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Brunner breaks foreign dominance of scoring race

by Bill Meltzer
Switzerland's top league, National League A, has historically been dominated by foreign import players. It is common for the majority of National League teams to be led in scoring by one of their non-Swiss players, and the league scoring championship has been the exclusive domain of foreigners since the early 1980s.

While foreign players still comprise the larger portion of the top talent in the Swiss league, the steady improvement of Switzerland's domestic hockey programs at the junior levels are now paying dividends at the top level. First, it was the emergence of Swiss-trained goalies. Now, at last, a native Swiss player has led the league in the scoring during the regular season.

Twenty-six year old EV Zug forward Damien Brunner topped the National League A in scoring this year with 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) despite missing five games due to injury. The runner up in the scoring race this year was another Swiss player: Julien Sprunger of Fribourg, who finished with 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) while dressing in 49 of 50 games.


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Rounding out the league's top five scorers, fellow Czech forwards Jaroslav Bednar (HC Lugano) and Petr Sykora (HC Davos) had 50 and 49 points respectively, while Canadian countrymen Jeff Tambellini (ZSC Lions) and Simon Gamache (Fribourg) tied with 45 points apiece.

Brunner's scoring championship ends a run of 30 years -- dating back to the 1981-82 season -- since the last time a native Swiss player led that in scoring. That year, Guido Lindemann of the now-defunct EHC Rosa led the circuit in regular-season scoring en route to winning the championship. In that era, however, the Swiss league did not attract nearly the caliber of foreign players -- including dozens of former NHLers -- that it does today.

In the years between Lindemann's scoring title and Brunner's, numerous foreign players with past NHL connections collected the National League A scoring crown. The ranks include the likes of forwards Glen Metropolit (Canada), Randy Robitaille (Canada), Stephane Lebeau (Canada) and Oleg Petrov (Russia), as well as Finnish defenseman Petteri Nummelin.

This year, Brunner took hold of the scoring lead after the season's fifth game, and never looked back. He won the honor by such a large margin that the only real suspense in the scoring race was whether Sprunger would be able to Bednar and Sykora for the runner-up spot.

Brunner, now in his seventh pro season, has been a late-blooming star in the Swiss league. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he is a little undersized and it took time for him to step to the forefront.

Originally the property of his hometown Kloten Flyers, Brunner transferred to Zug in 2008 in a trade for Thomas Walser. At age 23, Brunner started his emergence to stardom, racking up 58 points in 47 games during the 2009-10 season. Last year, he tallied 46 points in 40 games. This time around, there was no denying him in his pursuit of the scoring title. 

To add further luster to Brunner's accomplishment, EV Zug finished in first place during the regular season. The club had little difficulty dispatching eighth-seeded EHC Biel in five games in the best-of-seven playoff quarterfinals.

Brunner continued his run of dominance, compiling 3 goals and 8 assists for 11 points in the series against Biel. His linemate, Metropolit, lit the lamp for 5 goals and added 5 assists. Meanwhile Zug forward Josh Holden had 5 goals and 9 points. For the series, Zug outscored its opponent by a 20-12 margin.

In the semifinals, which start on Wednesday, Zug has drawn the seventh-seeded ZSC Lions. The club from Zurich not only upset second-seeded Davos in the quarterfinals, they did so in a four-game sweep. The other semifinal series pits third-seeded Fribourg against fifth-seeded SC Bern. Fribourg reached the semifinals by virtue of taking out Lugano in six quarterfinal games. Bern had surprisingly little difficulty in downing Kloten in five games.

Beyond the trio of EV Zug players atop the playoff scoring leaderboard after the quarterfinals, a pair of Fribourg players -- Sandy Jeannin (1 goal, 7 points) and former NHL player Pavel Rosa (3 goals, 5 points) -- are the top two scorers among players whose teams are still in the hunt for the championship. Sprunger logged 2 goals and 3 assists in the first-round victory over Lugano.

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