ZURICH – The Swiss national team wrote history many times this month. Only Sweden was able to stop the Cinderella story in the gold medal game. The Swiss now hope to capitalize on their 2013 Worlds success and push the sport of hockey deeper into their country.
There couldn’t be a better sign about the Swiss ambitions than the end of the gold medal game. While the whole country was proud on the surprising silver-medal performance and the players could be proud of them, there was no trace of smile when captain Mathias Seger accepted the prize for the silver medal winners, nor when Roman Josi was given the award of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship’s Most Valuable Player.
The players were so close to winning the first World Championship for Switzerland, leading 1-0 after a few minutes and trailing only 2-1 after two periods, that they wanted the gold medal nobody would have bet on even in their wildest dreams. After all, the Swiss had disappointing finishes the two years before, 11th in 2012 and 9th in 2011.
“We’re disappointed about the game. We lost it and we won nine games before. Not many people believed before the tournament that we would play in a World Championship final,” head coach Sean Simpson rightfully reminded.
“We didn’t want to go to Stockholm to just play another World Championship. We wanted to achieve something special – and we did. I’m very proud of the work our team has done and about the silver medal. Switzerland has to be proud of this team. This team is a role model with its willingness, character and energy. What we did for Swiss hockey is a sensation. To be so close to the world title is super. We’ll try it again.”
The facts are as historic as they are impressive:
- Switzerland won its first World Championship medal since 1953.
- Switzerland won its first World Championship silver medal (and its second overall) since 1935.
- Nine wins and a streak of nine victories at the World Championship are a new record for the Swiss team. The closest record so far has been 7-1-2 in 1939.
- Roman Josi became the first Swiss to win an individual award at a top-level World Championship, as Best Defenceman.
- Roman Josi also became the first Swiss to be named Most Valuable Player of an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
- The Swiss national team scored more goals than ever in the era of modern hockey, 35 (3.5 per game). The last time Switzerland has scored more often was 57 goals in 1950.
- Switzerland conceded just 16 goals (1.6 per game). The last time the Swiss had a lower goals against average was in 1938 with seven goals in as many games.
- The Swiss finally managed to win against big hockey nations not only in the preliminary round but also when it mattered most (except for the gold medal game). They had a 2-1 record in the final round this year. Before Stockholm 2013 the all-time record in knock-out games had been 1-13 with the only win coming in the 1992 quarter-finals, 3-1 against Germany.
These days the newspapers were full with hockey. On Whit Monday, when no papers appear in Switzerland, one of them put on the printing machines for an extra edition on the day after the gold medal game and on that day thousands of fans waited for their heroes at the Zurich Airport. Thousands of Facebook profile photos were changed to the Swiss flag. And in the red-and-white euphoria Swiss Post started producing a stamp dedicated to the national team, an honour last done for Roger Federer when he won Wimbledon six years ago.
“Switzerland can be proud of this team. They battled until the end. They didn’t say winning silver is nice. They wanted more and they believed in themselves,” said Marc Furrer, President of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. “That shows the character of this team. They’re a role model for all athletes and Swiss.”
As improbable it was for the Swiss to win silver in Stockholm, it will no doubt be an equal challenge for them to repeat the same success at the Olympics next winter or at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus. The World Championship campaign was a warning signal for its Group C opponents in Sochi: the Czech Republic, Sweden – both played twice against the Swiss in the Worlds – and Latvia.
But the Swiss players have shown their capability and coach Simpson has proven that he can find the right mix and strategy, no matter whether his team is the underdog or favourite. The success itself is no coincidence even if it peaked at unpredicted heights. The quantity and quality of star players has risen also thanks to efforts by the federation and clubs in the last 20 years in development and coaching.
While Swiss players were seldom given a chance in the NHL ten or 15 years ago – usually they appeared in few NHL games after some time on farm teams – the Swiss National League A is now seen as strong enough for players to transfer directly from Switzerland to the NHL, as shown by players like Josi, Raphael Diaz, Damien Brunner, Jonas Hiller or Mark Streit. More players may follow. Goalkeeper Reto Berra will join the Calgary Flames next season while forward Simon Moser was reportedly invited by the Nashville Predators, Josi’s team.
“I spoke with people from other countries at the World Championship,” Furrer said. “They were not surprised. They saw how we worked in Switzerland, especially in youth hockey, and said the success is a logic consequence. They were still surprised we came that far, but it seemed explainable.”
Can hockey become even bigger in the country of roughly eight million people? And can Switzerland become a regular medal contender in the future?
While Simpson said he hopes the national team will now be perceived as cool and successful, Furrer hopes that the hockey community will grow in Switzerland.
“I hope that many young people will join hockey and see that it’s a great sport that needs good team spirit. I hope we will be on the cutting edge in the competition with other sports, not only for spectators but also for those who play sports,” Furrer said.
Switzerland has 26,166 registered players. While this is a good number, it’s still far behind Sweden (69,921) with slightly more, and Finland (56,626) with slightly less inhabitants.
Furrer also hopes for more money when talks start for new sponsorship deals. The hockey wave the national team started in Stockholm surely won’t hurt the federation and clubs when presenting hockey as a platform for advertising companies. And he hopes for improvement when it comes to rinks.
“Now as people see we’re a hockey country, I also hope that we will have it easier when it comes to building rinks and in these exhausting discussions with communities who don’t want to spend the money.”
There are ideas for new state-of-the-art hockey venues in Zurich and Geneva but the projects are still in political consultation. The hope is that such a new arena could also host a World Championship after Switzerland has hosted in 2009 and 1998 the last times.
“We announced to the other nations that we would be interested in hosting the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2019 or at the most in 2020, but we have to see where we would host it,” Furrer said. “We have now time to consider and work on an application before we officially enter a bid.”
“A World Championship creates lot of goodwill and interest, especially with a team like this. Imagine we would play like this in Switzerland!”
Switzerland coach Sean Simpson walks through a red-and-white sea of fans, Swiss flags and cameras after the national team’s arrival in Zurich. Photo: Thomas Oswald / hockeyfans.ch