U20 World Junior Championships Preview: Team Switzerland

Nino Niederreiter is one of a very few amount of Swiss players used to the media attention they'll receive at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships in Buffalo and Niagara, NY. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

I can't vouch for how the Swiss national hockey team are viewed worldwide, but in Canada, they've developed the reputation of being a bit of a party pooper.  Sure, Canada cheered on exuberantly last year when the Swiss U20 team knocked off the hated Russians in a thrilling overtime game, making Canada's path to the finals much easier.  But that fact may have made things worse for Canada, who had an easy semifinal only to lose the final game on home ice to the Americans.  Meanwhile, the Americans had a much tougher path to the final, knocking off Finland and Sweden, and may have been more prepared as a result.  Then there's the Swiss men's team, which always gives the Canadian men's team a tough battle, beating them in the 2006 Olympics and forcing Canada to a shootout in Vancouver ten months ago.  

But enough about how Canada views the Swiss, let's look at the country itself.  Switzerland has been around as a hockey nation pretty much as long as Europe has had the sport, and during the holiday season, the mountain resort town of Davos hosts one of hockey's oldest traditions:  the Spengler Cup invitational tournament.  But for the longest time, hockey was never really a major part of the Swiss sporting culture.  That's begun to change in the last generation or so, and you can see it by their results at the junior level.  Switzerland has hung with the top group for all but one year since 1996.  The year they were relegated was just recently (2008), when a surprising Kazakh team knocked them off and placed 8th.  This has helped give credence to the notion that Switzerland is now a member of the 'Elite 8' , and they usually alternate between 7th and 8th place in general.  

Top Swiss players in recent years have taken to coming to North America to play major junior, as Switzerland has yet to develop a real strong junior league.  The results of their national junior team are generally ignored by the public, whose attention is occupied by the popular Spengler Cup.  But that doesn't mean that coverage doesn't exist for the World Juniors, and probably the best source of it for the country exists at the popular website HockeyFans.ch.  While working the World Juniors last year in Saskatoon for Puck Daddy, I was seated next to the HockeyFans crew and was impressed by their multimedia coverage, which involved internet radio, web articles with great photos, interactive message boards, and a lot of interviews.  Urs Berger was the voice for their radio webcasts (and did a great call of Nino Niederreiter's OT winner against Russia), and has been a hockey writer in Switzerland for decades.  He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the team in advance of his crew's trip to Buffalo, which hopefully didn't encounter too many of the flight issues that have plagued international travel this holiday season.  (Ed. note:  I've adjusted some of the grammar, hopefully as intended).

How did hockey fans in Switzerland react to last year's surprising 4th place finish, and the win over Russia?

It was only a short (lived) surprise. But the most of the Swiss Hockey Fans did not realise how huge it was. Both the Swiss TV and the newspapers did not make a huge story out of it. This is part (of) the problem, that the junior movement doesn't get any space in the press. (The World Juniors) does not exist in the Swiss media. 

Last year's team had Roman Josi and Luca Sbisa on it, though both were hurt for the playoff rounds.  Is there anyone coming up to replace those players, or will it just put more pressure on (goaltender) Benjamin Conz?

I personally see one or two players who could make a surprise. First of all is Sven Bartschi who play in the WHL with the (Portland) Winterhawks. Some of the fans do know his name, but largly because he maybe can be the next Nino Niderreiter, who also plays with Sven on the same team. Both to have the same agent (Andre Rufener) who also has Luca Sbisa under contract. 

To replace Roman and Luca I do not see anyone who can fill the spot on the D. But I personally believe, that the D will again be a good part in the team. They will play in a perfect defensive style. They will also wait for their chances to go to the net. 

Benjamin Conz is, together with Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi, probably the hottest player on the Swiss team. There will be a lot of pressure on Conz. But I do believe, that he is the guy who will be the cornerstone of the Swiss team.   

Are players encouraged to come to North America to play junior?  What is the competition level of the Swiss U20 leagues?

Both are tough questions to answer. I will try to answer them as well as I can.

Some players are afraid to take the step at an early stage of their career. Others, like Nino, Sven or Luca had no fear to go to NA and play there. All three of them were kind of door openers, same as Roman Wick and Yannick Weber were in 05/06 (Wick) or 07/08 (Weber). But in this year's class of juniors we do have the most players ever in the juniors leagues in Canada.

The junior league is not as good as it should be. Indeed they are playing 20 year old boys against 16 year old kids, not really what it should be like. So the level isn't that good. The (national) federation is making some steps do another format or age group too.  But there is no (solution) in the near future. The clubs to not pay too much attention to that issue.

