The defending champion of the Austrian-based international ICE Hockey League, Salzburg currently sits second in the regular season, six points behind Italian-based HC Bolzano. Salzburg had won six games in a row before losing 1-0 to Bolzano in the team’s most recent game. Salzburg is led in scoring by Austrian national team winger Peter Schneider, who has 15 points in 13 games.
“It’s good so far,” Schneider said about the current season. “I hope we can keep winning in our league and we’ll see how far we get in the Champions League.”
While Austrian hockey isn’t quite on the level of some of Europe’s best, Salzburg has gotten used to international success over the past 25 years. In addition to seven titles in the multi-state league in that time, Salzburg also won the IIHF Continental Cup in 2009/10 and advanced to the CHL semi-finals in 2018/19. This season, they advanced to the round of 16 on a dramatic final day of the group stage in which the team needed a point against Swiss club Fribourg-Gotteron with a lineup decimated by injuries and got a late equalizing goal. The shootout loss to follow was academic.
“We had a lot of guys out and went with a really young team,” said Schneider, who missed the game himself. “The guys managed to get the tie, which helped us advance. It was awesome. I don’t think a lot of people expected that, but I knew we had a chance to do it, and I’m really proud of the guys because it was a really big game.”
Schneider, 31, is one of several Salzburg players who regularly play for the Austrian national team. Others include Thomas Raffl, Dominique Henrich, Benjamin Nissner, Ali Wukovits, Paul Huber, Philipp Wimmer and goaltender David Kickert.
“We have the same five-man unit and same power-play unit on the club and national team, so I think that helps us a lot,” said Schneider. “You also get used to a higher level and a faster game and physically stronger opponents.”
Now in his second year in Salzburg, many of Schneider’s formative hockey years were spent abroad after first going to Slovakia at the age of 14. After three years in Czechia, he then spent seven years in the United States – mostly in the state of Indiana – in the USHL, NCAA and ECHL.
Recalling his time at the famous Notre Dame University, he said: “I had a great four years there with a lot of great memories. I had a bit of a tough time hockey-wise, trying to get used to that level and style of play, but academically and being with the guys, it was just an awesome experience.”
A self-described late-bloomer, Schneider played in his first World Championship in 2018 at age 27. Four years later, this year in Finland, Schneider led the Austrian team with nine points in seven games.
“In college, I had a bit of a tough time adjusting to the higher level,” Schneider admitted. “We had a lot of great players so I took more of a defensive role, and it took me a couple of years after college to find my stride again and get a little confidence. I finally got a chance to play for the national team. I think the first World Championship was alright and since then, I’ve played for the national team every chance that I can and we’ve been improving there, so it’s been a pretty good ride.”
This year’s World Championship wasn’t just great for Schneider personally. The Austrian team exceeded expectations, earning a historic first win over Czechia, playing close games against some other powerhouse teams, and ultimately finishing 11th – the nation’s highest finish since 2004.
“We had a couple of older guys but in general, we had a pretty young, inexperienced team and we weren’t so sure how it was gonna go,” said Schneider. “We knew if we wanted to surprise some teams and win some games, we had to play as a team, so we tried to focus on forming a bond and playing for each other and I think that was our secret to success. We knew we were underdogs in pretty much every game except for that last one (against Great Britain), which was actually our worst game. But overall, I’m really happy with the way we played.”
A key member of the Austrian team was 18-year-old Marco Kasper, who put his skills on display for the world to see just weeks before being drafted eighth overall by the Detroit Red Wings – by far, the highest an Austrian has ever been picked.
“He’s a really good player – he wasn’t chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft for nothing,” said Schneider. “He’s a really good skater, he can create plays, he can shoot the puck and he’s a little feisty too. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses in his game. And for his age, he’s got a lot of confidence already.”
Kasper is a member of the Rogle team that Schneider and company will face, this Tuesday in Salzburg and next Tuesday in southwestern Sweden.
On the opportunity to see a young Austrian phenom visiting, Schneider said of the Salzburg fans: “I think they will be excited to see an Austrian prospect that has a legitimate shot at going to the NHL. Obviously, he’s not from Salzburg so there’s not that connection, but for Austria in general, it’s a cool thing to see because we haven’t had a lot of high draft picks so far.”
But beyond Kasper, Schneider and his teammates know they will have their hands full against the team that last year won the CHL title and lost in the Swedish Hockey League finals.
“After you advance from the group stage, there are no easy opponents, so we knew we would probably have to go against a really good team,” Schneider reasoned. “We knew that going in so it doesn’t really bother us. Rogle won it last year so they’re on top of Europe, so we’re going to have to be at our absolute best to have a chance, but we’re prepared to fight and try our best.”