It wasn’t your typical Hollywood underdog sports story. Underdogs generally don’t win 9 straight heading into a championship final. Underdogs don’t tend to be one of the top-scoring teams in a tournament, finishing tied for the most goals. Underdogs don’t boast incredible goaltending, finishing second in team save percentage.
That is, however, what Switzerland did at the World Hockey Championships, defeating Sweden, Canada, the Czech Republic (twice!), and USA enroute to a landmark appearance in the gold medal game. Despite ultimately losing in a rematch with Sweden in the final, it was still an incredible tournament for the Swiss.
The national team’s performance, combined with the emergence of Swiss players in the NHL, is an indication that Switzerland is once again poised to be a top tier nation in hockey.
Commentators were quick to point out that the best Switzerland had ever done at a World Championships was silver, a feat they matched on Sunday, but that factoid sold short Switzerland’s previous competitiveness on the international stage. The fact is that Switzerland has a long and proud history in hockey dating back to 1902 and, for a little over two decades, was one of the best nations in the world in the sport.
From 1928 to 1953, including the Olympics, the Swiss won 9 international medals in hockey, although 8 of them were bronze. Considering that the World Championships were not held every year and a large chunk were cancelled due to World War II, Switzerland actually medalled in half of the World Championships and Olympics that were held, finishing in the top three in 9 out of 18 tournaments.
Switzerland also still hosts the longest running international tournament in hockey, the Spengler Cup, and boasts one of the longest running leagues in the world, with their top league tracing their history back to 1909. They were even a founding member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, way back in 1908.
Up until Sunday, Switzerland hadn’t won a medal since 1953, a 60-year gap. It likely won’t take as long for Switzerland to win another, considering the young talent coming out of the country who are making an impact in the NHL.
The first Swiss player picked in an NHL entry draft was Jacques Soguel, who the St. Louis Blues selected 121st overall way back in 1976. A few years later, the first ever Swiss-born player made the NHL: Mark Hardy, who made his debut with the Los Angeles Kings during the 1979-80 season and went on to play 915 games in a 15-season career. The only problem: Hardy was Canadian, moving to Canada as a young child.
It wasn’t until the 1994-95 season that an actual Swiss player reached the NHL and it was a very brief debut, at that. Pauli Jaks, a Swiss goaltender, appeared in two periods for the Los Angeles Kings, allowing two goals on 25 shots. His real claim to fame came at the 1991 World Junior Championships, where he stood on his head to prevent Switzerland from being relegated. Despite giving up 30 goals in 5 games, he was still named the tournament’s top goaltender and earned himself a fifth round selection from the Kings.
Though Jaks never truly made it in the NHL, he did pave the way for two other Swiss goaltenders to make their mark. David Aebischer made his NHL debut in 2000 for the Colorado Avalanche, while Martin Gerber came into the league in 2002 with the Anaheim Ducks, back when they were still Mighty. They were the first Swiss players to make a real impact in the NHL, with Aebischer becoming the first Swiss player to win the Stanley Cup, backing up Patrick Roy in the 2001 playoffs.
Aebischer had one successful season as Colorado’s starting goaltender following Roy’s retirement, but spent the bulk of his career as a backup.
The story is similar for Gerber, who spent just a couple seasons as a number one goaltender in the NHL. One of those seasons was in 2005-06, where he entered the playoffs as the Carolina Hurricanes’ number one, but was replaced by rookie Cam Ward, who carried the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup. Like Aebischer, Gerber won the Cup as a backup.
Swiss hockey has continued to grow, however. Defenceman Mark Streit is the best Swiss player in NHL history, though his competition is still minimal. Streit has been one of the top offensive defencemen in the league for the past five seasons and was the first ever Swiss player to be named captain of an NHL team when the New York Islanders appointed him in 2011.
There are now eight Swiss players in the NHL, with more set to join them. Jonas Hiller has been the Ducks’ number one goaltender for five seasons. The Ducks also boast Swiss defenceman Luca Sbisa.
Damien Brunner joined the Red Wings at the age of 26 and has played a major role, scoring 8 points in 10 playoff games. Roman Josi, who was named the Most Valuable Player at the World Hockey Championships, stepped into Ryan Suter’s vacated spot on the blue line in Nashville, playing over 23 minutes per game as an NHL sophomore. Raphael Diaz played over 20 minutes a night for Montreal.
Sven Baertschi and Nino Niederreiter are both highly-touted first round draft picks that look like they will make a major impact in the NHL very soon. Baertschi played 20 games for the Calgary Flames this season, scoring 10 points, while Niederreiter was rushed to the NHL a little too soon, but showed progress in the AHL and looks like he’ll be back playing for the New York Islanders next season.
Then there’s Reto Berra, who might end up being the Calgary Flames long-term answer to who will replace Miikka Kiprusoff once he retires. That’s a pretty big might, of course. Berra was absolutely phenomenal for the Swiss at the World Championships, winning all four of his starts with an incredible .967 save percentage and 1.00 goals against average to lead the tournament in both categories.
That includes a shutout victory over the United States in the semi-finals, ensuring Switzerland a medal. He didn’t, however, get the start in the gold medal game. Instead, the veteran Gerber, who certainly had a respectable tournament, got the start after beating Sweden earlier in the round robin. Berra has put up mediocre numbers in the Swiss League, but will likely get a long look from the Flames due to his impressive performance in Stockholm.
The future of Swiss hockey certainly looks bright and it seems likely that we’ll see more and more Swiss players making an impact in the NHL in the near future.