As the 2014 Winter Olympic Games draw near, the spotlight on the men’s hockey tournament intensifies. Canada and the United States are both gunning for a repeat of their thrilling 2010 gold medal match-up. The host Russians are hoping to return to their prior standing as the world’s elite. The Swedes are coming off a gold medal at this past spring’s World Championships.
Amidst all the hubbub, one national team may be just under everyone’s radar.
When the NHL Player Era of Olympic hockey began in 1998, there was no delegation from Switzerland in the tournament. They hadn’t played well enough to qualify. But in the 16 years hence, the Swiss national program has undergone a maturation process that has transformed the nation from an after-thought, to a steady competitor and also one that occasionally shocks the world. In 2006, they beat the defending gold medalists from Canada en route to a 6th-place finish. This past spring, they won silver at the World Championships, their-best ever finish.
Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter has been part of this quiet hockey revolution. The product of Chur, Switzerland has represented his country in international competitions at the under-18, under-20 and World Championship levels, finally capturing hardware as part of the aforementioned silver medal winners at the last Worlds. He feels that the medal win was a breakthrough for Swiss hockey.
“I think we’re very confident about our game,” said Niederreiter. “We did a lot of good things the last few years, but obviously we were always struggling when we went to the quarterfinals, struggling to get to the next step, and last year was definitely a big part of that, that we know now that we are capable of doing stuff like that. I think we put ourselves on the map.”
If there’s one aspect of a short tournament like the Olympics that may play into Switzerland’s favour, it’s the chemistry factor. Of the 25-man roster headed to represent the Swiss in Sochi, 18 of them were on the World Championship squad. That means there will just be seven new faces to implement into a system of play that already produced results on the big ice. Niederreiter downplayed the chemistry factor being an advantage.
“It could be, but at the same time we have got to get new chemistry,” said Niederreiter. “Like I said, there’s going to be new faces, it’s not going to be the exact same team. But if we play the way we have to play, then I think good things will happen. Obviously you talk about Canada, USA, [with] some of the best players in the world. Or even Russia, with Ovechkin. We have to obviously stay sharp. There’s different teams than we played against in the World Championships, but at the same time, we know what we have to do and I think we have a chance to win against everyone.”
The 21-year-old Niederreiter shared his excitement over being able to represent his country on the Olympic stage. With the uncertainty of NHL player involvement in the next Olympics in 2018 (in Pyongchang, South Korea), he knows the importance of these game for both himself and his country. There may not be a better time for a Swiss breakthrough on international hockey’s biggest stage than the Sochi Olympics. While the traditional medal contenders face a great deal of pressure to perform, the Swiss are under the gun to prove to the world – and themselves – that their World Championship performance was no fluke.
“We have dreams, we have goals, and we get the pressure from our country because we went to the finals last year. Obviously they want us doing well…but I think the biggest pressure is what we put on ourselves,” shared Niederreiter.
The men’s Olympic hockey tournament opens on February 12 in Sochi, Russia. Switzerland is in Group C with the Czech Republic, Sweden and Latvia. The long-awaited World Championship rematch between the Swiss and Sweden takes place on February 14.