Experience helps Hollenstein
by Derek O'Brien|25 DEC 2019
Luca Hollenstein has had a great season in Switzerland’s top pro league and the Champions Hockey League with EV Zug.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The biggest upset at last year’s World Junior Championship came in the quarter-finals, when Switzerland, the fourth seed in Group A, beat previously undefeated Sweden 2-0. Pitching the 41-save shutout was Luca Hollenstein, who is returning to the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ostrava and Trinec. 

“We played a good quarter-final against Sweden,” the Swiss goalie recalls. “I think that was our best game of the whole tournament. Then, in the semi-final against Finland, they were just a better team and deserved to win.”

As an 18-year-old, Hollenstein started five of Switzerland’s seven games in British Columbia, posting a 2.43 goals-against average and 91.67 save percentage. Now a professional goalie with EV Zug in Switzerland’s top league, he seems poised to be the team’s starter this year. He was solid in a pre-tournament game against Canada in Brno, Czech Republic, stopping 26 of 29 shots. 

On facing the star-studded Canadian roster, Hollenstein said: “Most of them are drafted or will be drafted next summer, so it’s tough to play against them.”

Despite the 3-0 final score, the two teams staged a penalty shootout after the exhibition game, with the Swiss getting some measure of satisfaction with a 3-2 win. Hollenstein was beaten by Alexis Lafreniere and Ty Dellandrea, stopped Barrett Hayton and Jared McIsaac, while Nolan Foote shot wide.

“I know who they are, but in the game you don’t really think about it,” he said. “You just get ready for the shot and if you stop it, good, and if not, well, shit happens.”

“Luca is an experienced goalie, having played at last year’s World Junior Championship,” Swiss head coach Thierry Paterlini said after the game against Canada. “He did a good job there and I thought he did again today. This was our last game before the start of the tournament and so far, he has the best chance to be our starting goalie.”

A product of the EV Zug Academy, Hollenstein backs up Leonardo Genoni on the club’s A team. Genoni, of course, is famous for backstopping Switzerland to a silver medal at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark, and Hollenstein has nothing but praise for him. 

“We work together and I’ve learned so much from him,” said Hollenstein. “On the ice, off the ice, he’s just a great guy and it’s fun to work with him.”

When Genoni suffered a groin injury in November, it gave Hollenstein the opportunity to string a few starts together. 

“It was an important moment,” he admitted. “You never like to see a teammate injured, but it gave me an opportunity, and I hope that I played well enough that the team feels comfortable giving me the start in more games this season.” 

In eight National League games this season, Hollenstein has a goals-against average of 2.17 and save percentage of 92.77, and in five Champions Hockey League games, he had spectacular numbers – 0.98 and 95.33. While it might be true that he’s received some of the easier starting assignments, all of those numbers are better than what Genoni has posted so far.

“The higher level you play, the better it is, especially for a goalie,” said Paterlini. “He’s played well in our National League and as well in the Champions League, so it shows the level that he’s capable of playing.”

In addition to Genoni, Hollenstein credits another decorated Swiss international goalie with helping his development. The goaltending coach of the Swiss national junior team is Pauli Jaks, who burst onto the scene at the 1991 World Juniors in Saskatchewan, winning the tournament directorate award for Best Goalkeeper. He also became the first Swiss-trained player to appear in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings in 1995.

“I had him in the U18s two years ago and the U15s, so I’ve known him for five or six years now,” Hollenstein said of Jaks. “I can learn a lot from him too.”

While goalies seem to be getting bigger and bigger all the time, Hollenstein bucks that trend, measuring just 178 centimetres. That might explain why the 19-year-old hasn’t been drafted yet. By contrast, Akira Schmid, one of the other goalies on this Swiss team who stands 195 centimetres tall, was a fifth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2018. 

Has anyone ever told Hollenstein that he’s too small to make it to the NHL?

“No, not directly,” he laughed. “It’s true, I’m smaller than most goalies. It just means I have to be faster and play more aggressively.”

Despite his stature Paterlini won’t hesitate to start Hollenstein in big games, stating: “He’s pretty small, yeah, but he reads the game well.”

It’s hard to know what to expect from the Swiss team this year. Although there are 11 players returning from last year’s fourth-placed squad – including goalies Hollenstein and Schmid – this is also largely the same group that was nearly relegated at the U18 World Championship two years ago, finishing ninth.

“It helps a lot, I think,” Hollenstein said of all the returnees. “We can be a good team if we play our best hockey. We can accomplish a lot, but we have to play our game. If we don’t, it won’t be enough.”