When Nico Hischier was born in 1999 in the mountainside town of Naters, exactly one Swiss born-and-trained player had been in the NHL — for exactly one forgettable game.
After Pauli Jaks tended goal for two periods in 1995, it took until 2001 for Reto Von Arx to become the first Swiss skater to make his NHL debut and many more years before the country had its first international hockey hero in Mark Streit.
Switzerland sent goaltenders David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, Streit and fellow defensemen Yannick Weber and Roman Josi to the NHL as its population surpassed 8 million and more money went into developing the sport. Last year, Switzerland finally topped the charts when the New Jersey Devils made Hischier the first Swiss to go No. 1 in the NHL draft.
He is the latest in a suddenly strong line of skilled Swiss forwards emerging as NHL stars.
“It starts at a young age,” Hischier said. “There are some good coaches and some really good teams that you can develop (with). … They do a great job to be able to go practice and be able to do school. There’s special schools where you can do both. It’s all part of it.”
Hischier is in the spotlight this weekend as he and the Devils return to his junior town of Bern, Switzerland, to practice and play an exhibition game before facing the Edmonton Oilers in Sweden to open the season. He is the poster boy for this generation of Swiss talent that includes Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, San Jose’s Timo Meier, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi.
Those five players have already combined to play almost five times the number of games of all the Swiss forwards who came before them.
“Swiss hockey’s been growing a lot over the years and we’ve been making steps,” Meier said. “Mark Streit and then Nino Niederreiter got drafted pretty high. That was the age where I was kind of realizing that’s where I want to be and that’s what I’m working for. Just kind of watching these guys work their way into the NHL was pretty exciting and made me want to be there some day.”
Streit, who retired last year, understands his place in Switzerland’s hockey pantheon, right there with Aebischer and Gerber as pioneers. He’s proud of how Swiss hockey has finally earned some respect internationally.
“Ten, 12, 15 years ago, nobody really talked about Swiss hockey,” Streit said. “Only a few, a handful, had been drafted. I think now, a few guys left a mark, so the teams know Swiss guys can play hockey.”
Streit is still Switzerland’s standard-bearer in hockey after playing parts of 10 seasons for the Canadiens, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins, and winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017. He was an inspiration to Josi, Weber, Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller and Capitals defensive prospect Jonas Siegenthaler.
“Mark Streit was the first player, not goaltender, who made it in the NHL, and he showed a lot of people in Switzerland, including me and a lot of other guys, that it’s possible to make it with a lot of hard work,” said Josi, who is now captain of the Predators. “He kind of opened the doors for us, and since then it’s more and more.”
Hischier is opening the door for the next generation of players. Last summer, he skated with younger players and recalled that it felt weird to be admired. He realized he had a duty to help grow the sport back home and serve as a Streit-like inspiration.
“There’s more hockey players who’s going to play hockey in Switzerland,” Hischier said this week. “They have a lot of young players. It’s just a good thing for our country.”
It might take some time for another transcendent talent like Hischier to come along, but forward Valentin Nussbaumer is a top prospect for the 2019 draft and center Theo Rochette a top prospect in 2020. Not surprisingly, those players followed the path through the Canadian Hockey League junior ranks that worked so well for Niederreiter, Meier and Hischier.
Streit notices the trend of more Swiss players playing in the CHL and how programs with combined schooling and hockey training have helped create better habits. But he attributes the breakthrough of so many talented Swiss forwards mostly to a more mature approach in the process of trying to make it in the NHL.
“We were lacking a little bit of the perseverance — the hard work and perseverance,” Streit said. “I think now guys have that. They had a lot of skill back in the day, but guys came over and they just couldn’t really make their way through and establish themselves. I think now the guys are willing to work hard and suck it up even in the minors and go play in the CHL.”
Niederreiter went to the Western Hockey League, while Meier and Hischier played for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to get used to North America and the smaller ice surface. Hischier didn’t look out of place at all as a rookie last season, putting up 20 goals and 32 assists and playing all 82 games as an 18-year-old.
“I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves for how good of a season he had and so far this season he looks even better,” Devils linemate Taylor Hall said. “Nico, he’s only played two seasons really in North America, so he’s still getting used to the amount of games we play and how much hockey we really have to go through. That’s why I really think the sky’s the limit for him and the more and more he plays over here on the small ice and just with the pace of play, he’s only going to get better and better.”
With Nussbaumer, Rochette and others Swiss players taking their talents to North America at young ages and a pipeline developing, Hischier won’t be the last Swiss likely to make a major impact in the NHL.
“We’re such a small country, it’s actually crazy,” Siegenthaler said. “There’s more players going over to North America every year. It’s a good development for us. I think the next few years there should be even more players. I think it’s going pretty good for Switzerland so far.”