BOSTON -- North American hockey has a reputation for being a more physical brand than its European counterpart. Valid or not, the Islanders' Nino Niederreiter began to understand where the reputation comes from Wednesday night when he dropped the gloves with the Bruins' Tyler Randell in a rookie game between the clubs.
"I had no idea what to do," Niederreiter said Thursday. "I just tried to protect my face."
Nothing like learning on the job for the Isles' Swiss import.
Wednesday's scuffle was a career-first for Niederreiter, the No. 5 pick in this year's draft, and while it's his offensive abilities that set him apart from most prospects this June, the physical intensity of the North American game has taken some getting used to, though Randell noted Thursday morning that Niederreiter "held his own."
"He's a strong skater. He's a big body," Islanders coach Scott Gordon said. "The biggest thing for him is he's got to figure out the difference between getting hit by pros vs. 16-year-olds.
"Playing at the pro level you've got to protect yourself a little bit more. Pros finish their checks a little bit harder. And he's got the ability to handle that."
For Niederreiter, that isn't the only significant part of the transition to playing in the NHL. As an Islander, Niederreiter will be playing in the New York metropolitan area, a market of 19,000,000 people, and a stark contrast with the roughly 33,000-person population of his hometown of Chur, Switzerland.
The good news is Niederreiter is well-traveled for someone who just turned 18 on Sept. 8. The young winger spent last season with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks and played on the global stage with the Swiss national team at the World Championships this spring before he could even buy a lottery ticket.
After some time in the spotlight and a season in North America, the Big Apple is slightly easier to get used to.
"At the beginning I was surprised that everything was so big, the huge buildings and everything," Niederreiter said. "In Switzerland everything's so small, so it's a huge difference, but I feel pretty comfortable in New York and Long Island. It's great to be there."
He appears perfectly comfortable on the ice, too. In his one season in Portland, Niederreiter tallied 36 goals and 60 points, earning him a selection to the CHL Top Prospects Game. On his first night in an NHL sweater, Niederreiter continued to display his skill set, scoring the Islanders' first goal in the second period and also revealing a penchant for heads-up defense that rivals his offensive gifts. At one point, he made a diving play at the left point of the defensive zone to poke-check the puck behind his man and clear it to center.
One of the youngest players on the ice, he showed an impressively well-rounded game for someone who is still adapting to the more physical style of the North American leagues.
"I kind of got to know how the demands are going to be at the World Championships in Germany," Niederreiter said. "I kind of know how to play physically against men, but obviously the first game's always tough."
At the beginning I was surprised that everything was so big, the huge buildings and everything. In Switzerland everything's so small, so it's a huge difference, but I feel pretty comfortable in New York and Long Island. It's great to be there.- Nino Neiderreiter
Niederreiter is helped by his broad, 6-2, 201-pound frame, though one glance at him shows he has plenty of room to fill out as he matures, and if he makes the Islanders this season he'll have the added benefit of sharing a locker room with defenseman and Swiss native Mark Streit. Having a fellow countryman greasing the wheels of his NHL transition in the New York market will be a huge boon to Niederreiter, who spoke almost no English a year ago.
But perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the transition is that he hasn't shied away from his obstacles. That will come in handy as he joins a young core on Long Island that includes Kyle Okposo and last year's No. 1 pick John Tavares. The rebuilding franchise faces a steep road as it tries to bring back its former glory. Owners of one of the great dynastic runs in sports history, a Stanley Cup four-peat from 1980-83, the Islanders now have to look back 17 years to find the last time they won a playoff series.
However, teams like the Kings, Penguins and Blackhawks have shown in recent seasons that a renaissance is possible with the right pieces in place. There is high hope in the Isles' organization that the current influx of young talent will lay the foundation for a rebirth in Uniondale. "I think there's a good base and a good core that's in place," Gordon said. "In all areas we've improved from a development standpoint and on the ice. Another year or two and we could be a player away from really making our mark."
It's entirely possible Niederreiter would have been pleased to play anywhere. Thursday he called it "my dream" just to wear an NHL jersey, even if it was only in a rookie game. But one glance at how his eyes light up at the prospect of being a part of New York's solution shows how seriously he relishes the challenge in Long Island.
When the Islanders return to the playoff discussion on an annual basis, Niederreiter wants to be one of the reasons why.
"I would love to be a piece of that team," he said. "In the end I'm just trying to make the team this year or whenever the coach thinks it's a good point to make the team. But I want to help out and one day be in the playoffs with them. And try to get the Cup back." Contact David Kalan at firstname.lastname@example.org