ZUG, Switzerland – The landscape of hockey leagues in Europe is as diverse as the continent itself with various countries, cultures and languages. Former NHL first round pick Josh Holden learned this lesson and found a new home at Swiss club EV Zug after years of struggling.
Drafted 12th overall by the Vancouver Canucks, Holden was part of Canada’s U20 team in 1998 with the likes of Roberto Luongo, Alexandre Tanguay, Vincent Lecavalier and Eric Brewer. While Holden was one of the few highlights on the roster with four goals, the 1998 IIHF World U20 Championship ended in a disappointing eighth place.
Holden played 30 NHL games for the Canucks the next year, but his NHL career didn’t take off and he left North America after just 60 games in six years with Vancouver, Carolina and Toronto.
After first signing with Swiss B-league team Forward Morges for the lockout season, the 32-year-old moved to Finland to play for HPK Hämeenlinna before returning to Switzerland in 2005, this time to start a career in the National League A.
Coming from the rougher Finnish league to the less-physical Swiss league was a culture shock for him the first year.
“Finnish hockey is more like North American style. You check and fight and you need to be very aggressive, that’s what I used to play in North America. You have to, otherwise they coach will yell at you,” Holden said.
“I tried to do that here in my first year in Fribourg and had the most penalty minutes in the league. So I realized: ‘Hey, I want to stay in Switzerland!’”
In his first year with HC Fribourg-Gottéron, Holden had 21 goals, 28 assists and 211 penalty minutes in 58 games. He led the team both in points and penalties.
“It’s not as physical, it’s more offensive, more patience, more puck control,” Holden says. “This is my fifth year. You start to respect the game and scene. When you see the Swiss Olympic team and the U20 team, they start to be able to compete with the top teams in the world. It’s fun to be a part of that. I enjoy Swiss hockey, there are some good young players coming. I’m very happy here.”
It’s the way hockey is played, the lifestyle, the landscape and the lighter schedule that kept Holden in Switzerland despite a hockey culture that seemed to be on collision course with him, or the other way round. But while other players do not adapt and have to find their luck elsewhere, Holden learned his lessons.
“It’s a daytrip to the mountains, you’re at the lake, you have so many fun things to do with your family,” says the father of four. “Now during the playoffs we just go usually on Sundays to Starbucks and on a walk at the Lake of Zug.”
“You don’t have a lot of travel. In North America, you’re sometimes gone for two weeks and play ten games in two weeks. Here you have 50 games, you can rest your body. You can prepare better for the teams you’re going to face. All those things together make it very fun to play as an import in Switzerland.”
Holden left Fribourg at the end of the second season to play with the SCL Tigers Langnau. With his goal production up and penalties down, EV Zug took notice and signed him in 2008. It’s the place he now calls home and where he has a contract until 2014.
This season he had 34 goals, 37 assists and just 56 penalty minutes. EV Zug is also preparing for a mover from one of the most old-fashioned rinks in the league to a brand-new arena.
“We’ve been at the new arena for a tour a couple of times. That’s another reason to stay. We have an arena coming, a couple of new guys coming next year,” said Holden. “I also like the direction of the coaches. They started with a great goalie with Jussi Markkanen. Now we slowly start to have a good young defence. As a defensive team you have to stop other teams, you cannot play too much offensively. If you have a coach and a sport director who believe in you as a player, it makes it easy to play. It’s nice to stay here, it’s a good place and the kids can go to school here, so we don’t have to move every year. So you’re kind of an import and kind of a Swiss guy.”
Zug finished in eighth place last season, but in the playoffs, the team upset SC Bern in the quarterfinals to reach the semis.
For Holden, this year was his most successful. In an unofficial vote by the captains and coaches of all teams, Holden was named the MVP of the regular season.
“For sure it made me smile to hear that. This year was pretty crazy for me. Lots of things happened, at Christmas time my father passed away and I went home. That was a pretty hard time,” Holden said. “Being able to play hockey is something I love and people want me to do that, so I just came back and kept playing and have fun. This year we had a good attitude since opening the camp in August.”
He also praises his line mates Damien Brunner and Fabian Schnyder. Two players he makes better and that seem to have a good influence on him as well.
“They’re two young guys full of energy, and smiling. That’s hockey. Play and have fun and you want to win,” Holden said.
The turning point to personal success was a meeting with head coach Doug Shedden after the last season when the coach unveiled plans to have one more import on the team than he’s allowed to have on the game sheet.
“When I went home from that meeting my thinking was that I don’t want to be the extra player. So I wanted to put pressure on the coach that he has to let me play every game,” Holden explained. “I kept preparing, I had different training in the summer, I had mental training, I worked on shooting. I realized if you put yourself into hockey and you like the game, you will have success. I love to play hockey and I want to play hockey for a few more years.”
This year Zug took third place and are now playing the ZSC Lions Zurich, the winner of the Champions Hockey League and the Victoria Cup, in the quarterfinals. While Zurich has been successful internationally, the team of future national team coach Sean Simpson has struggled in the domestic league for the last two years.
In the Z-series, the team from Zug – a city just 30 kilometres away from Zurich – took a 3-1 lead after four games. But Zurich has bounced back with two consecutive wins setting up Game Seven on Tuesday night.
“The game in the playoffs is at another level and you have to play smart and disciplined as a player,” Holden said about the way to success. “You may not take too many penalties and play a good defence. The ZSC Lions were the top-scoring team in the NLA. Against a team like that, you have to think of your defence. You start defensively first and wait for your chances. You have to play smart, wait and be patient.”
The teams will meet for a last time in Zug. Will it be the last game in the arena, or will it be the turning point for Josh Holden and company?
“You could see it in all the games. That team that makes one less mistake will win it,” Holden said.Notebook:
- SC Bern won the regular season for the third straight time, but for the first time in three years the club also survived the first round in the playoffs. SC Bern swept HC Lugano in four games.
- IIHF Hall of Famer Philippe Bozon took over in Lugano after Kent Johansson was fired. He benched league scoring leader, Randy Robitaille, from the last game, but it wasn’t enough to beat SC Bern.
- Last year, HC Davos beat the Kloten Flyers in the final series. This year, Kloten took revenge and won the rematch in the quarterfinals after six games, 4-2.
- The series between the two francophone teams Geneva-Servette and HC Fribourg-Gottéron is also going to seven games.
- HC Ambrì-Piotta had just ten wins in 50 regular-season games, but they defeated EHC Biel in the playouts in six games. The other teams left in the relegation round are Rapperswil-Jona and Langnau.
- The Rapperswil vs. Langnau series has a special history. Rapperswil signed coach Christian Weber for the 2010-2011 season in December while he was coaching Langnau. In mid-January, Langnau released Weber from his duties due to the conflict of interest. One month later during the Olympic break, Rapperswil hired Weber with immediate effect. But in the deal with Langnau Weber may not coach his new team in games against his old club, so Weber has been sitting in the stands while an assistant is on the bench with a headset during the series.
- Former NHL goalkeeper Martin Gerber returned to Switzerland after a terrible neck injury he suffered in December after an opposing forward collided head-on into Gerber during a game with his Russian club Atlant Mytishchi. Gerber is slowly recovering and hopes to stage his comeback with the Swiss national team in their exhibition games in April.
- The captains and coaches voted Josh Holden MVP and Best Forward in an unofficial voting organized by the media. The other titles: Best Goalkeeper: Jussi Markkanen (Zug) and Tobias Stephan (Geneva-Servette), Best Defenceman: Mathias Seger (ZSC Lions), Best Coach: Chris McSorley (Geneva-Servette), Revelation of the Year: Damien Brunner (Zug).