Chur's hockey talent at home in Minnesota

The hockey star with Minneapolis' Hennepin bridge behind him. Kristian Kapp

Nino Niederreiter is currently one of the two best Swiss ice hockey players. The Minnesota Wild forward is now in his eighth season in North America.

Kristian Kapp,

It was shortly before his 17th birthday, in the summer of 2009, when Niederreiter crossed the Atlantic to win a place on the junior team, the Portland Winterhawks. He planned to return to Switzerland nine months later.

His dream was to become the first Swiss forward to break into the best ice hockey league in the world, the National Hockey League (NHL). A handful of other Swiss had done it before him, but they were all goaltenders or defencemen.

Today, the 24-year-old is living his dream.

When reached him by phone one night in February, Niederreiter was busy with parents, relatives and friends who were visiting him in his Minneapolis apartment.

A special Swiss abroad

There is no question that Niederreiter's life as a professional NHL athlete cannot be compared to that of a "normal" Swiss in North America. In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, people often recognise and approach him on the street. "That doesn't bother me at all," says the hockey star.

Niederreiter has spent eight years in the US, first with the Portland team and then in the NHL with the New York Islanders and its minor league team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, before moving to Minnesota. He thinks has become somewhat American - at least, in his approach toward other people.

"This openness is the beauty of the US," he says. "This makes it easier for people to get to know each other, or even just to do small talk, for example, in the elevator, you meet someone and talk to him, ask him how he is. You never see him again. I think it's cool.”

While in Portland he didn’t feel his English was very good, but today, he’s almost mastered the language. "Portland was like Europe, it was more relaxed, and in New York the opposite was the case. Everything was very hectic, we had to go back and forth, and Bridgeport was like a mix between the two other cities.”

Now, he feels at home in Minneapolis. The city is ideal, he says, because it is "neither too big nor too small" and has a lot to offer, like the many bridges along the Mississippi River.

"This is a cosy, laid back place, and the area reminds me a little bit of Finland, also because of the many lakes.”

Difficult farewell

Making friendships outside of hockey is challenging, he says, because "we are often on the road". But he's kept in touch with some contacts in Portland and with his host family in Garden City on Long Island, where he lived in 2011 and 2012.

He maintains friendships in Switzerland but misses his homeland, as well as his hometown of Chur in canton Graubünden.

"And, of course, my family. The farewell in the fall is difficult every year, but I have chosen this life, so that’s just the way it is," Niederreiter says.

In the last US presidential election, like much of the country, Minnesota saw extreme divisions in political views between rural and urban areas.

Minneapolis at Niederreiter's feet. Kristian Kapp

Among the American players on the Minnesota Wild, opinions differed as well and some supported President Trump. Niederreiter himself does not want to get involved with American politics: "You hear good and bad things. It might be better for athletes not to take a stand."

Niederreiter, unlike the typical Swiss citizen living abroad, cannot vote in Swiss elections, because he chose to remove himself from the Swiss register. Like many other Swiss athletes of conscription age living abroad, he did so to avoid having to do his military service.

And because he has pursued his sporting passion since the age of 17 in the US, he has never been able to vote. He will only be able to start voting in Swiss elections after his hockey career is over and he returns to Switzerland.

Are you a Swiss abroad? Use the hashtag #WeAreSwissAbroad for your Instagram photos.

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