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Devils Big Read: Nico's Nature

By Amanda Stein

Sometimes, Nico Hischier can feel it.

He can feel the stares he might get, sitting with friends in a restaurant or walking down the street. He's aware he draws attention - particularly in Switzerland. He says it's most notable in his small town of Naters, not far from the Matterhorn.

"I don't feel it all the time, but sometimes you know they're staring at you. It's obvious. Sometimes you're almost like 'should I go ask him if he wants a photo?'"

He doesn't mind. And he completely understands.

Nico just considers himself Nico. 

"I try to always be like that person, from when I grew up in Switzerland," Hischier said.

He has a humble nature, one that you might not ascribe to such a successful athlete, the first of his kind in his home country. 

The reality of it is, that Hischier commands the attention, particularly in Switzerland, because he became something no other Swiss hockey player has ever been: an NHL first-overall selection. 

And while lines of fans scale the Prudential Center glass with No. 13 jerseys on, walk down the streets in Switzerland - particularly Bern - and the Devils are heavily represented. It was apparent when the team traveled to Bern last pre-season for the NHL Global Series, which stopped in the town where Nico played his first game as a professional. 

It was deafening to hear the reception that Hischier was given when his name was announced on the ice on October 1, 2018. The fans in Switzerland love their native son. And he loves them back equally.

Hischier's early success in the NHL and his prominent first-overall selection has made him a household name. He receives a lot of attention, though he probably would prefer not to. At the Global Series, little children everywhere were cheering for the New Jersey Devils - a team halfway across the world - because of one single player.  

It didn't start that way for Hischier though, as Adrien Bürgler, a journalist from Switzerland, put it.

"Early on, there were some reports of a boy that was probably the most talented Swiss player ever," he wrote. 

Bürgler said that 'the boy' was mostly recognized at first in his native Canton of Valais, but his jump to Bern was when his name took hold on a more national scale. And it wasn't that long ago. 

"I like the mountains, even for me when I'm gone for like eight, nine months and coming back [to Switzerland] I'm impressed," Hischier said last month. "I lived there 17 years, during those years you don't really think about it, appreciate it, so it was literally the first time when I came back at 18 years old, that was the first time I was like 'woah,' from my hometown window I was like 'What's this mountain? Was it that big all the time?" you start to see those things when you're gone for a while."

Hischier appreciates the little things. It seems a part of his very humble nature growing up in Naters. Anyone who has known Nico for years, or even by way of small encounters all recall the same thing. How humble he is. Unwilling, it seems at times, to acknowledge the amount of success he's accomplished in his young life. 

At around age 12, Hischier focused his energy on hockey. In his U-15 year, he had 97 points in 20 games. 'The boy from Valais' played 22 games with the U-17 Visp team that same year. He had 77 points. 

Sebastien Pico was the general manager of HC Visp, Hischier was playing for the junior Visp club. 

Pico began to put Hischier on journalists' radar.

Emmanuel Favre, who is a Swiss journalist covering the NHL based out of Montreal recounted this story:

"At home, we have two stars," Pico said. "One that the world knows: Alex Kovalev. There is also one other, one that the world will soon know: Nico Hischier."

Favre said he though Pico may have been pulling his leg, finding a way to shed a spotlight on his junior club. 

Alex Kovalev had just left the NHL after a career of 1316 games and 1029 points. The hockey world certainly knew Kovalev and his exquisite talents. 

So, who could this Hischier boy be?

"I was perplexed," Favre recalled. "I thought that Pico just wanted to put the spotlight on his club. The following week, I attended a match Nico was playing, there were just 25 fans in the stands."

With the experience of covering hockey for 20 years, Favre sat down to watch and just minutes into the game he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"I had to see just two shifts," Favre told me. "Two shifts, to realize that this kid from Naters actually had a hockey-sense that I had never seen in any other Swiss forward."

Youth hockey doesn't quite have the same following that you'd find here in North America, that you would in Switzerland. Mostly, you'll find the spectators are parents and family members of the players on the ice.

"We never talk about it on television, we do not find the results in the newspapers," Favre said.

So maybe it took a little longer for the Hischier name to catch on in Switzerland, but when it did, it took hold. 

