Next Swiss top prospect?
Next Swiss top prospect?
16-year-old Nico Hischier on Roman Josi’s trail
Just the fact that Hischier, who will turn 17 years old on Monday, is here in Helsinki at this young age shows how big the expectations are. Hischier is the youngest player on the Swiss team. At the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, only Denmark’s Jonas Rondbjerg is younger.
“I’m very happy that I can play at the World Junior Championship,” Hischier said. “I was on the U20 team before and I was very glad that I made the team for the World Juniors.
“I’m here to collect experiences. I’m not a leader, but I’m here to play and to show what I can, get experience and have fun. It’s not good how the tournament has gone for us, but we have to make the best out of the situation.”
The Swiss, with many returnees from last year, had high hopes of making the quarter-finals, but they lost the crucial game against Denmark – for the second year in a row.
“We came to the World Juniors with the opinion that we’re a good team that could achieve something, as we saw [in the game] against Canada,” said Hischier. “But it’s a very tight competition. Maybe we were nervous at the start of the tournament. We didn’t show our best game. Maybe in the exhibition games we had luck that we didn’t have in the Denmark game.
“If you don’t play disciplined you can lose, like against Denmark. We have to accept that, stand together and play the relegation round. I’m convinced that if we play as a team we will manage to stay in the top division.”
The Swiss will play the best-of-three relegation round against Belarus. Last year the red-and-white team beat Germany in two games to stay in the top division.
Despite his age Hischier doesn’t feel like the youngest of the young guys on his team.
“I wasn’t welcomed to the team as the youngest player. They accept me as I am. They’re good to me.”
Although he’s trying not to think about it, the start of his pro career bears a strong resemblance to that of one of the greatest Swiss players in the National Hockey League. Roman Josi is a top-line defenceman with the Nashville Predators, and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, where Switzerland won an historic silver medal.
Josi is nine years older than Hischier. Nine years ago Josi also played for SC Bern, mostly for the team of the major junior league, but he got his first pro games in the National League A as a 16-year-old and made his first of four appearances at the World Juniors (three in the top division, one in Division I) the same season.
“I heard that he played on the senior team at age 16 too,” said Hischier. “But I try not to focus on hockey and work on myself with joy.”
Hischier was born in 1999 in Naters in the Alpine canton of Valais, 10 kilometres away from Visp where he played most of his junior career. Sport has always been part of his family. His father played football for FC Naters, his mother was a swimmer, and his brother Luca, who is four years older, started with hockey.
“My brother played hockey. I always wanted to do what he did. I joined and I liked it,” Hischier said.
Luca moved to SC Bern when he was 15, and Nico did likewise at the same age to be able to play in the top league of the U17 and U20 age categories. By making the senior team, the brothers can now play together. Luca also joined a sports high school, where he’s in his first of four years.
On making his debut in the top pro league as a 16-year-old in Switzerland, Hischier said: “SC Bern had many injured players so I was told, ‘Nico, now you can also play.’ For me it was a moment that gave me joy, but I also had a lot of respect. But in my first game Martin Pluss and my brother helped me. I was very nervous at the beginning, but after a few shifts it was okay. It went better game by game.”
Still, Hischier explained there was a huge difference between playing junior and playing pro in a league with national team stars, veteran imports and Auston Matthews, the prospective number one NHL draft choice in June 2016.
“It’s a huge difference in play compared to the junior league, especially physically. I saw in which areas I have to improved,” Hischier said. He has also enjoyed playing in front of Europe’s biggest crowds for club hockey at an arena with a huge standing-room area along one side of the rink.
In his debut on 13 November, 15,803 spectators came to the home game against Lausanne.
“When I went out onto the ice for the first warm-up and saw the ‘wall’ I was tingling with excitement,” Hischier remembered about his first game with the big boys. “It’s special to play for the first time in front of 16,000 fans, but during the game you don’t notice it that much since you’re focusing on the game.”,
Will he play in front of such crowds in North America in a few years? Hischier is eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and many scouts consider him a potential first-round pick.
“Playing in the NHL is a dream but it’s in the very back of my head. It’s a goal but it’s far away now,” said Hischier. He calls Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk his idol.
“I like his style of play, his technique and that he’s also strong defensively. In Switzerland I’m looking up to my brother – he can still help me with so many things.”
For next season, the future is open, said Hischier. He was considering playing major junior hockey in Canada, but since he made the senior team of SC Bern and can play in one of the best leagues in Europe, he may as well stay. Just like Josi did before moving to the Predators organization as a 20-year-old. Or like Matthews is doing in his pre-draft year with league rival ZSC Lions Zurich. But Hischier hasn’t made his final decision yet.
In Helsinki he’s focused on the present. On his team, on facing Belarus next. He likes to hang out with his teammates and has gone for some walks in the Finnish capital.
“It’s a beautiful city with a lot going on. I was mostly checking out the stores, not the typical tourist sights,” he said.
After two days without games, Hischier is looking forward to being back in action and helping Switzerland qualify for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto. It’s an event he surely doesn’t want to miss.
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