Swiss NLA — Get to Know the 12-Team League

When I write about Swiss Hockey, you as the reader should know the teams involved. In this article, I will give you a basic rundown of the 12 teams.

As you know, Switzerland is a small country with about seven million habitants. Besides skiing, hockey is attracting as many spectators as soccer. This is mainly due to the better teams and the more competitive league. There is no sure thing about who will win the championship and who will get relegated. The playoffs are the deciding and fun part of the championship. Now, let’s dive into each team and their history.

Let’s Start in the Ticino — Get Dressed Warm

HC Ambrì-Piotta

When you travel to Switzerland to watch some games, this one is a MUST. HC Ambrì-Piotta against the HC Lugano. Both teams are in the Canton Ticino. But you must hurry up because the old Valascia will be soon closed and a new arena will be built. The building is open on one side and this makes the game even more special. If it happens to snow, you will see the snow flakes falling into the arena. The new arena should open in 2022. So, you have three seasons to come over and hire me as your hockey travel guide for Switzerland. After that, you will have missed the best rivalry in the Valascia. The opportunity will never come back. But I warn you! You need warm clothes there.

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After a win, the fans of Ambrì sing “La montanara,” the club’s victory hymn.

Ambrì is a small village right after the longest street tunnel in Europe. Straight after you exit the tunnel, you will see the arena on your right-hand side. The club was founded in 1931 and is coached by Luca Cereda. The Swiss native played almost his whole career in Ambrì. He had to quit hockey because of heart problems. Currently, they have Brayan Flynn (USA), Jiri Novotny (CZE), Robert Sablic (SLK), Fabio Hofer (AUT) and Matt D’Agostini (CAN) as their imports. At the moment, they are in 11th place in the current standings.

SC Bern

Berne has the biggest stadium outside of the NHL. With 17,031 seats, it offers a spectacular view of the game. If you would like to watch a game there, you should buy a standing place. It is the best place in the Arena. If the players enter the ice, they will face a wall of people standing and cheering for their team. Most imports coming the first time to Berne say that they never saw something like that.

The best games to watch are against the HC Davos, the ZSC Lions or the SCL Tigers. All those games have their own history. Even a game against the HC Lugano can be a thriller. In the early ’90s with coach Bill Gilligan and the imports Alan Haworth (CAN) and Rejio Ruotsalainen (FIN), those games were full and hot. And with a lot of fighting. Nowadays, it is not the same anymore, but the rivalry still exists. 

The team was founded in 1931 and won 16 championships. Kari Jalonnen, former head coach of the Finnish National Team is at the helm. Marc Lüthi is the CEO since 1998 when Berne almost had to file bankruptcy. With him in charge, Berne was able to turn around and is one of the best arenas in European hockey.

Reijo Ruotsalainen Finnish HHoF
Reijo Ruotsalainenwho played in the late 1980s and early 1990 in Bern (photo courtesy Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame)

The imports this season are Mikko Koivissto (FIN), Mark Arcobello (USA), Andrew Ebbett (CAN) and Jan Mursak (SLV). Berne had a slow start in the season and is currently seventh.

EHC Biel

Biel is playing in the “Watch City.” This name came because Tissot Watches, Swatches, Omega and a lot more watches come from here. The city is also the gate to a beautiful area called the Jura. These are mountains that run from France into Switzerland and further. The city and its people speak two languages: Swiss German and French. You should not be surprised if you hear people talking in both of their languages. The French speaker will answer in French and the Swiss-German in his language. And both understand what each other is saying. Pretty amazing, huh?

Nevertheless, we as SC Berne fans do not really like them. That has to do with the Swiss Championships in the ’70s and mid-80s — that was the time when all three teams of the Cantone of Berne were playing in their own league. In this time, the SC Bern won five championships, Biel two and the SC Langnau, also know as the SCL Tigers, one. Those times are over. Bern is the only club of those three who won the national title at least once since then.

Anssi Salmela (THW Archives)

Biel gets coached by former Finnish National Team member Antti Törmänen. The team were founded in 1939. With their imports Anssi Salmela (FIN), Ramon Karaffe (SLK), Marc-Antoine Poulliot (CAN), Toni Rajala (FIN) and Peter Schneider (AUT), they have a good team together. In the net is Jonas Hiller,who will hang up his skates at the end of this season. The former Anaheim Ducks netminder is one of the reasons why Biel made it two times in a row to the semifinals. Last year even the old rivalry with Berne was back. Berne won against Biel in the semifinals four games to two. Currently, they lead the league with 26 points.

