Switzerland’s early birds

Does poaching need to be part of a country’s hockey culture?

01.10.2009
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Patrik Bärtschi had a next-season signing with ZSC while playing with Bern last year, Ryan Gardner did it the opposite way last week. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

ZURICH – Switzerland has yet to win a World Championship or Olympic gold medal, and the last silverware dates back to 1935. But there’s one area where the Swiss beat any other hockey nation: player poaching.

Imagine it’s February 2010. The Montreal Canadiens are not happy with their goalie tandem and it becomes known that the club’s General Manager secretly negotiates with Toronto’s Vesa Toskala, who will become an unrestricted free agent in June.

The NHL would slam the Canadiens with a juicy fine of several million dollars, they would lose a couple of draft rights and media across Canada would report about the biggest scandal in the NHL for years.

And the Toronto fans would most probably chase the goaltender out of town, should the Maple Leafs management not have sacked him before that.

But what is impossible in the NHL or in most other leagues in any sport, is routine transfer business in Switzerland.

Just the other week, the ZSC Lions’ star winger Ryan Gardner – son of former NHLer Dave, grandson of Cal and nephew of Paul Gardner – signed with SC Bern for the following 2010-2011 season.

In September. Just six games into the new season.

SC Bern didn’t want to waste a single day to proudly announce the signing of a four-year deal with Gardner starting in May 2010 after his contract in Zurich will have expired.

The announcement, which came just five days before the ZSC Lions climbed to the top of the world by winning the Victoria Cup against the Chicago Blackhawks – with Gardner on the team – was probably the earliest signing of a player contract in any country, any sport, anytime.

It will be hard to beat this “record”, unless another team is considering signing a player for 2011-2012 within the next few months.

Gardner will play seven more months in the Lions jersey before joining his new team in the Swiss capital. He might play at the 2010 Olympics and at the 2010 World Championship listed as a ZSC player.

However, the reaction in Zurich about the signing and leaving for one of the fiercest rival was rather calm. And that, for two reasons.

Firstly, despite that this first signing of the season came earlier than usual, it’s considered normal in Switzerland. This is the way hockey’s transfer business is done in this country. The word tampering – the foul play of contacting and negotiating with a player while he is still under a contract with another team – has not yet found its way into Swiss league regulations.

Secondly, the Lions are not exactly choirboys either. Last year’s “honour” of the earliest big next-season transfer went to the ZSC Lions when Patrik Bärtschi went the opposite way, signing for the following season already back in November while still being employed by SC Bern.

Approached about their early signings, the answer from both Bärtschi and Gardner are similar: That’s the way it works in Switzerland. Clubs are poaching early, and the players respond. And it’s not their fault. It’s all in the system. A player who doesn’t sign a contract in autumn may find it difficult to find an employer when the contract finally expires in April.

“I don’t know how they do it in Sweden for example, but I think even if you would prohibit early signings, there would be talks during the season,” said Bärtschi.

“It’s not my mistake that it’s handled that way in Switzerland,” said Gardner. “I was always transparent with the ZSC management all the time and I had discussions with them already in spring.”

And yes, the ZSC management knew very well that while the club was preparing for the season, one of their best paid players was negotiating with a league rival.

At the end he could choose between offers from the three wealthiest clubs in the country, Bern, Lugano and ZSC. It is today known that neither Lugano or ZSC were even close to offering what Bern put on the table.

Even though a large number of contract signings happen during the season with many press releases starting to circulate in December, the timing of the Gardner transfer was not without surprise – and controversy.

And it’s obvious that ZSC fans are not excited about the “treason”.

“I would much rather prefer if he could already for the next game play in the Bern jersey instead of skating around with ZSC for almost the entire season,“ a fan wrote on a ZSC pin board.

“I would send him to the farm team immediately, he has no business being with ZSC anymore,” another fan posted.

And a third ZSC supporter, angry about the regulations, added: “I can’t understand why it’s possible to prohibit it in the NHL, and not in our beer league.”

