ROMANSHORN, Switzerland – When Luca Sbisa was picked 19th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa, he became the third Swiss first-round pick and the first-ever Swiss defenceman to be selected in the first round.
Forwards Michel Riesen (1997, Edmonton, #14) and Luca Cereda (1999, Toronto, #24) were Sbisa’s predecessors as Swiss first-rounders but they couldn’t make their marks in the NHL. Both were drafted during a time when the Swiss U18 and U20 national teams were winning medals and looking to be a top-eight nation. However, little was known if players from the comfortable Swiss National League A would fit into the NHL puzzle. At least, Riesen and Cereda didn’t. After three seasons with only 12 NHL games for the Edmonton Oilers but 215 AHL games, Riesen moved back to HC Davos.
Also Cereda wasn’t lucky. When he signed his contract a year after the draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs discovered he had a heart defect. He missed the entire season after surgery and played three AHL seasons without earning an NHL spot. He played four more years in Switzerland before the doctors told him that playing professional ice hockey was too risky for his health.
There have been Swiss players who made an impact in the NHL. David Aebischer was an NHL player for seven seasons with Colorado, Montreal and Phoenix. Martin Gerber (Ottawa) and Mark Streit (New York Islanders) are among the best-paid Swiss sportsmen after tennis star Roger Federer. And Anaheim backup goalie Jonas Hiller had a great rookie season behind Jean-Sébastien Giguère with a 92.7 save percentage. But all of them were either undrafted or late picks.
Luca Sbisa, who was compared with Mark Streit on his draft day, wants to go another way than the current three Swiss NHLers. While all of them first established themselves as top players at home in the Swiss league, Sbisa has played junior hockey in Canada’s Western Hockey League since last autumn and after he got his first few shifts in the NLA with his hometown club EV Zug in 2006-2007.
Sbisa played last season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and was among the top rookies in the league. The 17-year-old also represented Switzerland at the 2008 IIHF World U20 Championship. Will he be a second Streit? He’s flattered about the comparison “because Streit made much for Swiss hockey and I also want to fight it out and hope that I’ll be rewarded. But we’re different types, even though we can both play defence and forward.” Sbisa, who describes himself as a tough two-way defender, was also playing centre in his early days but witched to defence a few years ago. “This position suits me better,” he says.
When he was drafted, Sbisa remembers the feelings he had. “I just enjoyed it and still haven’t completely realised what happened. It was so big, with such a great atmosphere and many fans.” He had the chance to speak with several people in the VIP box including GM Paul Holmgren and head coach John Stevens. And he didn’t forget the handshake with Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia’s player legend and currently senior vice-president of the franchise.
Now, Sbisa is ready for the next step. He practised at a summer camp in Romanshorn, Switzerland, with several players, organised by his agent. And he was drilled by no one less than IIHF Hall of Famer Vladimir Yurzinov Sr, who was on the coaching staff of the Russian national team until 2006 and was coaching several top clubs in Finland, Russia and Switzerland. The 68-year-old is especially popular amongst ex-players like Swiss national team player Roman Wick, Russian star forward Alexei Yashin and Lithuanian-Russian Darius Kasparaitis, who also came to Switzerland for Yurzinov’s lessons. Also in the camp was Tim Ramholt, who was acquired by the Philadelphia Flyers from the Calgary Flames, where he mostly played on the farm team. He and Sbisa will travel together to Philadelphia for the Flyers’ development camp next week. “We will work on and off-ice but it’s also to get to know better the organisation and people,” Sbisa said.
Ramholt and Sbisa will be among nine Swiss who will try their luck in the NHL camps in September. While the others will be sent to the respective farm teams in the case of a cut, Sbisa would play another season of junior hockey with Lethbridge. “It wouldn’t be a setback for me,” Sbisa says. “The level of junior hockey is very high in Canada and I still can improve there, take more responsibility and a new role. We have a great team and the expectations are high after we made it to the final series.”