STOCKHOLM – Mathias Seger first put on a Swiss sweater just after his 18th birthday. Playing in the 1996 U20, he embarked on a career that continued a year later at a second U20 and then on to his first senior World Championship in 1998 at age 20 on home ice in Zurich and Basel.
Fifteen years later, Seger has played for Switzerland at every Olympics and World Championship since (excepting 2007), and when he stepped on the ice two nights ago in the team’s first game against Sweden, he tied an IIHF record by appearing in his 15th top-level World Championship. Only Petteri Nummelin of Finland has skated as frequently in the IIHF’s marquee tournament.
“I always feel old when I hear this number,” Seger said with a genial laugh after his team’s stunning 3-2 victory over the host Swedes. “The career of a hockey player goes so quickly. It’s unbelievable. I can’t imagine it’s already 15 years. I try to concentrate on the game, so it’s not something really special now, but maybe I’ll realize after the World Championship what has happened. It’s a nice thing, but it’s more important that we win games than me break records.”
That first year with the senior team turned out to be the best. Playing at home, the Swiss advanced to the bronze-medal game where it lost 4-0 to the Czechs. Still, it was a great performance under first-year coach Ralph Krueger that included a 4-2 win over Russia.
“It was an amazing World Championship for us,” Seger recalled. “Switzerland had never been on the hockey map, so to speak, but we finished in fourth place and that was pretty big for Swiss hockey. It was the start of a new era, and I was happy to be a part of it. Looking back, I think that was the highlight for my career.”
That was to be the start of a beautiful relationship that has been going strong ever since. Incredibly, Seger has played under only two coaches at the Worlds – Krueger and Sean Simpson – but he has managed to earn a spot on the team every but one year thanks to his leadership abilities and his consistent play. Of course, over the course of such a long time, the game has hardly remained stagnant.
“Hockey has changed a lot in the last 15 years,” Seger noted. “If you watch a game on tape from 15 years ago, it looks like a veteran game. The improvement of Swiss hockey over the last 15 years has been incredible, but it’s not only Swiss hockey. You see at the World Championships this year teams are closer than ever. It’s a tough race for the quarter-finals.”
That Seger has been able to improve and keep up as the game has gotten bigger and faster attests to his abilities. “The improvement in the Swiss league has also been amazing,” he continued. “If you saw 15 years ago, the first-place team would beat the last-place team 8-0 every time, but now it’s also a close race for the playoffs. And it’s been important to have players like Mark Streit make a career in the NHL. It helps a lot to generate interest in hockey in Switzerland. It’s important when players go overseas to play.”
Looking forward, Seger is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. He’ll play for as long as he can, but he realizes the day will come when someone will take his place.
“I always try my best and help the team. This is my role. I still love the game. If I feel I can still play at the same level with the boys, I will keep trying to play with the national team. But there are so many good young players coming up, the time for a change will come at some point, of course. But I’m very happy with my career with the national team and I always wish the best for the national team.”
Of course, the one date that sticks out most prominently on the hockey calendar is February 2014 when the world’s best will (hopefully) head to Sochi. Seger is also hoping to be there, but he knows he will have to earn a spot and not be given one.
“That’s my goal,” he admitted, “but it’s really tough. We have a lot of players in the NHL who are defencemen, so there’s only a small chance that I will be in Sochi. But I’ll try.”
As he always does – for 15 years and counting.