HC Davos

If you are a true Hockey Canada fan, you know for sure the Spengler Cup in the Holliday season. If not, then you are not a Canadian. If you do not know the Spengler Cup, let me explain what this is all about. The Spengler Cup gets played from Dec. 26-31. There are six teams playing it, five club teams and Team Canada. The Canadian team gets selected from the players all over Europe. And sometimes even AHL players are coming to play.

Davos was founded in 1921. Their new head coach you probably know because of the World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Christian Wohlwend is now behind the bench of Davos. He took over at the beginning of this season after long-time coach Arno del Curto got replaced by Harris Vitolich in December last season. 

Mattias Tedenby
Mattias Tedenby is currently playing with the HC Davos. (Jim O’Connor-US PRESSWIRE)

Davos is in the middle of the alps in the Canton of Graubünden and has, at 1,500 meters altitude, the highest arena in Switzerland. Most teams have problems playing there because the air is thinner than in other places where hockey is played.

With Jems Olsen (SWE), Otso Rantakari (FIN), Pertu Lindgren (FIN) Aaron Palushaj (USA) and Mattias Tedenby (SWE), their imports look strong. But they didn’t find chemistry in the team and are currently ranked 10th in the league.

Fribourg-Gottéron

As for Biel, Fribourg is a bilingual city. About 20 minute away from the capital, Berne, and bound with history, both cities have a great rivalry. Not only on the ice or about hockey-related things. Joking around with the people of the canton Fribourg has also been a great tradition. It’s like having good friends and making some fun about them.

Will David Deshernais have success with Fribourg? (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

The history-filled relation with Fribourg is based on a fire in the old city of Berne. The people of Fribourg came to help Berne fight the fire. After that, Bern gave them the right to sell their onions on the market once a year. That’s where the yearly onion market on the last Monday in November happens. It is a great tradition; you should visit once in your life. But be aware that you will have to fight against some special kind of humour of the inhabitants of Bern.

Let’s move on to hockey. Fribourg was founded in 1937. It was the first team that, after the iron curtain fell down, took the two Russian players Vyacheslav Bykov (C) and Andrei Khomutov (RW) under contract. This time was the most interesting part in the history of the team. They made the playoffs, got to the finale but dropped them all. Since then, the team never got that close to the championship.

Six games into the season they fired Mark French and now GM Christian Dubé is behind the bench. The team got out of the slump and has rebounded. But will this be enough? With their imports Ryan Gunderson (USA), Daniel Brodin (SWE), David Desharnais (CAN) and Viktor Stalberg (SWE), the ground for a long run in the playoffs is laid out. Especially since they have goaltender Reto Berra in the net. But with that season slump, it may be already too late. Fribourg is last in the league with 11 points out of 10 games.

Geneva-Servette HC

After Geneva had some problems on and off the ice, they are now in more silent water. The start in the new season was good. Under the new coach Patrick Emond, it seems they found their chemistry on all four lines. With their new imports Jens Olsson (SWE) and Eric Fehr (USA), they seem to be better. With Henrik Tömmernes (SWE), Tommy Wingles (USA) and Daniel Winnik (CAN) who all had to sit out a long time last season, this seems to be over now. They are currently third in the standings.

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Geneve-Servette HC – Sherkan the eagle will bring the puck to center ice

One of the fiercest rivalries are the games against their counterpart in Lausanne as Geneva Lausanne is based on the Lake Geneva. It is only 45 minutes between those two and when they play each other, the games are intense and entertaining. It is a must, to see those games.

SCL Tigers

The SCL Tigers is the second club that is based in a small town. Langnau is the main town of the Valley Emmental. You may know the word Emmental. That’s the name of a cheese that has a lot of holes in it. And is very popular around the world.

SCL Tigers Fans Will Throw You in the Ilfis — but Only if You Are SC Bern Fan

The SCL Tigers were formerly known as the SC Langnau. Their new name came as they were promoted to the NLA in the late ’90s. Since the indictment of the playoff in Switzerland in 1985, the team only made the playoffs twice. Under coach Heinz Ehlers, they try now to get to the first eight teams who will make the best time this season. It will be a good sign for Swiss hockey if they do.

Their loyal fanbase will honour that. Even in this league, they draw about 3,000 fans at each game. The Tigers were founded in 1949 and played their games in the Ilfis Arena. The arena is named after a river right behind the building. As the story goes, after a win over the biggest rival, the SC Bern, their fans got thrown into this river. And this is minus 10° in the air.

Christopher DiDomenico #49, Ottawa Senators
Christopher DiDomenico is back with the SLC Tigers with a second stint (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Currently, they have five imports. Chris DiDomenico, Aaron Gagnon, Ben Maxwell (all Canadiens), Robbie Earl (USA) and Harri Pesonen (FIN) and are in eighth place in the standings.

