On the road to their 2008-09 season-opener in Prague, the Blueshirts will make hockey history on Tuesday when they face the SC Bern Bears in an exhibition game at PostFinance Arena.
The largest indoor arena in Switzerland's capital city holds more than 17,000 for hockey, and roughly half of those people occupy standing-room-only "seats". These standees, who tend to be as raucous as any European soccer crowd, should make for a very foreign atmosphere.
“Oh, it’s pretty cool,” said Christian Dube
, a former Rangers player now in his seventh season with SC Bern. “There are drums and people are chanting, and it’s really nice. It’s a very different atmosphere than the NHL, and I’m sure tomorrow people will want to be loud because it’s a special game. I’m sure the Rangers will like the atmosphere. Some of them, like their Czech guys, are probably used to what it’s like. It’s going to be nice.”
The atmosphere alone promises to make Tuesday’s game special, but the historic importance won’t be lost on anyone either. The Rangers’ visit to Bern marks the first time an NHL team will have competed on Swiss ice. While it might be just a preseason game for the Rangers and an exhibition game for SC Bern, there’s no doubt it will be intense.
“They (SC Bern) are going to be excited to play us, and their energy is going to be real high, so you can’t approach it lightly. If anything you’ve got to take it more seriously, because they’re going to go out there and not only try to make a point for themselves but for their country, too,” said Rangers forward Ryan Callahan
. “I think this is a big game for them. We’ve got to go out there and really try to win this game, especially after what happened in a couple of our preseason games.”
There is no doubt that the Rangers are the favorites on Tuesday. While Swiss hockey has come a long way over the past decade or so, it is still not at the level of some other European leagues and limits the number of imports (non-Swiss passport-holders) who can play.
SC Bern is one of the very best teams in Switzerland, currently ranked second in the Swiss National League’s “A” Division. Under the leadership of third-year head coach John Van Boxmeer, a former NHL defenseman, Bern has gone 7-1-0 through its first eight games with two of its victories coming in overtime.
One of the reasons for the Bears’ success is the talent of its NHL-experienced imports and the fact that two other players on the roster qualify for Swiss citizenship, even though they were born outside the country.
“You’re actually allowed to have as many (imports) as you want, but you can only dress four per game,” said Van Boxmeer. “Some teams carry five. We carried five last year, but it was not a healthy situation. The imports don’t come over here to sit out. They come over here to be your star players, and they expect to play. So right now we have four. And then we also have a couple of Canadians that (are considered Swiss) either because their fathers played over here or their parents are from here or whatever.”
As a result, the Bears have six players who have spent time in the NHL. They range from Thomas Ziegler, a native Swiss who once saw five games of action with Tampa Bay, to Sebastien Bordeleau, a Canadian who played 251 NHL games with four different teams before heading to Europe. Like Dube, who played all of his 33 NHL games in a Blueshirts uniform, Bordeleau is now in his seventh season with SC Bern.
Rounding out the ex-NHL contingent are Canadians Ramzi Abid (68 games with four teams), Travis Roche (60 games with Minnesota and Phoenix), and Simon Gamache (48 games with four teams).
“If you look at our team, you’ll see that about half of our guys have played in a World Championship tournament,” said Van Boxmeer. “They have played against the best players in the world, so I don’t think it’s going to be that big of an experience for some of them. But for some of our younger guys it will be a good experience. And it will be a nice experience for our fans, to see an NHL team. To see how their team stacks up against an NHL team.”
Van Boxmeer’s young players are certainly quite young, and will need to rely on their NHL-experienced teammates to help them get through Tuesday’s game. The Bears have four regulars under the age of 20, including Nashville Predators second-round pick Roman Josi.
“We want to play a hard game, for sure, but the Rangers are bigger and stronger than us,” said Dube. “They’re better, but it’s a different game here with bigger ice, so we want to try to play a fast game and see what we can do.”
Asked if any of the Bern youngsters (19-year-olds Pascal Berger and Etienne Froidevaux, as well as 18-year-olds Josi and Alain Berger) might actually be intimidated by the Rangers, Dube was brutally honest.
“Sure some of the young guys know they’re playing an NHL team with some of the best players in the world, so guys will be (in awe) to start the game. But after the first few minutes, I’m sure it will be a normal game," he said. "… We know we’re not going to outhit them. Maybe they’re bigger and stronger, but we’re going to try to play our game. Most of all, we’re going to try to skate. We’re going to try to do that, but I’m sure the Rangers can keep up with us.”
Another major gap between the Swiss and NHL teams is the road players must travel to reach them. That makes Canadian-born players like Dube even more valuable to teams like SC Bern.
“The difference (in Switzerland) is that you don’t have 30 players pushing you at the bottom end of your roster,” said Van Boxmeer. “We had 23 players in training camp and we kept 23 players. So you kind of have your team from the start, and it’s very rare that you can make a trade because of the Swiss labor laws. If a player doesn’t want to go, you can’t trade him. So you can only make a trade if two players both agree to switch teams.”
That hockey-cultural difference helps explain the SC Bern players’ fascination with the NHL lifestyle, and their excitement about Tuesday’s game.
|An SC Bern player watches Fredrik Sjostrom and the Rangers run through their practice drills on Monday afternoon. |
“Our players are all excited to come out here and watch the Rangers practice,” said Dube on Monday. “It’s a big deal for Switzerland. It’s the first time an NHL team has come to play here, so that’s great for hockey and for the NHL. And it’s good for this (Swiss) league, too, to be playing a team like this. It can’t be better.”
If the players are excited, the fans are even more so. They were all looking for autographs on Monday as players from both teams completed their respective practices.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience for us,” said Callahan. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd that’s been like this -- where they’ve got the drums going and are singing. I think it’s going to be a great experience for us, but at the same time, it’s a business trip and we have to approach it that way.”
Recognizing that a Bern victory on Tuesday would forever be remembered as something of a Swiss "Miracle on Ice", Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky
said his team will have to be able to handle all of the emotion in the building.
“We anticipate that they’re going to come hard, ready to go,” he said. “It’s going to be a good game. We’re expecting that, and we’re ready to put a lot of effort into it ourselves.”
Ironically, the most nervous person in the arena might be the one behind the Bern bench. Van Boxmeer, who played nearly 600 career NHL games, understands what it means for a team like Bern to face the Rangers.
“It’s the first time it’s happened here in Switzerland. It’s always exciting to be part of a new or special event. I want to see what our guys can do, and I think it will be a nice eye-opener for our players to see what some of the best players in the world are like and how they play and even how they practice. I think it’s going to be a good experience for us," said Van Boxmeer. "As a coach, though, you always hope you don’t lose anybody to injury, because you don’t want to ruin your season for an exhibition game.”