"Nico has played very few matches in professional leagues in Switzerland, just 28," Favre said, "But, on one occasion, in one of those games, Hischier did something absolutely crazy. During a Swiss Cup match, he played with Bern against Visp, at the Visp ice rink. He was just 16 years old... The match was played to the shootout. And it was he, in the rink of his childhood, who had scored the winning goal for Bern. It takes a hell of a lot to do that. On that stage."

He became a recurring topic," Bürgler said. "At first it was mostly regional coverage in his native Canton of Valais. But the national media covered him too. Even more so during his year in the Quebec league, and he was one of the top prospects for the draft. In the last few days before the draft, things got crazy. There was a new story about Nico every day."

And then came the World Juniors.

If you hadn't heard of him before then in Switzerland, he was now on your radar.

"I think the first time he really made the news with the national team in Switzerland was in 2015, with the under-18 team," Bürgler said. "The world championships were in Zug, Switzerland and the Swiss team surprisingly made it to the bronze medal game. He was only 16 then, and his impact was not necessarily that big. But in 2017 he was by far the best Swiss player at the world junior championships in Montreal and Toronto. He carried the Swiss team on his back and to the quarterfinals where he scored twice and single-handedly almost beat the U.S. team."

That too, but Hischier on Ray Shero's radar. 

"Nico can certainly score, but he also has great playmaking abilities, and the ability to make other players better," Shero said. "He was so impressive at the World Juniors, and U-18s, but especially with what he was able to do at Halifax in helping them make the playoffs as a young team and really driving that team and how he was able to make a difference."

After Hischier's first year in the NHL, there was much anticipation back in Switzerland that he would be able to play for the men's national team for the first time. Buergler noted that many didn't get to see Nico play with the Devils because of the time difference, this would be their chance. Unfortunately, a wrist injury prevented him from participating.

"But that made this spring even more exciting," Bürgler said. "When Nico could finally made his debut with the men's national team. And he scored a hattrick in his first game. He had a very big impact right away. Especially, since the center position used to be one of the weaknesses of the swiss team. Having Nico definitely changes that."

"And when it mattered, he would score," he added. "That's also a quality, Swiss players often lacked."

Hischier's father Reno also had a knack for scoring goals. He played professional soccer as a striker for FC Naters, a third division club of the Swiss professional leagues. Sports, it seems, has always been in Nico's blood. He found success in everything he tried.  

"Where I grew up, Naters, it's right in the Alps, a half-hour away from the Matterhorn. I'm 10 minutes I'm at the ski hill. I used to ski a lot. I wasn't bad. I switched to snowboarding at the end."

But not just snowboarding down the Swiss alps, Hischier and his friends sought out the powder.

"I love doing freestyle stuff," he said. "My friends and I would go out where the powder is, and build moguls and places where we could jump."

Again, the humble nature: "we could jump."

But press him for more and he'll admit: "We would do back-flips, we could do front-flips."

That, most certainly, is not nothing, Nico.  

Hischier has excelled at every sport he's put his mind to. Skiing, snowboarding, swimming, you name it. 

But Hischier found his groove on the ice. 

He wouldn't put hockey at the top of the sporting map in Switzerland when you ask him who rules that world. 

Of course, Roger Federer takes the cake. But Hischier says after that, it's soccer teams, skiers, and then there's hockey.

"I'd say the last 5 to 10 years, you're seeing hockey grow," he said.

That timeline can be seen in parallel to the rise of Hischier's career. Hischier, of course, isn't the only successful Swiss hockey story, but he may be the most significant one in many years. 

Defensemen Mark Streit joined the Montreal Canadiens in 2005, with many Swiss-born NHL players considering Streit a type of gateway into believing they too could reach that level of success. It seemed less foreign, less far away.

Streit was the first non-goaltender Swiss-born player to make it to the NHL. 

Hischier, the first to be selected first overall.

"He is definitely making an impact on Swiss hockey," Bürgler said. "He's part of a group of young Swiss forwards that are proof that they can succeed in the NHL. So, for context: At first there were only Swiss goalkeepers in the NHL, Martin Gerber, David Aebischer, Jonas Hiller. Then Mark Streit came along and proved, that skaters can succeed as well."

He is now just one of 12 active Swiss-born NHL players. Many consider him the 'poster-boy' of his generation, carrying the torch for Swiss hockey players.

