Check the rosters of the Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better feel-good story than Islanders defenseman Mark Streit
"It's a great story," said Flyers forward Daniel Briere
, a former minor-league teammate of Streit's and an NHL All-Star MVP in 2007. "It just shows people that when you have a dream and you're willing to sacrifice, anything is possible."
When Streit takes the ice for the Eastern Conference on Jan. 25 in Montreal's Bell Centre, he will hold the distinction of being the first Swiss player ever to play in an NHL All-Star Game.
The fact that the honor comes for him at the age of 31, after years of toiling in the IHL, ECHL, AHL and the Swiss national team, is a credit to his determination and perseverance.
"This is an unbelievable honor and I'm truly excited to represent the Islanders in the All-Star Game," said Streit, the lone Islander on the East squad. "It's going to be a great experience to go back to Montreal and it will be a lot of fun."
Streit's journey from his hometown of Englishberg, Switzerland, to NHL stardom is as unlikely as it is inspiring. As a youngster, Streit grew up idolizing NHL players like Paul Coffey
and Bobby Orr
, but it was Reijo Ruotsalainen
, who played in nearby Bern, with whom he most identified.
Like Ruotsalainen, Streit wanted to make his mark in the NHL in much the same way Swiss goaltenders Martin Gerber
and David Aebischer
made theirs with the Carolina Hurricanes
and Colorado Avalanche
. But before he could show what he could do in the NHL, Streit needed someone – anyone -- to draft him. And so every year, Streit waited by the phone or sat in front of his computer waiting for the news he never received.
"I never went to the draft, even at 18 or 19, but I always checked to see if I was drafted because it was such a big thing," Streit told Islanders Illustrated. "Every year I used to check it and it was disappointing every year."
After three straight seasons playing for HC Davos of the Swiss A League, Streit made the biggest decision of his life by leaving the comforts of home in 1999 and signing a contract with the Utah Grizzlies of the International Hockey League.
"He sacrificed a lot because he had an easy, for-sure career back in his country making very good money and being a superstar in Switzerland," said Briere, a teammate of Streit's during the 1999-2000 season. "But he decided at an early age to come over here because he wanted to play with the best in the world."
Streit was 21 when he left home, but his first season as a pro in North America was far from what he envisioned. He lasted just one game with the Grizzlies, who moved him to Tallahassee of the ECHL. It wasn't until Streit made it to the AHL Springfield Indians midway through the season that he got a true taste of top-level hockey.
But because he was not property of an NHL team, Streit went unsigned the following summer and returned to Switzerland to resume his career.
"Obviously, I wanted to come back, but no NHL team gave me a two-way contract," Streit said, "so I decided to go back to Europe and make my way back to the NHL that way."
Streit didn't know it at the time, but his decision to play for the ZSC Lions in Zurich allowed him to become an inspiration to young Swiss players like Flyers rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa
"He was a superstar to me," said Sbisa. "When I played in Switzerland I had the same coach he had and the coach said (Streit) didn't have a lot of talent, but he was the hardest worker on the team. After a while it paid off. He found his game and tried again."
A strong showing in the 2002 Winter Olympics put Streit back on the radar of NHL scouts and when he received a call from a Swiss reporter informing him he had been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens
in the ninth round of the 2004 NHL draft – the 262nd player taken. Streit, who was 26 at the time and in his final year of draft eligibility, was caught completely by surprise.
"I didn't even know the draft had taken place," Streit said. "I was shocked. I didn't even know it just happened. It was really exciting and a relief. If I hadn't been drafted that year, I was ready to go play elsewhere, in perhaps Finland or Sweden."
At 26, Streit was among the oldest players ever drafted by an NHL team, joining the likes of Latvian Helmut Balderis
, who was 36 when the Minnesota North Stars took him in the 1989 draft.
"This is an unbelievable honor and I'm truly excited to represent the Islanders in the All-Star Game. It's going to be a great experience to go back to Montreal and it will be a lot of fun." -- Mark Streit
Balderis played just 26 games in his short-lived NHL career and Streit was determined to make his second stop in North America a longer one. But after his first training camp with the Canadiens, Streit was told to return to Switzerland and hone his skills as a solid two-way defender. When he finished his third season in Zurich with a career-high 14 goals and 43 points, the Canadiens finally decided to give him a shot.
Streit was a 28-year-old rookie when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens in 2005-06. Rookie coach Guy Carbonneau
was not sold on Streit's risky style and played him just 48 times in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
"They didn't even use him on a full-time basis," Briere said. "They bounced him back and forth from forward to defense and scratched him. He had it tough, but he always kept pushing, always kept fighting."
Streit saw his ice time increase under Carbonneau in 2006-07 when he averaged 14 minutes a game and produced 10 goals and 36 assists. Last season, Streit enjoyed a breakout year, playing in 81 games and finishing with 13 goals and 49 assists for 62 points.
"For me it was a process to go from being a consistent player to an impact player," Streit said. "From the get-go, my goal was to be a good player and one of the better defensemen in the League. It took me a while, and Montreal gave me the time. They were pretty patient. Every year was a little bit better and I had more confidence and felt better."
Streit is thankful that the Canadiens gave him a shot in the NHL, but he'll return to Montreal as an All-Star because the Canadiens elected not to re-sign him last summer when he became an unrestricted free agent.
Instead, Streit signed a five-year contract with the Islanders and has been a consistent force in New York, where he entered this week with 33 points, second in the NHL behind only Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle
Streit ranks fifth among NHL defensemen in goals (8), tied for second in assists (25) and is tied for second in power-play goals (7).
Streit acknowledges that while his appearance in the All-Star Game will signify a major achievement in his career, it may also serve as one giant leap hockey in Switzerland.
"I started out as a nobody," he said. "People thought I would be with Montreal for a season and then go back, but I'm still here. Hopefully, young Swiss players will see that if you work hard and get a little lucky, you'll get your chance. It's good for Swiss hockey because a lot of young kids see that it doesn't matter how good you are at 18 or 19. There are a lot of young kids starting to come over from Switzerland. Hopefully, in the next five or six years there will be more Swiss NHL players which would be good for Swiss hockey and sports."
Just ask Sbisa, who defied all odds by making the Flyers as an 18-year-old rookie.
"It's great for him, but especially for Swiss hockey," Sbisa said. "We've had a couple goalies make it, but we never had a player. To see one at the very top playing in an All-Star game is great for us."