“That was a great feeling,” Zwerger recalled. “I think we were the first promoted team in 10 years to stay up, and now we’ve got to prove again that we belong there.”
Zwerger played well, scoring two goals in seven games, despite sometimes being in awe of some of the players he was lining up against.
“When you look up and see Pavel Datsyuk...” he said before trailing off. “I mean, he’s a legend, and standing on the same ice as him was pretty awesome.”
After another fine season in Ambri-Piotta, in which he recorded 42 points in 49 games, and then five more points in five playoff games, the 22-year-old left winger is now ready for his second World Championship. National team head coach Roger Bader knows what he has in Zwerger.
“He’s a good player,” said Bader. “I had him on my team three years ago at the U20 World Championship (Division I Group A) in Vienna and he was the top scorer of the tournament. He’s now played two years in Ambri, which is something special for an Austrian player.”
Although they won’t exactly be at home in Vienna at this year’s World Championship, they’ll only be 80 km away in the Slovak capital of Bratislava for the group stage.
“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of fans from Austria there, supporting us,” said Zwerger. “They were even there last year in Copenhagen, where everyone had to fly, so now that it’s only 15 minutes from our border, I think there’ll be more of them.”
It’s a bit further from home for Zwerger, however. He’s from the opposite end of the country – Dornbirn, in Austria’s westernmost state of Vorarlberg, just five kilometres from the Swiss border. Due to that proximity, it’s common for players from Vorarlberg to play hockey in Switzerland, and there are a few good reasons for that.
“If you play there five years before you turn 18, you can get a Swiss hockey license and then you don’t count as an import,” Zwerger explained. “The (National) League only allows four imports per team, so if you don’t count as one, it opens up a lot more opportunities to play. It’s a high-level league and getting lots of ice time really develops you as a player.
“I played in Switzerland my whole life until I went over to America for four years. Now I’m back and I’ve already been playing there two years again.”
Zwerger played his youth hockey in Dornbirn and then Swiss clubs Rheintal, Herisau and Davos before going overseas at age 17 to play for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. After three seasons there, his most productive WHL season was with the Everett Silvertips in 2016/17 when he registered 90 points in 77 regular-season and playoff games combined.
Since returning to Switzerland, he clearly hasn’t had much difficulty re-adjusting to the European game, and he feels right at home in the mountain village in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
“I feel comfortable playing there,” he said of Ambri-Piotta. “I had a pretty good year myself, playing with some pretty good players like [Czech linemate] Dominik Kubalik. It’s lots of fun playing with him.
“Fabio Hofer also plays there. He just finished his first year and he had a pretty good season as well.”
Hofer is another member of the Austrian national team that hails from Vorarlberg. He’s about to play in his first World Championship. Other players on Austria’s preliminary roster who play in Switzerland include Martin Ulmer, Patrick Obrist and 19-year-old centre Benjamin Baumgartner.
“They took the same route as I did, and I think it’s helping them,” Zwerger said of the young Austrians developing in Swiss leagues. “They’re getting lots of playing time and they’re becoming better players.”
Bader is happy to have Austrian players go anywhere that will further their development.
“Swiss hockey is better than Austrian hockey, that’s obvious,” the coach said. “In the last five years, Switzerland has been to the World Championship final twice and we’re not even close to that. They’ve got a high-level league, so anyone from my team who can play in Switzerland or Sweden or the NHL usually comes back as a better player.”
So far, the only NHL player on Bader’s team is Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“That will be a huge help,” said Zwerger. “Any player from over there is a big help to our team.”
But most teams in Group B have more talent than the Austrians, so Zwerger knows that they’ll have to scratch and claw for every point, and stick to the game plan especially against the elite teams.
“Against Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, these types of teams... we’ve just gotta play our game, keep it simple, get pucks deep and battle it out down low,” said Zwerger. “We can’t get too fancy against some of these quality teams. They’re going to punish us for every mistake we make, so we have to make as few mistakes as possible.”
In addition to working towards the team’s success, Zwerger also hopes that proving himself against top-level competition will give him a chance at the NHL.
“For sure, that’s my biggest dream,” the 22-year-old admitted. “I think it is for any hockey player. Last year, when I was watching other (World Championship) games from the stands, I saw about 30 NHL scouts there, so this is definitely a way to prove yourself. I’m just trying to play my best and hopefully I’ll get a chance.”