MONTREAL -- Things have changed quite a bit for Switzerland's ice hockey program and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Raphael Diaz since he played for his native country at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, his first Olympic experience.
Since that time Diaz has become a full-time player in the NHL and Switzerland is not looked at as an easy win in international hockey tournaments.
"Yes, things have changed quite a bit," Diaz said after a recent Canadiens practice. "I'm in the NHL and my country has more NHLers now, and I really think Switzerland is recognized as a better team."
The 2010 Swiss Olympic team had four NHL players on its roster; at that time Diaz played for Swiss club EV Zug. But he, along with goalie Jonas Hiller and defensemen Mark Streit, Yannick Weber and Luca Sbisa helped put Switzerland on the hockey map in the round-robin portion of the Olympic tournament.
Behind a brilliant 43-save performance from Hiller, Switzerland took Canada to a shootout before Sidney Crosby helped the Canadians escape with the victory.
"Hiller was so amazing then and we almost beat them," Diaz recalled. "That was big for our confidence."
But the confidence for Switzerland has continued to grow since then and the Swiss are proving that game was no fluke. Although 2010 Olympic coach Ralph Krueger became coach of the Edmonton Oilers in 2012, the national team continued its rise to respectability under the guidance of Sean Simpson, who will be the Swiss coach at the 2014 Sochi Olympics next month. Simpson helped guide an upstart Swiss team to a silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, its first medal at an international tournament since a bronze at the 1953 World Championship.
Diaz arrived to play for the Swiss midway through the 2013 World Championship after the Canadiens were eliminated from the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Ottawa Senators in five games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. He remembers a team that was full of chemistry and confidence thanks to Simpson, who according to Diaz always has stressed "team spirit."
"I remember when I arrived at the World Championship, they were already such a good team and playing together like they knew each other for a long time," Diaz said. "That really helped me when I arrived and it helped on the ice because we took second place and that was the first time as a country we had done that.
"I had him as a coach when I was 17 in my first season as a pro in Zug and then for another two years. He then went to Zurich and then he was the national [team] coach at the Worlds last year. He is very big on team spirit and working together as a team. He really gets you excited to play for him, your teammates and your country. We had a great team spirit at the World Championship. Everybody was fighting for each other and playing their role. That is important, to be a team out there and to really work for each other."
Now Diaz will join Weber, Hiller and Streit, who along with Damien Brunner (New Jersey Devils) Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild), Reto Berra (Calgary Flames) and Roman Josi (Nashville Predators) will account for eight NHL players on the 2014 Swiss Olympic squad. With Hiller (23-5-4, 2.37 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) one of the hottest goalies in the League, Diaz is excited about Switzerland's chances in Sochi, even if it can't sneak up on teams like Canada anymore.
"It's definitely better now," Diaz said of his team's potential. "I'm sure other countries notice that and they prepare harder so I'm not sure we can surprise them anymore. But it comes down to goaltending a lot too and with Hiller playing the way he has and is right now in Anaheim, that's great for us. I see him and I'm just amazed. He is so good and he gets so focused and in a zone that that can be huge in one-game elimination hockey."
Diaz stressed that regardless of how he and his teammates fare at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he is thrilled and honored to represent his country as an Olympian for a second time.
"Feels great and of course it's an honor to play for your country," Diaz said. "It's the tournament of the tournaments. It's the best players in the world on an international stage and the highlight of an athlete's career, any athlete, not just hockey, is to be an Olympian. To say I've been one twice is just great."