Although Switzerland will not earn a medal at the 2010 Olympics, the country's hockey program has earned universal respect with its performance in the last two Olympic tournaments.
Four years ago, Switzerland pulled off stunning upsets of the Czech Republic and Canada. This time, they pushed the Canada to a shootout and threw a scare into the U.S. before succumbing in the third period. Switzerland also has made a regular habit of reaching the medal round quarterfinals at the IIHF World Championships.
It's fair to say Switzerland stands on the brink of a breakthrough into the top echelon of hockey powers. The current situation for the country's program is similar to where Finland stood in the 1970s and early '80s. The country develops skilled junior players and graduates several to the NHL, although not in the same quantity as higher-ranked nations. There is a strong domestic league in place and a well-established hockey culture.
For much of its pre-millennium hockey history, Finland's biggest weaknesses were in goal and overall talent depth. Of course, Finland has solved its goaltending issues, to the point that there's a surplus of excellent goalies available for the national team. Scoring depth beyond a few superstars (especially Jari Kurri
, now Team Finland's GM, Teemu Selanne
and Saku Koivu
) has proven trickier to solve, but when the Finland gets contributions from around the lineup, they have proven themselves capable of beating any team in the world.
"I can see some similarities," Kurri told NHL.com in November while scouting potential Olympians. "They have a good system in place and they are well-coached. No one can take the Swiss lightly anymore."
In comparing Switzerland today with the Finnish teams of the 1970s to mid-1990s, the Swiss are ahead in terms of goaltending but behind offensively. The play of Jonas Hiller
in Vancouver surpassed even the fine performances of netminders Martin Gerber
and David Aebischer
in Turin in 2006. If Hiller stays healthy, the national team should be set for years in that department. There also are several fine young goaltenders in the pipeline in Switzerland.
Switzerland also plays solid team defense, as exhibited against Canada. The forwards backcheck willingly, and as young blueliners such as Luca Sbisa
continue to mature, the backline should get better. Unfortunately, the goal-scoring problems are unlikely to go away any time soon for the Swiss national team. The team's 11 goals in five Olympic games was decent by Swiss standards, especially in light of the fact that the team's most proficient offensive player, defenseman Mark Streit
, did not score a goal.
The Swiss National League's scoring charts typically are dominated by import and passport players, and this season is no exception. Former NHL player Randy Robitaille
(who plays for HC Lugano) leads the league in scoring, followed by teammate Hnat Domenichelli
, a passport player who suited up for the Swiss Olympic team. Domenichelli, a checking-line player during his NHL career, had a goal and 2 assists to tie for second on the team in scoring. Right wing Roman Wick
, a former Ottawa Senators
prospect who plays for the Kloten Flyers, led the Swiss team with 2 goals and 5 points.
Four years ago in Turin, Switzerland relied heavily on aging former NHL player Paul DiPietro (another passport player) to provide a semblance of offensive punch to the lineup. He delivered with a pair of goals in the historic upset of Canada, but it was clear Switzerland could not over-rely on these sorts of players if they were to compete against the medal contenders on a regular basis. The same was true in Vancouver.
The good news for Switzerland is the offensive caliber of junior-age domestic players is on the rise. Talents such as Nino Niederreiter
, Roman Josi
and Mauro Jorg
played a major role in leading Switzerland to the bronze-medal game at the 2010 World Junior Championships. They offer hope of someday erasing the image of failed NHL prospects such as Michel Riesen
and Reto von Arx
as the pinnacle of forward talents produced by Switzerland.
But for the Swiss to truly break through into the realm of regular medal contenders at the junior and senior levels, the quantity of such prospects needs to increase in the years to come.