Nashville Predators chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty remembers when he began to observe a change in the level of quality in Switzerland's national teams, particularly at the amateur level.
It was August 2007 and Kealty was at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, one of the top under-18 tournaments in the world. He noticed the way Swiss defenseman Roman Josi competed against Canada forward Steven Stamkos, who already was the consensus top pick in the coming NHL Draft. Kealty saw that Josi, who the Predators ended up selecting in the second round (No. 38) in 2008, was not at all intimidated playing against Stamkos.
Last season, Josi logged 26:25 in time on ice per game, ranking him fifth in the NHL, and he has grown into one of Nashville's foundational players. Overall, nine players from Switzerland spent time in the League in 2013-14. Nashville was the only franchise that had two Swiss players it signed and developed. The other is center Simon Moser, who played for Switzerland's Olympic team. The Predators signed Moser, now 25, to a free-agent contract last summer.
The Predators went back to the Swiss with the 11th pick in the 2014 draft and took center Kevin Fiala.
Fiala, whose parents are Czech, was born in Switzerland and speaks five languages: Czech, German, Swedish, English and French."Josi, you could see the confidence he had in his abilities," Kealty said, recalling that Hlinka tournament. "He wanted the puck and he wanted to make a difference. Kevin is the same way. You could see the confidence he has in his abilities and he wants to make a difference in every situation."
Fiala played last season in Sweden. In his first 27 games with his junior team, HV71, he scored 10 goals and had 15 assists, earning a promotion to the Elite League. At the higher level, he scored three goals and had eight assists in 17 games playing as a 17-year-old. He turned 18 on July 22.
Predators general manager David Poile said Fiala, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 183 pounds, is a crafty player Poile thinks can play all three forward positions, and compares him to other high-end NHL scorers of similar size. Poile includes former Predators Steve Sullivan, who, at 5-9, scored 290 NHL goals, and Paul Kariya (5-11, 402 NHL goals), as optimum comparisons for Fiala.
"That's what the hope is," Poile said. "Those are big names, very successful players. But at 18 years old that's where he's on track to be hopefully someday."
Fiala is one of three players to have played in the Hlinka Cup, the IIHF World Junior Championship and the IIHF World Championship in the same season. The two others came from Belarus, including powerfully built Andrei Kostitsyn, who briefly played for Nashville.
Fiala said participating in the 2014 Worlds proved an eye-opener. In a game against Russia, he played against the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, a three-time Hart Trophy winner. Fiala realizes his game will require some work before he is ready for the NHL.
"I have to work on everything," he said. "NHL is the highest League in the whole world, so you have to be everywhere; must step higher, higher in my defensive zone. I have to keep it up. Everywhere I have to keep it up."
Fiala ranks among what appears to be a continuing trend of Switzerland turning out top players. Last year, the San Jose Sharks took defenseman Mirco Mueller with the 18th pick, and in 2010 the New York Islanders selected Nino Niederreiter at No. 5. Niederreiter scored 14 goals and had 22 assists in 81 games for the Minnesota Wild last season, and scored a Game 7 overtime goal in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche.
In describing his countrymen, Fiala said Swiss players tend to be hard workers (Kealty noted they're also very good skaters). In four games at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Switzerland allowed four goals, one during the preliminary round. However, the Swiss sustained a disappointing 3-1 loss to surprising Latvia in its first elimination game.
"Last year [at] the World Championships, they won silver," Fiala said. "… I think Switzerland is coming up every year; they're higher and higher. Switzerland is a country that maybe they work harder than everybody else. They block shots more than everybody else …
"Switzerland is a country who is maybe not four lines like USA, Canada, like four lines with skill and everything. They have maybe two lines of skill and two lines of defense, but everybody has to do his job [and] then we can win. We can't win 8-0 like Russia or the USA [or] Canada, but we win always tight if we win. If you want to win, we have to be defense-first and then make our chances."
Though Swiss amateur hockey is on the rise, it has a ways to go. Poile made a comparison between Fiala's development and that of Blake Geoffrion, the former Predator who became the first player from Tennessee to play in the League. Just as Geoffrion, a Hobey Baker Award winner at the University of Wisconsin, left Tennessee to enroll at Culver Academy in Indiana before playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., Fiala left Switzerland to play in Sweden.
"Their hockey is getting much better," said Poile, who was the 2014 U.S. Olympic team general manager. "I guess things go in a little bit of cycles, but I guess you could say the Swiss haven't produced too many NHL players except for recently so, yeah, their hockey is getting good. It's been really good at the World Championships, even in the Olympics. I know in 2010 we eked out a win to beat them by one goal in a game that was really, really close.
"Obviously, when you have some success with a player like Roman Josi and see how good he is and continues to be, you're certainly not afraid to take a player from Switzerland. But as you see, [Fiala has gotten] to the point where, obviously for his age group, he's exceeding his age group in terms of ability and competition, and he went to Sweden to play at a higher level."
During Predators development camp, Poile said he was somewhat unsure what the plan would be for Fiala, who signed a contract July 15. He said he knew Fiala wanted to come to training camp to see how he stacked up, and the Predators were interested in that possibility.
The Predators have an organizational bias toward not rushing players to the NHL, a trend they say will continue with Fiala. However, there's no question that under new coach Peter Laviolette, the organization has made a commitment to go in a more offensive direction.
Kealty said Fiala is creative, competitive and "has that flair to him you want to see. You see he wants the puck, commands the puck." Knowing the Predators probably would not select in the top five, Nashville scouts targeted Fiala early and had him on their radar before he left Switzerland for Sweden.
"So, lo and behold, we finish where we did and we drafted where we did, 11, and he was there," Poile said, "so it was like I say: If the scouts are right, we got ourselves a real good player, because unquestionably this was the guy they wanted. Period."