Looking at the Goals For/Goals Against numbers for Switzerland going into their qualification match-up against Latvia, it seems improbable that they have only scored two goals, and have managed to hold the opposition to one. When you look at their win-loss record, it’s even more outstanding. Despite scoring only two goals, Switzerland has posted a solid 2-0-1-0 record at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, finishing second in Group C behind only the mighty Swedes. To the casual hockey fan, this may seem very surprising, but if you follow international hockey at all, the success of the Swiss has been a long time coming.
Despite Loss, Swiss Hockey is Now on the Map
Traditionally, the world hockey powers have consisted of around seven or eight countries including: Canada, Russia, USA, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. However, in the past 10 years or so, Switzerland has pushed their way into this group. They first caught the world’s attention during the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. In that tournament, the underdog Swiss defeated the favoured Czech Republic and Canada in back-to-back games. In particular, the win against the Canadians was very impressive, combining strong defensive play and an outstanding 49 save performance by goaltender Martin Gerber to shutout the mighty Canadians. At the time, these were viewed as a couple of one-off performances put on by a determined group of outmatched players. However, since those Olympics, the Swiss have proven at all levels that they can compete, and these once amazing upsets, have become almost commonplace.
So what has changed to make the Swiss such a success? As with any country in any sport trying to develop and promote the game, strong coaching has been one of the keys to Switzerland putting themselves on the hockey map. Many great coaches from traditional, established hockey countries like Canada have come over and developed both Swiss coaches and players. Ralph Krueger and this year’s Olympic Head coach Sean Simpson are examples of this. Krueger, a Manitoba native, was coach of the Swiss National Team program from 1997 to the 2010. Under his guidance, the Swiss became a well-structured team relying on strong, positional team defense and great goaltending. This style of play has given many teams, including the Canadians many frustrating games. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the eventual gold medal winning Canadians only managed to defeat the Swiss 3-2 in a shootout, earning just two of a possible three points and giving them a more unfavourable matchup in the playoff round.
Another byproduct of an increased investment of the Swiss in their hockey program is an increase of young talent. In every draft, more and more Swiss players are being selected each year, with Luca Sbisa, Sven Baertschi, Mirco Mueller, and the fifth overall selection in 2010 (highest drafted Swiss player ever) Nino Niederreiter all highly touted prospects drafted in the first round. As the Swiss are rising, the Czechs and Slovakians are falling, with the less and less players being selected from these two countries, and less team success internationally. With a 1-0 win against the Czechs in the Sochi games, Switzerland may have met, or even surpassed the struggling Czechs and Slovaks in the pecking order of hockey powers.
The Swiss are not to be underestimated. After several years of perceived upsets against more traditional hockey countries culminating in a silver medal at the World Championships in 2013, the Swiss have come to play. Countries such as Canada, USA, and Russia are now loathe to play the pesky Swiss due to their previously mentioned, disciplined and defensive approach that can drive even the most talented offences crazy.
Despite a disappointing loss to Latvia in the qualification round, the fact that the loss can even be considered a disappointment is a testament to how far they have come. If Switzerland continues on an upward trajectory like they have, they will soon begin to contend for medals on a regular basis.
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