My first ever World Junior Championship came during the 2004-05 NHL Lockout. It was held in the beautiful Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota. And it was a blast.
The tournament will stick forever with me. Not only that it was tournament number one, but it was also the best tournament that I could watch. Names like Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Malkin were on the ice.
Switzerland Had to Battle to Avoid Relegation
On the other hand, there was a Swiss Team that had to fight to keep their spot in the top division. Few gave them credit to stay in this division. The first game for Switzerland would be the one that would set the tone for the whole tournament. They needed a win against Belarus. Not an easy task for them.
Switzerland had the opportunity to start the tournament one day later than the rest of Group A. For me it was good timing so I could get adjusted to the time difference and the smaller ice rinks too. It also allowed me to get a good night’s sleep. I started back home at 6:00 AM local time on Dec. 26. The trip took me to Amsterdam, Minneapolis and finally to Grand Forks where I landed with about three hours delay.
But who cares, when the first game you see was Russia against the United States in a sell-out arena and everyone cheering for the USA? No one I say!
Win Against Belarus Crucial
But the next day I got into the tournament. First I watched the practice from Team Switzerland and did a short Q&A with their coach, Jakob Kölliker. He explained to me what was important for his teams, what he expected and what he thought about the opponents.
Needless to say, he also pointed out that important game against Belarus. So I was thrilled to see that game. But, honestly, it was sloppy play and the only good thing about that was the final score: 5-0 for “my” team (Switzerland), who I cheered for.
The goals were scored by Roman Wick, Victor Stancescu, Marco Käser, and two by Kevin Romy. The next day, the “Eisgenossen,” as we call our team in Swiss German, had to play the USA. Good for me that I had the possibility to watch them two days earlier against Russia.
And it was one of those games you will remember forever. This mainly has to do with the result itself and with the way the young team played. They were hungry, didn’t give the United States a lot of space on the ice and did have good goaltending. Michael Tobler, rather than Leonardo Genoni, was the netminder in that fun game. Until the start of the third period, the Swiss team was behind with 0-2.
Entertaining Third Period Ended Tied 4-4
In the third, the Swiss got a hot start. With Jerome Benoit and Stancescu, they tied the game 64 Seconds after the third had begun. But before the five-minute mark was reached, the Team USA got back their two-goal lead.
What happened in that short sequence? Drew Stafford scored on a power play when Benoit was in the penalty box, and 51 seconds later, Tim Hensick got the old two-goal lead back. At 4:07, Rob Schremp got on the board for Team USA and the Swiss were behind by three goals.
Switzerland did not give up. Instead, it was Swiss defender Christian Hürliman who put the puck behind Al Montoya 16 seconds before the five-minute mark in the third was reached.
Only 28 seconds later, Montoya had to reach behind him again. Stancescu got his second goal in that game, only to see Team USA take the two-goal lead back 106 seconds later. You may say a loss is a loss. But the Swiss team was proud to have such a good game.
After the game, some journalists came up to me and said that this was one of the best games they ever saw from a Swiss team. The next two games against the Czech Republic (5-2) and Russia (6-1) were in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and the Swiss Team never really had a chance to get the win.
Nevertheless, the Swiss had to play the relegation round. Once again.
Swiss Team Blanked the “Krauts”
The new year was just 12 hours old when the Swiss took the ice against Germany. Everyone on the team knew that they had to win this game or they may get relegated.
And they did it in a great manner. After a scoreless first, they scored three goals in the second and two more in the third. They were saved from relegation. They lost their last game against Slovakia 3-2, but for both teams, the game was just a friendly. Germany and Belarus were already relegated.
Not Talented but Always Playing With a Big Heart
In those days in North Dakota, I heard often when I talked to volunteers, journalists or spectators that the Swiss did play well. But with playing well you never win tournaments or championships. Often you hang on and are afraid of not getting relegated. That seemed especially true when two opponents played against each other that are not so talented as the Canadiens, Russians or Swedes are.
Sometimes when Switzerland scored a goal against those nations I was freaking out. Then the journalists around me looked at me and laughed. I then always said, “I’m Swiss and happy that they scored a goal so don’t laugh at me.”