MONTREAL – Raphael Diaz will be a mainstay on the Swiss blue-line in Sochi. Head coach Sean Simpson wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having known the 28-year-old rearguard for years and coached him in multiple major international competitions, Simpson knows exactly what a player of Diaz’s calibre can bring to the table for the reigning World Hockey Championship silver medalists on Olympic-sized rinks in Russia.
“His smarts. His skill. He’s so calm with the puck. He’s got that knack to get out of trouble. He gives that little shift with his hips and his head and the way he gets moving up the ice. He looks like he’s going to get caught, and all of a sudden, he’s gone with the puck and making a good play,” explained the Swiss National Team’s bench boss, who affectionately refers to Diaz as ‘Cam’ – short for Cameron – a nickname he bestowed upon the dependable defenseman after struggling to recall his first name early on in their working relationship. “What comes through right away is his love for the game. He just loves to play. I think if you left him on the rink, he’d just stay there.”
One of several NHL defensemen who will man the back-end for the perennial underdogs at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Diaz will be making his second consecutive appearance on the world’s most prolific athletic stage come February. Playing alongside the likes of defenders Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Yannick Weber, Diaz will be in good company in his country’s quest to pick up its first Olympic medal since 1948, and improve upon their eighth-place finish in Vancouver in 2010.
“He’ll play a major role on our team. He’ll be one of our top players. That’s a pretty good first five on defense,” underlined Simpson, whose squad also boasts multiple offensive weapons up front, including Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter. “He’s a quiet leader. Just the way that he plays, the way he handles himself and the way he approaches the game. He’s an automatic leader that way. Everybody in Switzerland knows his qualities, so they’ll be expecting that for sure at the Olympic Games.”
Based on what Diaz has exhibited on this side of the pond with the Canadiens in 2013-14, the three-year NHL veteran looks primed to deliver on those high expectations. It’s no surprise to Simpson that his former student has come such a long way in such a short time period in the North American ranks, primarily because of his ability to absorb information quickly and incorporate changes into his game with ease.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching him, and I still enjoy coaching him when he comes out for the National Team because he’s just the easiest guy to coach. He’s always shown great poise and great skill,” praised Simpson, who has watched Diaz steadily morph into an NHL regular now logging just over 19 minutes of ice time per game. “He’s always about the team, no matter how good he’s become, how much better he’s become. He’s still the same Raphy Diaz when I see him. That’s always good to see.
“He’s always been a really professional guy to be around,” continued Simpson, who still fondly recalls a young Diaz commuting to-and-from his home rink in Zug by bicycle. “It looks like he’s making the same impression on people in Montreal that he made on us in those days.”
Winning over fans game-in and game-out in La Belle Province aside, Diaz’s performance has also helped shape the hockey landscape back in his home country for the better.
“We needed the Streits, Jonas Hillers and Martin Gerbers to break through into the NHL like they did. That paved the way for guys like Raphy to follow in their footsteps,” mentioned Simpson, who has coached the Swiss National side since 2010. “It’s up to younger guys like Raphy and Josi and Sbisa to play hard and play well and keep playing in the NHL and there’ll be other Swiss guys that follow them. You’re already seeing that. That’s where Raphy comes in. Years ago, it wasn’t interesting for a guy to leave Switzerland and go over to play in North America. But, like Raphy, they want to be the best they can be and play in the best league and they’re willing to go over.”
Simpson is also adamant that with almost three years of NHL experience now under his belt, Diaz boasts the intangibles necessary to be a difference-maker for his country when it matters most.
“He’s a humble kid whose feet are always on the ground,” offered the Swiss bench boss. “He wants to do well all of the time. He’s got that inner-drive. He’s the whole package.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.