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Hockey stars mixed blessing for Swiss league

Bern's Canadian contingent (Heatley in middle) celebrate a goal Keystone

The presence of star players from North America has improved the performance of the Swiss ice hockey league, but clubs could lose more than they gain.

This content was published on November 9, 2004 - 15:53

The Swiss league has attracted many big names from National Hockey League since NHL club owners put the season on hold over contract disputes with players.

HC Davos were the first Swiss team to sign NHL stars for this season by landing Canadians Joe Thornton and Rick Nash, and the Finn, Niklas Hagman.

Other clubs quickly followed suit and there are now about 20 players from the NHL in the top Swiss league.

SC Bern were initially reluctant to hire top guns from the NHL but could not resist when Canadian Dany Heatley, considered one of the best players in the world, expressed an interest in the Swiss league.

Before Heatley was injured in a game against Geneva Servette on Saturday, he was the second highest scorer on the team behind fellow NHL player, Daniel Brière.

But they have failed to spark the club that won the Swiss championship last season. Bern are struggling in eighth place in the 12-team league.

Unrealistic expectations

“In some cases, they [management] have unrealistic expectations of the foreign players,” Dany Heatley told swissinfo during a practice two days before the Geneva game. (See Heatley interview under “related items”.)

“To ask four or five points from a guy every night is asking too much,” he said.

The 2-1 loss to Geneva prompted management to sack its coach, and to second-guess its decision to upset a winning chemistry by hiring high profile players like Heatley in order to increase ticket sales.

“In the long-term, I’m not a fan of these players because they show a brand of hockey we normally don’t see in Switzerland,” said Marc Lüthi, SC Bern’s general manager.

“When they go back [to the NHL] we’re going to have average players and this will be very tough to explain to the fans,” he added.

High price

In a recent poll by a Swiss newspaper, club presidents and general managers said the NHL stars had greatly improved the level of play, and had generated much more interest in the Swiss league.

But they also agreed that it had come at a high price. They said that, as a consequence, young Swiss athletes were not seeing much action, and therefore not getting a chance to develop their skills.

There was even criticism of some clubs for breaking pre-season contracts with non-NHL foreigners who make their living in the Swiss league, in order to sign players from the NHL. Swiss teams are only allowed to dress four foreigners a game.

The Canadian goalie, Corey Hirsch, has called the NHL players who have come to Switzerland “scabs” for taking his and other foreigners’ jobs.

Hirsch left SC Langnau and returned to Canada after losing his position – ironically – to the Swiss star, Martin Gerber, who tends goal for Carolina in the NHL. Gerber has since moved on to the Swedish league.

Odd man out

Some of the loyal fans in attendance at Bern’s home game against Geneva were wearing Bern sweaters with Heatley scrolled across the back but just as many, if not more, were wearing number 15 - that of fellow Canadian, Yves Sarault.

Unfortunately, Sarault was the odd foreigner out, having to make way for Heatley and company.

Watching from the press box, Sarault tried to hide his disappointment. “When I was in North America it was the same deal,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, the best players play according to the coach,” he added.

“I came to Bern about two years ago. From being out of a job back home, I got a chance to play and I’m still here, and I’ve got another year on my contract.”

Even the fans realise that the NHL players are generally a mixed blessing.

“The games are better with the NHL players but there is a downside,” reflected loyal Bern fan, Christoph Holdener.

“It’s a shame they’ve taken the jobs of other players. But it’s good for the Swiss league, since there are a lot more people at the games.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

More than 250 NHL players are playing in European leagues after NHL owners “locked out” the players over a contract dispute.
The NHL owners want to introduce a “salary cap” which has been rejected by the players’ union.
The NHL players in Europe are expected to return to their North American clubs once the dispute is settled.

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