Why? That’s a good question. The answer is a mix of legal issues and the management culture in the league.

In most countries in Europe, regulations of a league or industry have to be coherent with the labour law, which doesn’t prevent the signing of two fixed-term contracts for two different periods and the legislation wouldn’t allow any sanctions. Neither for athletes, nor in other professions.

However, the question of loyalty and integrity becomes a bigger issue as the value and importance of a contract grows. Gardner is neither a clerk nor a shop assistant. He signed a contract with an after-tax income reportedly worth $400,000. And he plays hockey for a world-class team in the same league as his future employee. Both teams belong to the favourites to hoist the trophy in April.

Would Gardner work some kilometres south of Hallenstadion as a top banker at Paradeplatz – and sign with Credit Suisse while still holding a contract on the other side of the square with UBS – he would be banned from his workplace immediately.

The Kloten Flyers, for example, released Roman Schlagenhauf when it became known that he signed with Lugano last winter. In the early ‘90s the Swedish coach John Slettvoll, while working in Lugano, sent forward Thomas Vrabec packing when he was told that he signed with Bern while still under contract with Slettvoll’s team.

But these are isolated cases.

ZSC won’t do anything about it. Gardner is not a fourth-liner coming from the junior team like Schlagenhauf was. He cannot be replaced by a rookie. He’s very valuable for the team, and money would be thrown out of the window.

“To terminate the contract because of signing a contract with another team next season might be very difficult,” said Denis Vaucher, a lawyer and the CEO of the National League. “But of course you could release a player from the team. In such a case, the club would still be obliged to pay the salary until the expiration of the contract.”

Poaching players is not uncommon in Europe due to the legal situation. To a lesser extent, signings for the next season could also be observed in other countries in the past few years like in Germany or Russia.

However, it’s unthinkable in Finland or Sweden where the leagues and clubs frown upon poaching.

Not in Switzerland, where 18 out of 22 players on the game roster are Swiss. And the number of talented Swiss players on the market is fairly limited.

‘The early bird catches the worm,’ seems to be the slogan for Swiss GMs. And this year, SC Bern was the earliest to cherry-pick a top player and to open the hunting season.

Long-term planning is part of Swiss mentality, not only in hockey. Club managers feel good about themselves when they have top players signed early in advance, and players seem to feel secure when knowing their salary is guaranteed years in advance.

But this occurs at the expense of the integrity and credibility of the league towards the fans, those who pay to see an event where loyalty towards the jersey is a prerequisite that can’t be compromised.

But the decisions about regulations and agreements within the leagues are made by the clubs.

“Personally, I think it’s not good that contracts are negotiated already after the beginning of the season, but somehow this belongs to the Swiss hockey culture,” Vaucher explained.

“One year ago I discussed with club managers if we should have a similar rule like in the NHL that you can only negotiate with other players not earlier than for example after the playoffs or after the season is officially over. The clubs know that the situation is not ideal, but they think that it’s not possible to control that and they don’t like the idea that the league controls all contracts.”

According to Vaucher, a prohibition of contract negotiations during the season could hardly be asserted in accordance to labour legislation, but at best with a gentlemen’s agreement as the league has it for the import rules.

Two years ago, the league faced the worst-possible scenario of this moral conflict when EHC Basel played the “series of survival” between the worst NLA team and the B-league champion against EHC Biel – and one of their players had already signed a contract with Biel.

Basel let him play in the first game before they realized the apparent conflict of loyalties, before they told him to stay home. At the end, Basel lost all games of the series with most players already having signed contracts elsewhere.

“Psychologically it could influence the player, when knowing that he’ll play for the other team,” Vaucher admits.

Poaching as part of a hockey culture?

Only the clubs can change this very questionable (to say the least) approach – but only if they are serious about it.

Otherwise we might sooner or later see the next record when a player is poached and signs a contract with a rival two years ahead.

But maybe at that point the fans will revolt and demand a change. After all, they are the ones who pay for the show and they are the ones who are cheated.

MARTIN MERK


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