Who do you see as a breakout player at this tournament, a guy that fans don't know about and could surprise?

Camperchioli Luca (D, ZSC Lions), Hofmann Gregory (F, HC Ambri-Piotta), McGregor Ryan (F, GCK Lions)

This three could be a possible surprise. But it is hard to make a prediction. I have not seen (all the team) play. 

What is your prediction for Switzerland at this tournament?

If everything goes OK for the Swiss team, they should be not in the relegation (round). But it depends on the first game against Germany. If they come away with a good and clean victory they can again be a runner-up and a surprise at this year's tournament. But there also could be a disappointment.  It definitely comes down to the games against Germany and Slovakia.

Team Switzerland
# Player Pos. S/C Ht. Wt. Born Hometown Club
23 Benjamin Antonietti LW R 5'10" 152 1991 - Lusanne (NLB)
15 Sven Bärtschi LW L 5'11" 183 1992 Langenthal Portland (WHL)
7 Luca Camperchioli D L 6'0" 209 1991 Basel ZSC Lions (NLA)
1 Benjamin Conz G R 5'10" 207 1991 Porrentruy SCL Tigers (NLA)
21 Renato Engler W L 5'8" 176 1991 Davos Davos U20 (Swi Jr A)
20 Remo Giovannini G L 6'2" 194 1991 Davos Davos U20 (Swi Jr A)
28 Samuel Guerra D L 6'0" 185 1993 Isone Davos (NLA)
11 Gaëtan Haas C R 5'11" 168 1992 Bonfol Biel (NLA)
27 Yannick Herren W L 5'12" 198 1991 Saas Grund Kloten (NLA)
13 Gregory Hofmann W L 6'0" 170 1992 Neuenberg Ambrì-Piotta (NLA)
18 Manuel Holenstein W L 5'6" 148 1991 Davos Davos (NLA)
5 Romain Loeffel D R 5'10" 181 1991 La Chaux-de-Fonds Gottéron (NLA)
25 Lino Martschini RW R 5'5" 117 1993 Zug Peterborough (OHL)
19 Ryan McGregor C L 5'11" 185 1991 Jona GCK Lions (Swi Jr A)
30 Lukas Meili G R 5'10" 161 1992 Russikon Küsnacht (NLB)
22 Nino Niederreiter LW L 6'0" 207 1992 Chur Portland (WHL)
16 Inti Pestoni W L 5'9" 174 1991 Sementina Ambrì-Piotta (NLA)
10 Tristan Scherwey RW L 5'9" 176 1991 Wunnewil Flamatt Bern (NLA)
8 Dominik Schlumpf D R 5'12" 174 1991 - Shawinigan (QMJHL)
9 Reto Schäppi C L 6'4" 205 1991 Horgen ZSC Lions (NLA)
6 Nicholas Steiner D L 5'12" 198 1991 Eggiwil Kloten (NLA)
2 Dave Sutter D R 6'4" 203 1992 Monthey Seattle (WHL)
17 Dario Trutmann D R 5'11" 185 1992 Küssnacht Plymouth (OHL)
32 Ramón Untersander D R 6'0" 194 1991 - Davos (NLA)
26 Joël Vermin RW L 5'11" 181 1992 Fraunkappelen Bern (NLA)
24 Samuel Walser C L 6'3" 205 1992 Olten Kloten U20 (Swi Jr A)

 

2011 Draft hopefuls (first time eligible only):  LW Sven Bartschi, D Samuel Guerra, D Dario Trutmann, W Gregory Hoffman, RW Lino Martschini/

NHL Drafted:  LW Nino Niederreiter (NYI, 5th overall, 2010)

Staff:  Peter Luthi (General Manager), Richard Jost (Head Coach), Alex Reinhard and Sergio Soguel (Assistant Coaches)

Switzerland gets a similar draw to last year, in that there are two teams they probably won't beat in their group (USA and Finland), but two that they can beat.  They are generally a cut above Germany and a cut below Slovakia, but the gap is narrowing between all three nations.  It'll be an interesting battle for who gets the third spot there.  Switzerland and Germany both have good goaltending (Slovakia is very suspect there), Slovakia has the better defence (followed by Switzerland, which is a decent amount ahead of Germany), and the forwards definitely go to Slovakia.  Both Switzerland and Germany have a decent forward group, with the Swiss relying on star power in Niederrieter and Bartschi, and the Germans probably relying more on depth.  

I hope I'm wrong about my prediction, since I hope to see the Hockey Fans crew again in Alberta next year, but I just feel Germany is a bit underrated right now, so I'm putting them in front.

Prediction:  5th in Group A, 9th overall.

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