When his name was called on the Staples Center floor by the New York Islanders at the NHL entry draft in Los Angeles this past June, Nino Niederreiter officially became the poster boy for Swiss hockey. The Islanders had taken him in the first round - fifth-overall – making him the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history.
But long before the draft Niederreiter had already been causing a stir with fans on YouTube, the star of the Portland Winterhawks dazzling fans with a shootout trick that had garnered over 60,000 views. In the long-time hotbed of junior hockey, Oshawa, Ont., where the Swiss have made their camp before heading to the World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., Niederreiter is the most recognizable of the players wearing Swiss sweaters.
On Sunday night at the General Motors Centre when the host Generals played the Ottawa 67’s, the Swiss team took in the game and the six-foot-two, 205-pound forward was asked to be a special guest on the local broadcast. Personable and exceptionally well-spoken for someone who only learned English a few years ago, Niederreiter was only too happy to oblige.
And while he was in the booth, the rest of his Swiss compatriots were on the team bus.
“I thought they were still in the dressing room,” said the native of Chur, Switzerland. “But everybody was gone.”
It was a tough reminder that even hockey’s national treasures can be left behind.
“I ran outside and saw the bus. I was so happy they were still there.”
The following night he was back at the same arena for an exhibition game with his Swiss squad along with 6,029 screaming fans there to cheer Team Canada. Despite the partisan noise, the only voice Niederreiter could hear on the ice was that of Canadian forward Ryan Johansen. The two are linemates with the Western Hockey League’s Winterhawks and the world junior veteran couldn’t believe how fast Johansen’s mouth was moving.
“He was giving me a tough time over the bench, he told me Switzerland wasn’t good enough,” said Niederreiter with a big laugh. “Oh my goodness, this is the first world (junior) championships for him so I told him to take it easy, there’s still a long way to go.”
Whatever Johansen said to throw Niederreiter off his game, worked. The Swiss star was held in check while his side was thoroughly dismantled by Team Canada in an 8-0 loss. Since the Swiss are in the B Pool and Canada is in the A Pool, the exhibition game could be the only time the two teams meet so Johansen had to get in his shots just in case.
“I was yelling from the bench, ‘Oh you guys don’t look too good’,” said the native of Port Moody, B.C. “I was just bugging him, it was fun times.
“(Niederreiter’s) one of their top players so we wanted to make sure we played really hard on him.”
After the game Niederreiter stayed to talk to Johansen, the pair meeting covertly in a hallway between the two dressing rooms. Also playing against him on Team Canada were the familiar faces of forward Casey Cizikas and defenceman Calvin de Haan – two New York Islanders draft prospects he met at camp in Long Island, N.Y. After the game during the ceremonial handshakes, he had a hug and friendly tap for each.
He spent an extra few seconds to chat with his close friend de Haan, one of the Canadian team’s assistant captain, who he shared a house with for a month when the pair were at camp and eventually playing for the Isles.
“We developed a great friendship, and he’s one of my best buds now,” said de Haan. “He’s an awesome guy. He’s so smart, he only learned English a couple years ago and now his English is better than mine I think.”
Living with de Haan the discussions were not so much on-ice issues as they were disagreements over who would do the cooking, since neither was very good when it came to whipping up dishes in the kitchen.
“It was more of a mutual decision, so we would just cook together,” said de Haan, who noted they’d take their laundry to the rink so the team could wash it for the two teens. “We’d put out crappy cooking skills together and make somewhat of a good meal.”
While he was in New York with the Islanders, Niederreiter preformed well scoring his first NHL goal and adding an assist in nine pro games before being returned to the Winterhawks (25-9-0-3) one of the top teams in the WHL.
“I want to be a goal scorer one day,” said the 18-year-old of his NHL dream. “Twelve shots in nine (NHL) games is not good enough I guess.”
He said he was disappointed about not staying with the Islanders, but adds that he’s been trying to take the advice he received and what he’s learned from the experience to heart.
“When you’re in the NHL, you can work on everything up there,” said Niederreiter who played his minor hockey with the Swiss club HC Davos before coming to North America. “My skating, my first two steps are not that quick but I think I’m getting better and better every day.”
Since coming back to Portland, Niederreiter has been in a tear with 13 goals and 13 assists in 23 WHL games. A bonus for Niederreiter this year in Portland – outside of rejoining linemates Brad Ross and Johansen – is the addition of fellow Swiss national Sven Bartschi, who is also on the world junior side.
At last season’s tournament in Regina and Saskatoon, Switzerland enjoyed a Cinderella ride, beating Slovakian and then upsetting Russia 3-2 in the quarterfinals en route to a fourth place finish.
“We’re still the underdog,” said Niederreiter. “We can’t think we’re going to have the same upsets over and over again. Last year we had such a great defence, this year we’re kind of good everywhere but it’s not perfect.”
In that tournament Niederreiter was one of the brightest stars leading Switzerland in scoring and finishing seventh with six goals and four assists in seven games. One would think after being drafted in the first round, the pressure for Niederreiter would have lessened without scouts picking apart every facet of his game.
“It’s even more pressure,” said Niederreiter of the tournament. “I want to play in the NHL and I didn’t make it this year. I know all if the Islanders scouts and the GM (Garth Snow) are going to be there, so I want to prove to them that I’m good enough to play there next year, so it’s an even harder battle this year than it was last year.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the junior hockey editor at Yahoo! Sports. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org