PLYMOUTH, Mich. – Swiss star Damien Brunner was tearing up Switzerland’s National League A this season, setting a personal best for goals. He was also well on to his way to establishing new marks for assists and points.
Now the speedy sniper, who produced 25 goals and 32 assists in 33 games, Brunner believes that he’s in a battle for a roster spot in the Red Wings’ mini-training camp, which began Sunday at Compuware Arena.
Brunner’s Hockeytown arrival has been well ballyhooed by those who have charted his European progress and recently affirmed by one of his new linemates.
“He's obviously a goal-scorer, but he's got more qualities than that,” said Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg. “He's a good skater, sees the ice very well and he wants to win. That's a good quality to have.”
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has already stated that Brunner will begin the shortened 48-game season with the NHL club. Pavel Datsyuk will center the Wings’ top line along with Zetterberg and Brunner, who have seemed to forge some continuity already having passed the time of the NHL lockout by skating as linemates for EV Zug in Switzerland’s top pro league. Zetterberg collected 16 goals and 16 assists in 23 games with Zug.
But the biggest concern for Brunner is can he make the adjustment to the smaller NHL rinks? Players don’t have a lot of time in space to create opportunities in the North American game as they do on the Olympic-sized ice sheets in Europe.
“No space, right?” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock asked, rhetorically. “No space so it's a different game. We think he's obviously a real talented guy. Time's going to tell how he adapts. It worked out as good for him as it could have possibly worked because obviously leading the league in scoring again for the third year in a row, Z comes over, he develops a friendship, a confidence to play with real good players. Now he's just got to keep doing the same thing so we're excited about having him.”
Zetterberg agreed, there will be a necessary adjustment period for Brunner, but over time, the veteran Wings' forward doesn’t think his new teammate will have a problem assimilating to the NHL.
“He'll need time to adjust for it, I think, but there's nothing more to do over there,” Zetterberg said. “This is the next step in his career, and we're all glad he picked us to do that with.”
It’s premature to think that based on the first day of training camp Brunner’s success will transfer to the Wings’ lineup. But he quickly picked up on team terminology and the on-ice pace of Day 1.
“It was fun, but it was not much time to think because it was so intense,” Brunner said, in broken English. “The practices and the drills were just rolling, there were no breaks. But that was the best because you have no time to think or to be nervous. It took like 10 minutes to get used to it, but my linemates helped with the drills and I thought it went really well.”
With Datsyuk expected in camp on Tuesday (he had permission to play in Sunday's KHL All-Star Game), forward Jan Mursak rounded out Zetterberg's line in the first day of camp.
Brunner spent four-plus seasons with Zug where he played for coach Doug Shedden, a former Red Wings center from 1985-87. Last season, Brunner scored 24 goals with 36 assists. His highlight of the 2011-12 season though came in an 8-4 exhibition win over the New York Rangers where he collected a goal and an assist.
“I think it was tough for (the Rangers) to play on the big ice,” Brunner said. “They had a lot of big guys and they had a hard time skating against us. They had three games in four nights with the travel, so it was tough and they were tired. It was just big for a Swiss hockey club to beat the Rangers.”
Brunner received his first introduction to Detroit in September when he arrived for the Red Wings’ informal workouts. It was during that trip that Zetterberg made the Swiss star feel at home, and he realized then that he had made the right decision to sign a free agent contract with Detroit.
“I was supposed to stay at the hotel,” said Brunner, of his first Detroit visit. “Then after two days (Zetterberg) came up to me and said, ‘Well, come and join me at my house.’ I lived with him and it was just a great gesture from such a great player. And it took away so many nerves. It’s really nice when I guy like him takes care of you, and I really appreciated that.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose