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Niederreiter Reflects on World Cup Experience

After finals run, Swiss forward bursts with European pride

by Evan Sporer / Special to Wild.com

TORONTO -- Growing up, Nino Niederreiter's hockey goal was to play for EHC Chur, his hometown team in his native Switzerland.

There was no NHL, a league mostly unknown to Niederreiter and his peers. It was a foreign concept, so why dream to be a part of it? 

Likewise, Team Europe, the biggest surprise of the World Cup of Hockey 2016, was not a tangible aspiration for Niederreiter 22 months ago.

It was all Switzerland growing up for Niederreiter, but times have changed. 

"Each individual has their flag on their shoulder, but at the end of the day, it's still a team, and you're still Team Europe, and you play for one another," said Niederreiter, whose World Cup run came to an end Thursday night in the finals against Canada. "Even though you know you have the flag on your shoulder, you still play for the logo in front of you. In the back of your head, you know you play for Switzerland, but at the same time, I personally play more for Team Europe than Team Switzerland."

Tweet from @TeamEUR_WCH: It's amazing what can happen when nations come together. Thanks for the memories. #TeamEUR #WCH2016 pic.twitter.com/dj7L3pxMJz

Niederreiter's hometown of Chur is located in the eastern Swiss Alps. Go straight west and you'll end up in Bern, where Predators defenseman Roman Josi grew up. In 2010, Niederreiter and Josi met in Saskatoon as members of Switzerland's World Junior Championship team. Since then, their friendship off the ice has grown as the two faces of Swiss hockey have experienced a lot together. 

They were roommates in Sochi at the 2014 Olympics, and have chased elusive international success for their home country. 

That chase led them to Sweden in 2013, when Switzerland earned silver at the IIHF World Championship, ending a 60-year medal drought. 

The loss in the tournament final came against Sweden, whom Team Europe defeated in the semifinal round of this year's World Cup. 

"It's been an interesting journey for us," Niederreiter said two days before his patchwork European team bested Sweden. "We got together two weeks ago. We didn't quite know what to expect and had a couple of difficult games right off the get-go against North America."

The challenge presented to Niederreiter, his teammates and head coach Ralph Krueger was this: Take a group of players from eight different countries and compete at the highest international stage. 

"That's where we kind of found our identity (against Team North America), and we knew we kind of had to win potentially two games to move on," Niederreiter said. "We definitely shocked a few people with the first win against the Americans, and we knew we had a chance for the semis. We took the chance, and we landed in the semis."

What the World Cup represented and meant for Niederreiter was twofold: There was a deep-rooted layer of Swiss pride that one could see glimmer when he talked about his relationship with Josi, or his admiration for Swiss athletes like Roger Federer. 

There was also the competitiveness and fire of a young hockey player, staring at the pantheon and the real possibility of defeating Canada, a hockey powerhouse, on Canadian soil. 

"We've been underdogs pretty much the whole tournament," goalie Jaroslav Halak said. "We proved to people we can play hockey."

It didn't end with the finale Team Europe had scripted for itself, but instead with the one written by so many for Canada. The host team defeated Europe 2-1 on Thursday at Air Canada Centre, sweeping the best-of-3 championship series and finishing an undefeated 2016 World Cup.

Niederreiter was a plus-1 with an assist in six World Cup contests.

Europe's only misstep came in the finals against Canada. Now, Niederreiter and his European teammates will return to their respective NHL teams with an experience that should serve them well for the rest of training camp and the beginning of the NHL season.

"This group hasn't needed any magic," Krueger said. "There's a lot of magic just happening naturally."

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