and 4-2 midway through the final period only to surrender a late equalizer and lose again in the shootout. Against the Czechs, they showed enormous resilience, coming back from an early 1-0 deficit and then 3-1 late in the third, only to surrender an overtime goal to Tomas Hertl.
And then last night’s heart-breaker against the hosts and heavily-favoured Russians. The Swiss were down 1-0 and 2-1 and tied the game both times, then took the lead early in the third period. For most of the third they played solid defence, but late in the game they took a penalty, and Nikita Kucherov tied the score with just 99 seconds left in regulation.
One would have thought a 10-minute, four-on-four overtime would have been an easy opportunity for the Russians, but again the Swiss held tight and took the game to a shootout, only to lose for a fourth time.
“I didn’t say a lot to the boys after the game,” coach Sean Simpson said. “They’re really upset. It’s not the right time. All I told them was that I was proud of them. It’s not fair what happened to us. Four losses in overtime or shootout. When you’re good enough to take Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and Russia to overtime, at least one time you should win the game. They played their hearts out.”
Regardless, the Swiss played so well one would think they exceeded their pre-tournament expectations. “I don’t know about that,” Simpson suggested. “We knew we had a good team. We thought we had put a good system together. We were well prepared for every game. We thought we could pressure the Russians and skate with them. As long as we could stay out of the penalty box and cover the middle of the ice, we thought we could compete with them.”
Simpson is unique among coaches here in Ufa in that he also coaches the national senior team. It was a role that evolved organically and has nothing but upside to it as far as he can tell. “I love it,” he enthused. “It’s a great challenge, and we have a really great group of kids. They want to work hard and be together as a team. That’s why I took the challenge. I had been with them the last two World Championships as an observer, and I had them in the summer for two tournaments, so they asked me if I would just come for the Worlds. I didn’t have to think about it for too long because it’s a big honour for me to coach at the World Juniors. We’re realistic about our chances. We know that staying at the top level is the most important goal. Once we’ve done that, we can look and see how else we can improve. It’s all very close, though, like the senior World Championships. A bad period or one mistake can be very costly.”
Ufa has given Simpson plenty to think about and be excited about for the future of the juniors and how it might translate to the senior team three or four years down the road. Nyffeler is case in point. “We didn’t have a number-one goalie coming here,” Simpson admitted. “We gave Luca Boltshauser and Melvin one game each and then decided to go with Melvin. “Bolts” is a great goalie also, but in a short tournament you have to make a decision. We went with Melvin in game three and he played well again, so we kept going with him.”
Simpson is now able to take these experiences and player knowledge and work them into a master plan for the senior team with greater ease and less mystery. “I think it’s a really big advantage being the senior coach as well,” he agreed. “In the past, in Switzerland, the head coach of the national team didn’t have anything to do with the youth hockey. I find myself, now in my third year as coach, when I call on the young kids who played in the World Juniors to play for the senior team, I know them already, and they know me. So when they come to camp, there’s a better comfort zone. I know what they can and can’t do. I think it’s a big advantage, and I think there are connections between the youth national team and the senior team that weren’t there before, and it makes us more of a closer knit federation. We can’t play the same system exactly because we’re at different levels in world play at our different age levels. We’re trying to do a lot between the coaches. I talk to the youth coaches a lot.”
In the grand scheme of things, though, the senior program gets better only when the juniors get better, so the trickle-down effect is crucial. The juniors must be better as well, and there must be a bigger talent pool from which to draw the best 22 players at any level.
“Slowly, in the last few years, things have gotten better,” Simpson explained. “This year we have six players in the CHL, but our junior league isn’t as strong as it is in other nations. We have a couple of guys in Sweden as well, which helps. We also have four or five who play in our A league, and they play regular shifts – it’s a good league; you see all the NHLers playing there – so we have a good mix right now. That gives us a more mature group this year. In the past, they all came from the Swiss junior league, which can’t compare.”
But for now, things are looking up. The Swiss were the best surprise team of the 2013 U20 and several players look to be bright stars for the future, a future that is going to be guided by Simpson from top to bottom, with only positives to look forward to. These losses, devastating as they might seem now, will have a lasting and positive impact on the players, who will grow, learn, and remember – and make sure they never experience anything like it again.