"Streit was a defenseman and so the next batch of Swiss players in the NHL were defenders as well. Luca Sbisa, Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz, Roman Josi, among them. But now Nico has been among the pioneers of Swiss forwards in the NHL. I think in his early career, he shows children in Switzerland, that even the wildest of their NHL-dreams can come true."

Even for those on the sidelines, were witnessing, as Devils general manager Ray Shero said Nico's name at the podium at the 2017 draft, had a moment of their own. 

"From Switzerland, it was very difficult to assess Nico's chances of being number one," Favre said. "We did not see him playing with Halifax, we did not know the specifics of Nolan Patrick either and the other players who were favorites to be No. 1."

"The dream," he added, "was more of an emotional one than one for objective reasons" before the Hischier rise to prominence. 

There were cries of 'YES!' in the early hours of the morning among the Swiss hockey fans when Devils general manager Ray Shero announced Hischier's name at the entry draft. 

It had finally happened. 

"I was working and covered the draft live after midnight," Bürgler said. "It was thrilling because it was a historical moment [for the country]. In the media the words "Swiss sports history" were everywhere."

"I had appreciated the modesty of the moment from Nico," Favre added. "He had barely cracked a smile before kissing his parents and shaking Nolan [Patrick's] hand. Such high-class." 

Hischier continues, apart from returning to his native-Switzerland in the off-season, to remain connected to hockey fans in Switzerland all year round.

From the time he was 17, Hischier has contributed to a local newspaper.

It was Favre, who after those first two shifts seeing Nico at the junior level, knew this kid would be something special and someone to hold on to, stay connected to.

Favre suggested to Hischier's agent that he contribute a bi-monthly article to Le Matin, a newspaper that draws 300,000 readers a day.

"When I brought this idea to the editor of the newspaper, he was wide-eyed and asked, "Who?"

At the time, other contributors to the column were international soccer players and acclaimed tennis stars like Stan Wawrinka. 

Who was this Hischier kid?

Favre managed to convince his editor to give it a chance. Favre wanted to tell Hischier's story as he headed to Canada to play for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior league, and watch him flourish into a future star in the NHL. When Favre's editor gave the go-ahead, he was excited. 

Just two days later, Hischier was at the newspaper's office. From then on, as Hischier played his way through the QMJHL, he connected back to his Swiss fans through his columns.

Hischier had 86 points in 57 games.

He shared all aspects of his life, Favre said who said the column had first been called "My Life in Canada". 

To this day, he still contributes. 

"Nico is just such a generous person with his time," Favre explained. "Last season, after a bad game in Ottawa, he still sat with me for a long time talking. Two weeks ago, while he was injured, he even took some time to return one of my calls. Not all high-level athletes will do this. So, I would define Nico as a very respectful person."

Nico scored one of his prettier goals in the NHL just two nights ago. He dangled the puck around Carolina defender Jacob Slavin. During the game, I was sitting near the Devils healthy scratches. We all looked around as Hischier and the rest of the team were celebrating. What just happened? How did he do that?

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In the locker-room afterward, ever the team player, but also realizing it's somewhere in his bones, Hischier made no matter of the goal. 

"I saw Bratter [Jesper Bratt] coming," Hischier said. "I wanted to pass first to him, it was kind of a broken play. So handled the puck, and just tried to go far-side."

Needless to say, that's not exactly how many would describe it. It was far more than "handling the puck" and just "trying to go far-side."

But that's just how he operates: under the radar, just another guy doing his job, putting everyone before himself. 

He is just 20-years-old, has a lot of attention around him, and is sought after, particularly by the New Jersey Devils fans and young Swiss fans as well. He makes the concerted effort to treat everyone the same. 

"In my hometown, that's where I feel it the biggest, obviously," he said. "It's just a small village and when I'm there for a week that's where I get stopped the most. In Bern, I get stopped too. But sometimes I try and wear my hat."

"The people in Switzerland, there like 'oh yeah, look that's Nico', but they don't come up and bother me," he added. "For me, it's no problem. Either way, if they're looking at me or asking for pictures, I don't have to do much, right? If they're happy… If they want a signature, I'm happy to do that."

There he goes again, humble as ever.