A deal reached on January 12th ended the hockey lockout in North America that sent many of the world's best players to Switzerland and other European countries.
Now, Switzerland's National League A is feeling the loss of top players like Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators and Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins who have already packed their bags and left. But the Swiss teams aren’t bitter as they look back on what has been an extraordinary bonus for the first half of the 2012-13 season.
Adding stars like Joe Thornton and Rick Nash boosted the number of spectators attending hockey games in Switzerland. The imported NHL players also helped put Swiss hockey in the international spotlight. Canadian and American fans suffering hockey withdrawal suddenly became acquainted with Swiss teams like Rapperswil-Jona Lakers and HC Davos as they followed the progress of their favourite players.
“The fans (in Switzerland) all know it’s a special situation,” says René Schmid, head of media relations for the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, based in a small town on the east side of Lake Zurich. “Enjoy it as long as you can. When it’s over, it’s over.”
When the NHL lockout began in September, players in North America started looking for opportunities abroad. It wasn’t about the money: European hockey leagues have much smaller piggy banks than the NHL. The players aimed to maintain their skills and fitness levels while the lockout lasted.
Around 180 NHL players signed up to play in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia, according to a list compiled by sports network TSN. Switzerland lured 27 players to its league, according to the list. To name just a few, Spezza and Michael Del Zotto, from the New York Rangers, went to Rapperswil-Jona Lakers. Rick Nash (also from the Rangers) and Joe Thornton, from the San Jose Sharks, played for HC Davos. Patrice Bergeron from the Boston Bruins signed up with HC Lugano, while another Bruin, Tyler Seguin, and Patrick Kane, from the Chicago Blackhawks, went to EHC Biel.
“All NHL players are losing money this season,” says Gaudenz Domenig, president of HC Davos. They had the choice of spending the fall not making money and resting, or "making not much money and playing hockey anyways and having a good time in Europe.”
So how did Switzerland become a hotspot for NHL refugees? It helps that Swiss teams can hire more foreign hockey players than in other countries such as Russia. Each team in the Swiss National League A is allowed to sign on eight foreign players, with four on the ice at any given time. And the NHL players did not have to sign on for a full season, unlike in Sweden. Another attraction: the Swiss and Swedes pay the most money after Russia and North America, though obviously it’s a drop in the bucket compared with NHL salaries.
Switzerland’s quality of life also proved alluring for these stars, according to Swiss hockey insiders. They were attracted to the beauty of the small towns and surrounding mountains, not to mention the ability to live a “normal life”. Schmid of the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers recalls how Spezza liked to take photos of the mountains when the team was on the road. “You can live here as a top star and not get accosted on the street,” he says.
The Swiss have welcomed NHL players here before. During the NHL lockout in 1994, Doug Gilmour came to play with the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers. And during the 2004 NHL lockout, Thornton came to play with HC Davos, a move that changed his life. It was there he met his future wife and eventually got married in Davos. He usually spends his summers in Davos training with the hometown team, according to Domenig. Nash also played in Davos during the 2004 lockout and especially enjoyed the snowboarding, Domenig recalls.
“It was a homecoming,” Domenig of HC Davos says of the pair's return. The impact of the NHL stars on Swiss hockey can be seen in the attendance figures. HC Davos says the number of spectators at its games rose 10 percent from the previous year, while Rapperswil-Jona says attendance jumped 17 percent. Schmid reckons half of that increase is due to the NHL effect, while the other half is due to the team playing better.
When it comes to the game itself, the NHL players were fairly evenly distributed among the Swiss league teams. But Fribourg and SC Bern, the top two teams, just happened to have the most NHL players, with three each. Still, it appears the NHL players had to adapt to the Swiss style rather than vice versa. Swiss hockey tends to be less physical than the roughhouse NHL — players are smaller — and the hockey rinks are wider. The pace of the game is fast and players use their sticks more, Schmid says.
“The NHL players try to adapt to the Swiss style,” Schmid says. “You skate a lot more than in the NHL.” Domenig agrees. “There’s less checking, more skating than in the NHL . . . there’s more bringing the puck into the attacking third by passing rather than shooting and going and digging it out as you’re sometimes forced to do in a narrow rink.”
Swiss hockey clubs know the “show must go on” even without the NHL stars, Schmid says. He points out the league has very good Swiss players and his team, the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, won the first game they played this year despite Spezza’s exit.
Domenig of HC Davos is philosophical, saying an end to the lockout is the way things should be. “I love to see people like Thornton and others on the ice here,” Domenig says. “But for ice hockey as a sport, which I love, it’s probably better if the NHL plays a short season.”