It was a tough night from Sunday to Monday for the Swiss national team. They beat Finland and Canada in the final round before losing in a shootout to Sweden in the gold medal game. They played with heart. Hearts as big as Mount Matterhorn, as Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet praised the Swiss team. But the players can still be proud of their extra-ordinary performance.
Since returning to the top division in 1998 after a four-decade long struggle to keep up with the elite nations, the Swiss men’s national team has for most of the time been a middle-class team among the top-16 that was 8th in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking, sometimes – like after the recent success – 7th, sometimes 9th.
Sometimes there was an exception towards the top like fourth place on home ice in 1998 or fifth place in 2010, sometimes there was a flop year like 11th place in 2012 and 2016. But most recently the good seasons have become better. Switzerland tied its all-time best placing, the silver medal of 1935, with second-place finishes in 2013 and 2018. Only Sweden was able to stop the Swiss in both finals. And this year the Swiss were closer than ever to winning gold for the first time in hockey history. What happened to the Swiss that they reached the gold medal game twice in five years?
Switzerland’s National League has become one of the most attractive hockey leagues in Europe and the profession of being a professional player became something to strive for if you’re a good teenage hockey player. The import quota in the league helps Swiss players to develop at the top domestic level and earn good money. But in combination with the big money available in Switzerland, it also created little incentives for Swiss players to strive for more – for the National Hockey League. Of the first players who tried it, many returned after a few years. Why should they play for little money on a farm team with long road trips if they could earn five times more and sleep at home after a road game back home in Switzerland?
This mentality has changed. More players try to make the NHL, more NHL scouts have an eye on Switzerland and in Copenhagen they might have seen even more future NHLers on the Swiss roster. At the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship we saw a new generation of Swiss players. The generation that wants to conquer the world and follow the pioneers who made the NHL.
Goaltender David Aebischer became the first Swiss player who was on an NHL roster for a full season in 2000/2001 with the Colorado Avalanche. Other goalies like late-bloomers Martin Gerber and Jonas Hiller followed him. Defencemen and forwards were less lucky in the beginning and returned home after some time, including Patrick Fischer, the current national coach. When defenceman Mark Streit moved to North America in 2005 for a second time at age 27 and after continuing his development in Switzerland, he became the first Swiss skater to leave an impact in the NHL in the years to come. Others followed. Roman Josi is among the top defencemen in the NHL and gets the most ice time at the Nashville Predators. Nino Niederreiter became the first Swiss forward with over 30 points in a season in 2013/2014 after moving to the Minnesota Wild. He was joined into the 30+ club by Sven Baertschi last season and by Nico Hischier, Kevin Fiala and Timo Meier this season. Hischier was drafted first overall last season and led all Swiss forwards in scoring already in his rookie season. 15 Swiss played an NHL game this season, more than ever.
These players were inspired by the first pioneers who dared to dream of the NHL, which is not a universe away anymore as the Swiss go head-to-head against NHL players at the Worlds, previously at the Olympics and at junior level, and also thanks to the internet. And this new generation will inspire more Swiss kids to work on becoming a world-class player.
The Swiss still had their ups and downs, this time even within a few months. They missed the quarter-finals at the Olympics but bounced back with silver at the Worlds. They played with braveness and offence and scored 33 goals in 10 games. In the newer history they only scored more, 35, during the other silver-medal campaign in 2013. It’s obvious: the Swiss don’t want to defend themselves into the quarter-finals like in the past but want to be playmakers, want to be brave.
Swiss national coach Fischer is not known as being introvert. His former teammate Lars Weibel, now a TV expert, at Monday’s reception reminded of an anecdote when Fischer as a player after Salt Lake City 2002 said about the national team that he should “take over to lead it to the top”. And when he indeed took it over as a head coach many years later, he said Swiss players should not dream about making the quarter-finals – usually the criteria between success and flop in the eyes of Swiss hockey fans and media – but about winning gold. People laughed about his dream but now the Swiss were just one penalty shot shy from beating Sweden for gold. He brought braveness and dreams into the national team influenced in a country of an otherwise rather reserved mentality.
The euphoria is big in Switzerland. On Sunday night up to 1.418 people watched the gold medal game on the biggest of the Swiss broadcasters, SRF, which was a 73.3 per cent market share in their market.
“The reception is incredible. I’m proud to be part of the team. It’s a small consolation after losing the final,” Sven Andrighetto told hockeyfans.ch after landing in Zurich. “We will need a couple of days to realize that we didn’t lose gold but won silver.”
The line between success and disappointment is small though and the Swiss try to limit the euphoria despite the dreams of winning gold. Some say after missing it in a penalty-shot shootout that it’s just a matter of time until the time is ripe. Preferably in 2020 when the Swiss will host the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Zurich and Lausanne.
“I hope one day we will get a third chance but I hope not against Sweden,” coach Fischer told SRF.
But for now it was time to say good-bye for the Swiss to the old hockey season and to the team.
“[Our team] is a crazy hockey family that gelled together with in a short time. They’re young but still mature. This team was wow. I will miss it,” Fischer said to Blick.