Tim Berni, captain of Team Switzerland, went to the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship to make history.
His country had never made the semifinals in consecutive years, and after last year's quarterfinal win vs. Sweden, Berni wanted to again have a chance to play for a medal.
"For us, it's always huge to win the crucial game to make it to the quarterfinals," said the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. "That's our first accomplishment and if we get there it's a whole new tournament and anything can happen. We showed last year when we beat Sweden in the quarterfinal that we can go further and we want to do it again."
While the focus is usually on just making it to the quarterfinals and avoiding the relegation round, this year the Swiss raised the bar by winning three of their four preliminary round games, including a decisive 5-2 win over Finland, the defending champions, to finish second in Group A. The Swiss earned a tough draw, though, in the quarterfinals and dropped a 3-1 decision to a Russian team with a pair of Blue Jackets prospects as well, and 2019 fourth-round pick Dmitri Voronkov had two goals for the winning side.
Still, the round-robin wins made it a good tournament for a country that's having more and more success at the international level. And, if you ask Thierry Paterlini, Switzerland's head coach, Berni is a big reason for their success.
"We don't have the same skill as other teams, so we try to be as tough to play against as possible and Tim leads by his example," he said of his star defenseman. "He does everything with a purpose and it makes him a great leader off the ice. On the ice, he plays all the time in your face. He leads our team by doing the small details right.
"We don't expect him to score a lot of goals for us, but we do expend him to defend well and keep the inside positions and have a good stick on the opponents and lead the team that way. He's a really good hockey player."
He gets no argument there from Jarkko Ruutu, the Blue Jackets' European development coach.
"He's a fun player to watch. The way he skates and thinks the game, I love it. He's just an entertaining player," he said of the 6-foot, 183-pound blueliner. "He's playing big minutes against men on a league-leading team, which is really tough to do, especially at his age. It's his third year with Zurich and he's still the youngest guy on the team, but he's playing regular minutes and the coaches really rely on him because he shows up ready to play every night, every shift, every situation.
"He's very mature for his age," Ruutu continued. "He's very proactive in his development and asks a lot of questions because he wants to get better. He watches a lot of video and evaluates his own game really well. He knows exactly what he needs to do to improve. With the assets he has and the desire he has to get better, he will go far."
Berni, who has four goals and four assists this year in 27 game with the ZSC Lions in his home country this season, describes himself as a solid defenseman who is confident with the puck and joins the rush as much as he can.
"I try to use my skating and my vision to make a good play with my first pass and join the rush, but still focus on my defensive tasks. As a defenseman, it's not good when you get scored on so I try to avoid that as much as possible," he said with a laugh. "I definitely want to improve my shot too. To be a top player, you have to have a good shot. And, I need to improve my physical game -- boxing out and being strong in the corners. And, passing execution. I can be better at that too."
Paterlini said Berni's biggest strength is his ability to find options using his visions, speed, passing abilities.
"He's a very good puck mover," he said of the 19-year-old. "When he goes into the corner to pick up the puck, he skates so well and comes out with speed and he always finds good solutions for the puck and makes great decisions. That's his biggest strength.
"He doesn't have any weaknesses. Of course, he can get better and take more responsibility in the offensive zone to get more pucks to the net, but he is really good at everything he does, especially in the defensive zone."