MALMÖ – Switzerland has proven once again that it can be an easy-to-beat underdog and a potential surprise team at the same time at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
The Swiss U20 national team has recovered from a 7-1 defeat against Russia to reach the quarter-finals, earning a tight 3-2 victory over newly promoted Norway and defeating Finland 4-3 in shootout.
Despite the win that materialized thanks to the Finns’ inability to score a goal in six penalty shot attempts, the Swiss ended the preliminary round where many had expected them to finish, in fourth place behind Sweden, Finland and Russia.
“We had a good start against Sweden [a 5-3 loss]. It was great to play in front of so many fans. We were motivated against the Russians, but after an okay beginning we played without passion,” Mirco Müller said about the early games
Müller – not related to coach Colin Muller and teammate Marco Müller – is one of the stars on the team, even though you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from sitting down with him. Just as on the ice he’s a solid, down-to-earth young man, who makes a smart appearance, and not just because of the glasses he wears away from the rink. He’s a little bit like Nashville Predators star Roman Josi at his age. With a height of 190 cm (6’3”) paired with good hockey sense, he has the assets to become a good two-way defenceman at the international level.
“Sometimes you hear a joke in the locker room but I don’t think about the status,” the 18-year-old said about being the only first-round draft pick on his team. He was selected 18th overall by the San Jose Sharks last summer.
That’s not bad, considering that Müller doesn’t come from a hockey hotbed, and grew up playing multiple sports before joining a hockey club as a nine-year-old.
“I lived close to the ice rink so I often went skating and playing hockey with friends,” Müller said. “When I was nine I went to a practice with the club and I liked it. I think I profited from growing up with multiple sports.”
Although Winterthur is the city with the sixth-largest population in Switzerland, it does not fare well in the country’s most popular team sports, hockey and football, with the of top-tier clubs. It’s famous for a smaller sport in the country, handball, though. Müller played it all as a kid before starting focusing on hockey in his teenage years.
Müller skated on the outdoor Zelgli ice rink before the city got its indoor arena, Deutweg, in 2002. His hometown team EHC Winterthur has played in the third-tier league ever since Müller’s birth, but that hasn’t prevented him from becoming a top junior player in his country.
“In Winterthur I got a lot of responsibility and ice time, and later in Kloten I even had the chance to play on the NLA (men’s) team, which was very cool. I had good teams and good coaches where I played,” Müller said, discussing the reasons behind his good development.
When he was 15 he left for the Kloten Flyers, a top-tier team about a 30-minute drive away and one of the most successful clubs in Swiss junior hockey. One year later he was already on the U20 team as an underaged player, and even played seven games in the top men’s league, scoring one goal.
The best-known Swiss defencemen – Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Raphael Diaz – similarly started playing against men as a teenager. But at age 17, Müller didn’t feel ready to compete with men, and opted to play in a better junior league outside of the country instead. He was selected by the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League in the CHL Import Draft.
“The Canadian Hockey League and how it works has become better-known among Swiss players, as several players have gone there. For me it made sense to go there and play at a better junior level rather than playing in a men’s league as a junior,” Müller said. “In the NLA it’s a different hockey and more physical. If you’re still developing physically, you don’t have the same chances as a junior.”
“It depends on what you want and also whether you want to finish your education in Switzerland. It also depends on how much confidence a club puts into you. If you get ice time on the men’s team as a 16-year-old, like Roman Josi, it can make sense to stay, but as a junior you often don’t play that much and they put confidence in more experienced players. You need to be at the right place at the right time.”
Müller’s place is with one of the U.S.-based teams in the WHL in Everett, Washington.
“I’m there for my second year and I like it. I played a lot and got confidence in Everett. Maybe that’s also why I got drafted that early by the San Jose Sharks,” Müller said.
“It’s quite green and humid there. But there’s not much free time. If we have no game we’re still at the rink from 10am to 3pm with practice, lunch and gym. Sometimes we do something with the team. I also visited Seattle and saw a NFL football game with the Seahawks.”
Müller has played 98 WHL games so far, notching 43 (9+34) points. He describes himself as rather calm and patient.
“I have my emotions under control. I don’t score many points and don’t do too many fancy things. I try to do the little things right, defend our goal, and get the puck to our forwards,” he said. “Maybe some perceive it as less spectacular, but for me that’s fine.”
Only one thing he misses in Everett apart from family and friends: Swiss cheese. “But I’ll take some cheese back to Everett,” he said. And he should have enough from the camp in Switzerland. In Malmö he’s also been visited by his parents, grandfather and sister.
Müller has already attended one training camp with the San Jose Sharks. For him it was almost an unreal experience.
“It’s a great organization and city. San Jose is part of my dreams. To be in a locker room with players like Joe Thornton was very special,” Müller said. But at the moment, California is too far away to think too much about.
“I want to play well this season and then we’ll see where I’ll play next year. But my goal is to become an NHL player and to play at the Olympics one day.”
While as an 18-year-old junior league player he’s not on the radar for Sochi 2014, he can catch men’s national team coach Sean Simpson’s eye for the future here in Malmö, since Simpson is also the GM of the U20 national team.
And while he might not be in Sochi, there’s a chance his younger sister will.
Alina Müller plays for a boys’ team at EHC Winterthur and has been part of the women’s national team this year as a 15-year-old. She will play at the last tournament before the Olympics in Germany in the upcoming days before the final cut in mid-January.
“It would be cool for her to play in Sochi already at that age. I hope it’ll work out,” Mirco Müller said.
But for now the main focus is what happens in Malmö. The Swiss moved to Isstadion today where they will face Canada in the quarter-finals. For Müller, it’s the opponent he wished to get.
“I’d love to play against Canada. I’ve never played against them at the U20 or U18 Worlds and I know some of their players,” Müller said.
The head-to-head results in the IIHF Guide & Record Book, however, don’t look encouraging for the Swiss. Canada has won all 19 games so far, most recently a 4-1 victory in the quarter-finals three years ago.
“Anything is possible in the quarter-finals, and we have shown here what we can do in both directions,” Müller said.