Lausanne HC

In Lausanne, there is the headquarter of the international Olympic committee. The team did not play in their own arena for the last two years. The old arena got freshened up with more seats. In this season, they had to play the first few games on the road. The reopening of the new arena was at the beginning of October. It did not go well. They dropped five of the three games against Geneva. Not a good sign for them.

Christoph Bertschy is back in his home country. He currently plays with Lausanne HC. (Courtesy of the Iowa Wild)

The club was founded in 1922. Now they are ranked as fifth in the league. With their coach Ville Peltonen, they try to get to the playoffs and win the championship. With the imports, they have that could happen. At the moment those are Jonas Junlund (SWE), Petteri Lindbolm (FIN), Cory Emmerton, Dustin Jeffrey, and Josh Jorris (all Canadians) and Max Wärn (FIN).

HC Lugano

Lugano is close to the Italian border. It would take 20 minutes to be in the new country. Anyway, if you go to the game you should pick one against the ZSC Lions or the SC Bern. They are intense, with a lot of history behind them. The ZSC Lions, Berne and Lugano were the biggest rivals in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

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Pre Game celebration in Lugano

Founded in 1941, Lugano has a strong history with Scandinavian import players and coaches. When they rocked the league, there was Jon Sletvoll behind the bench. Now, they try to get back on top of the Swiss championship with coach Sami Kapanen from Finland. With Ryan Spooner (CAN), Taylor Chorney (CAN/USA), Atte Ohtamaa (FIN), Linus Klasen (SWE) and Jani Lajunen (FIN), they seem to have a good base in the lineup. Also, with their current standing at the fifth place, it looks good. But the season is long.

SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers

Rapperswil is at the beginning of the lake of Zurich and the home base of the national Circus Knie. There is a nice zoo for children and the view down the lake is gorgeous. Everything else to write about Rapperswil? Nope, except if you love hockey.

The Lakers, as we call them here, where founded in 1945. In their arena, the Bank of Canton St. Gall Arena — gosh, what a name — they have some good times. But those are long gone. In 2018, they got promoted back to the NLA and since then the were bottom last. This should change this season. With the imports Roman Cervenka (CZE), Kevin Clark (CAN), Danny Krissto (USA), Andrew Rowe (USA) and Casey Wellman (USA) they made good moves toward this goal. But is coach Jeff Tomlinson the right coach? With their ninth place in the current standing, it looks ok. I wouldn’t be surprised if they change the coach midseason.

ZSC Lions

The “Zett” as we call the ZSC Lions, were not so successful when they played with their original name, ZSC. They had a hard time staying in the top league. Most often they were called a “lift” team — meaning an elevator team that goes up and down. After a merger with there former rival GCK and the boarding with Emil Frei who runs a successful car dealership and pays the debt of around CHF 5 million each year, they got back and are now playing under the best four teams in Switzerland.

Can Marcus Kruger help the ZSC Lions to get back on top of the NLA in Switzerland? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Except for last season where they had to play the relegation round. This led to a change in coaching. Former Swedish National Team coach Rikard Grönborg is behind the bench and their imports changed. Only two, Maxim Noreau and Fredrik Pettersson, are still with the team. With Joni Orsi (FIN), Marcus Krüger and Garrett Roe, the team looks stronger and more balanced.

EV Zug

The only championship the EV Zug won was in 1998. Since then, they are looking to get a second title. And they do it with a lot of money. But will this money buy such a title?

Founded in 1967, the club had some hiccups and struggled from time to time. Since they moved to a new arena, things changed. With a new concept and a new CEO, they turned around and are now a runner up. In the last three seasons, they got two shots at the championship but lost both finals against Bern.

Golden Knights center Oscar Lindberg
Oscar Lindberg is one of the imports that are new in Switzerland (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Will this change in this season? It may be happening. With their coach Dan Tangnes, they now where they want to be. Tangnes is in his second year behind the bench and has changed a couple of things for the second season. Starting with the imports Carl Klingberg (SWE), Jan Kovar (CZE), Oscar Lindberg (SWE), David McIntyre (CAN) and Erik Thorell (SWE), they also grabbed Leonardo Genoni from Berne. He could be the missing part to get to the second championship and now it looks pretty good. They are fourth in the standings and are one of the better teams in this early stage of the new season.

The next few months until mid-April will be determining who will be the next champion. But as one of the rules goes in sports: Never look back, never live in the future. Only the present counts. And the present does not look good for some of the 12 teams. It will get some changes, for sure. But who will be the next team to take on a change? Time will tell.