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Niederreiter helping change expectations of Swiss hockey

Silver medal at recent World Championships indicative of rising

by Aaron Vickers / Special to Wild.com

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Nino Niederreiter is helping shape the expectation of success in Switzerland. And he's seen, the Minnesota Wild forward suggests, his home country setting satisfaction at a higher level.

"Absolutely," said Niederreiter, who helped push his country into an improbable gold-medal meeting with Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, but fell by the slimmest of margins in a shootout to claim silver.

"At the end of the day, our main goal is always to be in the top eight, for sure, and then move on from there. Reaching the quarterfinal has to be a goal, year-in and year-out. The last two years, we've done that. It's a stepping stone. We're trying to improve year-in, year-out. Once you get to that quarterfinal, anything is possible.

"At the same time, we need to grow more and more and more, and learn a lot."

Niederreiter would know about any shift in attitude.

Few have been called as often as he has to represent Switzerland internationally. Fewer have answered as frequently.

And it's helped Niederreiter help move the change in the program's culture.

"He's an amazing guy," said Swiss captain Raphael Diaz, himself decorated internationally and a veteran of 201 NHL games over parts of four seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Calgary Flames. "I mean, he's an amazing hockey player. He's big, strong, goes in front of the net. But I think even more importantly, what kind of guy he is in the dressing room. He works hard. He gives everything. He's really important for the team, and in the dressing room a big part."

He's an integral part to the on ice product, no doubt. It's in the room, though, where Niederreiter has helped the push the most progress.

"We always push each other," Diaz said. "We have a good group. We have fun. A big part is we push each other. It's really important, and he's a big part. He pushes guys. He pushes himself, but he pushes other guys and that's a key point."

He's able to given the reputation he's built internationally with the Swiss program.

Niederreiter represented Switzerland at both the 2008 and 2009 World Under-18 Championship, combining for four goals and eight points in 12 games. He was named one of his country's top three players in the second stint.

He continued his international career with stops at the World Junior Championship in 2010 and 2011, amassing eight goals and 14 points in 13 games -- fourth and fifth-place finishes, respectively. His first go-round netted him not only a nod as one of Switzerland's top three players, but a spot on the tournament's all-star team.

In 2012, Niederreiter made his men's national team debut at the world championship.

A year later, he helped Switzerland to silver at the tournament in Stockholm -- the country's highest showing to date at that point -- with eight points (five goals, three assists) in 10 games. He also represented the group at the 2016 world championship.

Niederreiter also represented Switzerland at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games and in a stint with Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Those experiences allow Niederreiter to demand more.

"The mentality changed a lot, especially for myself. I don't want to just go to a world championship to just be here and play hockey," Niederreiter said. "You want to come here and win a medal; that's always your goal, and if that's not your goal, you're not supposed to be here. It's something that the attitude definitely changed.

"The situation like Stockholm, where we had a chance to be in the final … we lost but we got silver. That was a big eye-opener for a lot of guys on the national team. Now they're proud to be here playing for the national team, not just being here because they have to."

Switzerland's men's program, long past the days of facing a relegation threat, finished sixth at the world championship a year ago. It's finished 10th or lower just three times since being promoted to the main group in 1998.

The results haven't been as encouraging at the world juniors level, but Switzerland hasn't faced relegation since being promoted after winning Division I Group A in 2009.

It was a year later, with Niederreiter, that the program starting rolling in the right direction.

"For me personally, it started at the Under-20's in Saskatoon where we were in the semifinal," said Niederreiter, who leads all active Swiss players in NHL scoring with 103 goals, and has 208 points -- second only to Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi with 292. "We lost against Canada…they were stacked that year. But that was an eye-opener. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how small a country we are; if we do a lot of things right, we'll have a chance to win a medal."

The next step came three years later.

"In 2013, we had a chance to win silver," Niederreiter recounted. "For our country, it was definitely a huge step in the right direction.

"There, we had no expectations. We didn't know. We had a great team, everyone pulling the same direction. That's something we have to do as a country. We have to stick together. We don't have the individuals to make a difference every single night. We need the team to be good to be successful."

The Swiss have.

And they've taken another step, too, starting with silver, again. This time in Denmark, one shot away from gold.


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