Breaking the Ice: Switzerland’s Growing Presence in the NHL
The 2023 National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs have just begun and among the 16 teams vying for hockey’s most important trophy, the Stanley Cup, are seven players from Switzerland. Four of them (Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, Akira Schmid, and Jonas Siegenthaler) play for the New Jersey Devils, and one each for the Los Angeles Kings (Kevin Fiala), the Winnipeg Jets (Nino Niederreiter), and for the reigning champions, the Colorado Avalanche (Denis Malgin). With this volume, the odds are good that a Swiss player could help his team bring home the Cup this year. Although this wouldn’t be the first time, the Swiss players in this year’s playoffs have proven themselves to be particularly valuable to their teams. Nico Hischier could even make Swiss NHL history by lifting the Cup as the captain of his team, the Devils. But how have Swiss players come to be so important in a league traditionally dominated by Canadian and American players?
It all started on January 29, 1995, when goaltender Pauli Jaks stepped on the ice of the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, and played the first minutes in Swiss NHL history for the Los Angeles Kings. Though it was both his first and last game in the NHL, Jaks nevertheless became a pioneer and trailblazer for all Swiss players after him who came to North America with the goal of playing in the NHL, the best and most prestigious hockey league in the world and the dream of every hockey-playing kid. One of those players was Reto von Arx. On October 7, 2000, he was responsible for the next milestone: in his second career game for the Chicago Blackhawks, he scored the first ever goal by a Swiss in the NHL. Despite this strong start to his career in North America, he returned to Switzerland after just 19 games. This decision was, and still is, not uncommon for Swiss hockey players, as most of them prefer to be a star player in one of Switzerland’s 14 National League teams, with their extremely passionate and enthusiastic fans, instead of playing for a farm team (the equivalent of a minor league team) in hopes of eventually making one of the NHL’s 32 teams.
One Swiss who didn’t give up on his NHL dreams was goaltender David Aebischer. After three seasons on farm teams, he finally made it to the roster of the Colorado Avalanche for the 2000–01 season, where he was the number 2 behind Canadian legend Patrick Roy. His perseverance paid off and he played 27 games for the Avalanche that year. The team made it to the playoffs and eventually won the Stanley Cup, making Aebischer the first Swiss to win the championship, and in the summer of 2001 (in keeping with NHL tradition that each player on the winning team brings the trophy to his hometown for one day), the Stanley Cup traveled to Switzerland for the first time.
So, just six years after the first game in which a Swiss played in the NHL, one of his countrymen was already part of a championship winning team. Did this signal a breakthrough for Switzerland in the league? Not really… no Swiss player who wasn’t a goalie had ever made a name for himself on an NHL team. This changed in 2005 when Mark Streit came to Montreal. The defenseman became an important player for the Canadiens and after six seasons in the NHL, and a trade to the New York Islanders, he became the first Swiss team captain of an NHL franchise. He would also go on to win the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017. Streit is without a doubt the most important Swiss NHL player of his era and during his time at the Islanders he met a young Swiss prospect who would also make Swiss NHL history: Nino Niederreiter.
Nino Niederreiter was the first Swiss offensive player to become a crucial part of an NHL team. He paved the way for other young offensive players to make their way from Switzerland to the NHL, most of them via Canadian and American junior hockey leagues, just as Niederreiter had done. After dominating Swiss junior leagues he decided to move to Portland, Oregon, to play junior hockey instead of playing professionally in the Swiss National League. In the end, it seems Niederreiter made the right decision. After becoming a star with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, he was drafted by the New York Islanders as the number 5 pick in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft — a real feat for someone from Switzerland. He was followed by other Swiss first-round draft picks (Sven Bärtschi, Mirco Müller, Kevin Fiala, Timo Meier) and finally, by the first Swiss player to be selected first overall: Nico Hischier.
This new generation established itself in the NHL and together with the rest of their cohort — players who came to the NHL after a few seasons of pro hockey in Switzerland — the number of Swiss players in the NHL grew. This brings us to the current season, in which there are 12 Swiss players in the NHL: 11 in the U.S., and one (Niederreiter) in Canada.
While this is not a record number of Swiss players in an NHL season (there were 15 in 2016–17, 2018–19, and 2019–20), the roles of the Swiss on their respective teams has never been more important. Bern native Roman Josi, for example, is one of the league’s best defenders, but also a tremendous offensive player (he scored 96 points in 80 games last season). He is also the captain of his team, the Nashville Predators, who (surprisingly) didn’t make the playoffs this season. Nico Hischier is another Swiss team captain this season and a leader for the young, and very Swiss!, New Jersey Devils. He had an impressive 2022–23 regular season, scoring 31 goals and 49 assists in 81 games. Earlier this year, he got a new teammate: his compatriot Timo Meier, a top scorer previously for the San Jose Sharks, who made Swiss NHL and Sharks history in January 2022 when he scored five goals in one game. This season he became the first Swiss to score 40 goals in a season, another impressive achievement. On the West Coast, Kevin Fiala, a new star of the Los Angeles Kings, had a very productive season with 23 goals and 49 assists in 69 games. These statistics show that this season has been a real breakthrough, with four current Swiss players in the NHL who are stars on their teams, which has never been the case before.
Looking back at the start of Swiss NHL history almost 30 years ago, it’s clear that the impact and presence of Swiss players in the NHL is growing with each season. Which brings us back to where we started: the 2023 playoffs. From a Swiss perspective, a welcome scenario would, of course, be a successful playoff run by any one of the four teams with Swiss players. In a perfect world, Swiss players would decide games and maybe even win the championship. With seven Swiss players across four teams, the chances are good. We’d love to see the Stanley Cup travel back to Switzerland again. No matter how season ends, Switzerland is proud of all its players in the NHL and young Swiss hockey kids are working hard every day to follow their path and set new milestones in Swiss NHL history. We can’t wait to see what the next 30 years hold!
Be sure to follow Timo Meier, Nico Hischier, Jonas Siegenthaler, Akira Schmid, Roman Josi, Nino Niederreiter, Denis Malgin, Kevin Fiala, Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, Tim Berni, J.J. Moser, and us, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America, on Instagram to follow along the journey of the Swiss players in the NHL.