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The Swiss Connection

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
When the Islanders selected Nino Niederreiter fifth overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, he became the highest drafted Swiss player in NHL history, the second Swiss player in the Isles system and the sixth Swiss player in the NHL – instantaneously elevating him to superstardom in his home country. It didn’t hurt that he became teammates with the most famous player in Switzerland, Mark Streit.

When Niederreiter arrived on Long Island for 2010 Rookie Camp, his size, physicality and talent combined with his maturity, quickly elevated the young winger to one of the highest touted prospects in the Islanders system.

Max Pacioretty skates against Nino Niederreiter at Nassau Coliseum on November 17, 2011. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Making the jump to the pro ranks is a life changing event and it’s always good when a player has a role model to help him along the way. Being 14 years Streit’s junior didn’t keep the 19-year-old from forging a friendship with the Islanders captain. Nearly 4,000 miles from their native Switzerland, Streit has taken the rookie forward under his wing.

“I realized that Doug (Weight) was and still is really important to JT (John Tavares) for his improvement so I try to do a little bit of that with Nino,” Streit said. “I think it’s working well so far. We just played our first game together. It’s great to have him around. It’s enjoyable and I try my best to help him out.”

The year prior to Niederreiter’s draft year, Tavares was selected first overall. Then Islanders Captain Doug Weight welcomed the 18-year-old Tavares into his home, where he became an honorary family member and older brother to Weight’s children as well as a great friend.

Today, Tavares credits that friendship as what made him into the player and high-character person he has become. Seeing a similar relationship forming with his younger teammate and current Captain makes Tavares think back to his first year in the league.

Capuano: "I see it in his eyes, his determination and desperation"

The rookie winger made his NHL debut in 2010, skating in nine games before being returned to his junior club, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, to gain more development time.

His statistics from his final year in junior were off the charts as he recorded a career-high 70 points (41 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. But Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano saw that extra year in junior had paid off for more than just his offensive production.

“I see a kid that’s a lot more confident than last year,” Capuano said during 2011 training camp. “He’s playing a lot more poised. I see it in his eyes, his determination and desperation to not only make our hockey club, but to help us win hockey games. I’m very impressed with Nino, where he was and where he is now.”

In line to earn one of the spots on the Islanders 2011-12 roster, the 19-year-old faced a setback during training camp as he suffered a groin injury that kept him sidelined for the first three weeks of the season.

When he was taken off the injured reserve, Niederreiter was assigned to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on a two week conditioning assignment. Over that 13-day period with the Sound Tigers, Niederreiter played in six games and recorded a goal in each of his last three, played on consecutive nights.

Niederreiter made his 2011-12 season debut Nov. 15 against the New York Rangers and played in three games before Capuano scratched him for four games. However, the Swiss winger is expected to play again Tuesday night in Buffalo at First Niagara Center.

After Niederreiter’s season debut, Capuano said, “When he was out there, I thought he made some good plays with the puck. He showed me that he has some poise with the puck. He didn’t throw it around and I thought his discipline and his decision making was pretty good tonight… He’s going to be a big player in this league.”
“It was one of the most important things that I think has happened to me. It made a huge difference in the way I approach life and approach the game,” Tavares said. “There is no better person to help Nino out than Mark, especially speaking the same language. I think that makes Nino fit right in and feel more comfortable.”

Having seen first-hand what Weight’s mentorship did for Tavares’ development, Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano is pleased to have his new captain forge a similar relationship with Niederreiter.

“There’s no better guy for Nino to hang around with and pick his brain as far as what it takes to be a pro, (especially with) some of the adversity Mark faced in his career early on,” Capuano said. “For Nino to gravitate towards Mark, it’s going to pay dividends.”

Their connection prompted the Isles Captain to open up his home to the 19-year-old Niederreiter, who moved in with Streit during training camp.

“He was in hotel for a while so I thought he could crash at my place until he found his own apartment,” Streit said. “Then he was away in Bridgeport for two weeks and we were on the road, so it’s great to have him back. We’ve spent a lot of time together. It’s been great.”

Niederreiter really appreciates the relationship they’ve built.

“We share everything,” Niederreiter said. “If I have a personal problem or he has a personal problem, we go to each other and can talk about it. We have a pretty strong relationship. He’s a great leader and the captain for our team, which is phenomenal.”

Seeing the two speaking in their native tongue and cracking jokes, or venturing out into the locker room hallway to play table tennis or soccer, it’s easy to forget that Niederreiter is just 19, still learning how to live alone.

“I’m still going to live close to Streiter, just a couple blocks away,” Niederreiter said. “So it’s not a big deal. We are still probably going to hang out a lot.”

Before Niederreiter could move out, it was important to solve one problem. Niederreiter never learned to drive. Moving away from home at such a young age and playing junior hockey, he never needed a drivers’ license or car before.

“Teaching Nino to drive was entertaining,” Streit said. “When we went for dinner or to the mall, even for practice, I’d let him drive. It was an easy test for him. He passed no problem. It was important for him to get a drivers’ license and a car so he can get around.”

Niederreiter has already shown off his motor on the ice. Here’s hoping the Swiss kid has one amazing rookie campaign.
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