Intelligent, strong and responsible are often the words that come to mind when describing 19-year-old defenseman Nico Gross. While the Swiss blue liner shows this wide range of skills on the ice, as well as strong leadership ability.
Hailing from Pontresina, Switzerland, Gross grew up playing youth hockey for various Swiss teams where he showed plenty of potential from a young age. At 15-years-old, Gross was put into his first leadership position after being selected to wear the 'A' for Zug U17 of the Elite Novizen. With the coaching staff recognizing his overall skill and character, the defenseman began to learn what it takes to be an effective leader on and off the ice.
Gross' first span of international hockey came with an invitation to play for Switzerland's 2015-2016 U16 International-Jr team. Selected as the captain of the squad, Gross continued his leadership growth and impressed the coaches with his performance and demeanor. Playing in the IIHF U18 World Championship and the Ivan Hlinka Under-18 Tournament that same year, Gross became no stranger to representing his country internationally.
With all the valuable experience gained as a youngster, Gross had set the foundation for what would allow him to be an effective presence on one of hockey's largest international stages - the U20 World Junior Championships.
Getting his first invite to the tournament in 2016, Gross solidified his role as a key piece of Switzerland's defense after logging important minutes at just 16-years old. After being invited back for the following two tournaments, the young blue liner continued to gain the trust and confidence of the coaching staff and proved to be the perfect candidate to help make up the team's leadership core as alternate captain.
Video: Nico Gross on his experience at World Juniors
"The coach knew me really well and he gave me the 'A' and I was really excited about that," said Gross of his role at the recent World Junior tournament in Victoria and Vancouver. "It was my third time this year, so I knew what was going on. I tried to help my teammates the best I could by motivating them all the time and being a good example."
Participation in the high-profile tournaments also provided the opportunity to develop Gross' overall game. Playing alongside top Swiss players such as Nico Hischier and against the elite young talent of other countries over the three years, Gross was able to learn a lot about his own skill set and how he can continue to grow as a player. "It's always great experience getting to play against the best junior players in the world," Gross noted. "Just how fast and skilled the game is there, it really helps a lot and shows you where you need to improve."
With his success in Switzerland and an extensive international resumé, Gross unsurprisingly turned heads when the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft rolled around in June 2017. With the ability to select the rights to players from outside of North America, the import draft allows CHL general managers to have their pick at a crop of young talent from across seas.
With Switzerland conducting their training camp for the World Juniors in Oshawa, Ontario, Roger Hunt - the Vice President and General Manager of the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League - was given a prime look at Gross as a possible import draft selection for the team. Oshawa liked what they saw. "Nico is a player that our coaches got an opportunity to get a sneak peek at," said Roger Hunt. "When he was available, it made perfect sense for us to take him in the first round of the CHL Import Draft." With the selection by the Generals and an official commitment to the team just a couple of months later, Gross was ready to bring his game over to North America.
The transition didn't come without its share of hardships as the smaller ice, faster game and a different style of play requires adjustment. However, Gross allowed the change of scenery to further his development and help shape his playing style. "When I came over here it was kind of hard for me at the start because it's way faster, way more physical and definitely different," the blue liner said of his arrival in the OHL. "But I feel like that has helped further my game here - the physical style and the quicker game - and I've liked that."
Gross isn't the only one to acknowledge the adaptability of his play. "Nico came to North America last year and simulated himself well to our team and the type of play we strive for," said Roger Hunt on the defenseman's adjustment. "He showed he can play a real North American style of game."
After effectively making the jump to North American hockey and getting his rookie campaign under his belt, Gross is now lacing up in his second OHL season for the Oshawa Generals. With his successful 2019 World Junior tournament in the rear-view mirror, Gross' sights are now set on finishing strong down the stretch in Oshawa.
"I think we have a really good team now," Gross stated of the Gens club. "The new guys are awesome, and the old guys are awesome, too. We have a great leadership group, and I think if we keep playing our structure and the way we know we can then we have a good chance to go far in the playoffs this year."
With a mobile, physical and intelligent player in Gross, the Generals blue line is in good hands. To compliment his on-ice skills, his leadership and experience will undoubtedly be an important factor for Oshawa through the remainder of their season and aid his development as a key prospect in the Rangers organization.