QUEBEC CITY – Before the 2008 IIHF World Championship, it wasn’t considered likely that the Swiss national team would benefit from the small ice in Canada. Especially not since their only NHL skater, top-scoring Montreal defenceman Mark Streit, is missing his first World Championship since 1998, when the era of coach Ralph Krueger began, due to a back injury.
The reality is different. Switzerland is playing one of its best tournaments ever, and won a World Championship group for the first time with three straight victories over France, Belarus and Sweden.
The Swiss experienced a setback after shocking Sweden when they lost 5-0 to the Czechs, but Sunday’s 7-2 rout of Denmark put them back on track. The rejuvenated team with four Worlds rookies – defencemen Raphael Diaz and Philippe Furrer, plus forwards Peter Guggisberg and Roman Wick – impressed by outshooting their opponents 54-20 shots. That’s an unusually high number of shots for the Swiss.
In the big picture, this emergence is great timing. Next year, the Swiss will host the World Championship, playing their games in the 17,000-capacity PostFinance Arena in Berne. So it’s nice to see them moving away from purely defensive play and the usual routine of being ranked either eighth or ninth. Like last year, Switzerland has qualified for the quarter-finals, and after many years as the perennial Number Eight team of the hockey world, Krueger’s team will move up in the 2008 IIHF World Ranking. They’ve overtaken Slovakia for seventh spot and even have a chance of overtaking the United States.
“It’s a mighty moral victory to be seventh and to overtake Slovakia,” says Krueger. While the rest of the hockey world usually doesn’t count Switzerland among the truly elite teams, excluding them from the “Big Seven”, they’ve now tiptoed into that group, so to speak.
Krueger, a German-Canadian, had his biggest previous successes in 1998. With the Austrian club VEU Feldkirch, he won the European Hockey League, a club competition featuring champions from the best European leagues and forerunner of the new Champions Hockey League. It was the biggest surprise ever in European club hockey, something almost as improbable as Austria winning the Worlds.
That same season, Krueger also began his work as the Swiss national coach, and the 1998 World Championship was played on home ice in Zurich and Basle. The newly promoted team with its rookie coach surprised everyone and caused euphoria with a fourth-place finish. But never since then have the Swiss qualified for the semi-finals, even though there have been some upsets, such as the sixth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and also at the 2000 World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Are the Swiss finally strong enough to qualify for the semis again? It’s not explicitly expected by Krueger, but more than desired. “We have a complete different group here than the last two years in Riga and Moscow,” Krueger says. “I’m proud of my players and how they regrouped after the loss to the Czechs. They were under lots of pressure.”
Last year, Krueger was criticised after only posting one-goal wins over Italy and Latvia in the first two games. The Swiss public expected more than the usual eighth-place result. However, this year there’s been no more discord in the Swiss media.
The team is applying more pressure on the nets of their opponents. The players attack more and are physically stronger. Denmark, which usually gives the Swiss a decent battle, was completely overwhelmed. And the team hasn’t collapsed despite the lack of several veterans. “It was a huge challenge for the team to do without Streit, who was averaging 30 minutes of ice time last year. It was a challenge offensively and for the defenders,” says Krueger.
Krueger also cut former Phoenix Coyotes centre Patrick Fischer (who played in Moscow 2007) and Frolunda Gothenburg star Martin Pluss – to the surprise of most Swiss fans. He doesn’t have to explain himself anymore. But he’s happy to share the credit. “We have a great youth program and coaching at junior level,” he says.
Now, one game before the quarter-finals, the Swiss are at a crossroads. They control their own destiny for the elimination games. With a win over group E leader Russia, the Swiss would finish first and play the Czechs. If they get a point, they will be second and face Sweden. And if, as commonly expected, they don’t get a point versus Vyacheslav Bykov’s team, they will face the Russians again two days later in the quarter-finals.
Krueger isn’t content to rest on his laurels: “We want to beat another country in a situation where no one thinks we have a chance.” Versus Russia, the slightly injured players could be sidelined, and Ottawa Senators goalie Martin Gerber is expected to sit on the bench after the Denmark game. Anaheim Ducks netminder Jonas Hiller might get his second start on Monday.
“For us, this game is a preparation for the quarter-finals,” says Krueger. “We still have to get better with the puck. Let’s see how it goes.” Will it be Russian roulette for the Swiss, or will they stage another upset against the Russians like in 1998 in Basle (4-2), 2000 in St. Petersburg (3-2), or 2005 in Vienna (3-3)?