BY JEFF ANGUS
Our European Hockey tour reaches the Alps today.
The NLA, the top league in Switzerland, is a favourite destination for NHL stars. Rick Nash and Joe Thornton both resigned with HC Davos, the same club they spent the 2004-05 lockout with, very early in the current lockout, and it is no surprise why, Switzerland is famous for its beautiful, majestic scenery and, how do we say, its equally beautiful residents.
The NLA is good hockey – better than one may think for a Swiss professional league. However, it is a ways behind the KHL or SEL in terms of skill or quality. There are 12 teams in the league, spread over the small country and is a little top heavy: either The ZSC Lions, HC Davos, HC Lugano or SC Bern has won every championship since 1998.
SC Bern is the most attended hockey club in Europe – their arena has a capacity of over 17,000 (similar to an NHL rink) – more than double the capacity of most of their competition’s home rinks.
Swiss teams are known for their amazing rink atmosphere, as well. The fans cheer and sing all game long, they bang drums, and they generally have a great time. A far cry from the corporate sections at Rogers Arena and Air Canada Centre on a Saturday night. If you can’t make it over to Switzerland to live the excitement of a live game, you can still get in on the action with PlayNow Sports.
After winning the NLB title (Switzerland’s tier two league) for three consecutive years, EHC Biel was called up to play with the big boys in 2008. They have signed Tyler Seguin to a lockout contract, and he joins a mostly Swiss roster. In goal is Reto Berra, who once starred internationally for the Swiss national junior club. Up front the club also has forward Marc Pouliot, who played on the same line as Sidney Crosby in the QMJHL with Rimouski.
They play their home games in Geneva, a city which borders neighbouring France. Notable players include defensemen Brian Pothier and Yannick Weber, and up front Logan Couture has signed to play during the lockout, joining a number of Canadians and Americans on the roster. They have been runners-up to the NLA Championship twice – 2008 and in 2010. They are currently leading the NLA right now with 23 points.
Not many recognizable names on the roster. They have never won an NLA Championship.
Lots of names you would recognize on this roster – Mark Streit and Roman Josi both returned home to Switzerland during the lockout. Up front, Former NHLer Byron Ritchie was joined by another NHL player who signed a lockout contract – John Tavares. Tavares was likely swayed to join Bern by his Islander teammate Streit. Bern also stocked up during the last lockout, signing Daniel Briere, Dan Heatley, and Marc Savard, among others.
Once a strong dynasty, Kloten won four consecutive titles in the mid 1990s. They have never been relegated, either. Brooks Laich joins a team with not many familiar faces on it.
Like the Kloten squad, HC Ambri-Piotta has never been relegated. However, they have never won a championship, either. A few names you will know – Max Pacioretty, Jason Williams, Richard Park are three of the forwards.
Luca Sbisa returned home to play in Switzerland during the lockout, too. Up front, former Canadian junior star Hnat Domenichelli is joined by ex-NHL players Glen Metropolit and Brett McLean, among others. Patrice Bergeron has also joined Lugano recently.
Jared Spurgeon and Tyler Ennis have joined the Tigers during the lockout. A middle-of-the-pack team in the NLA so far this year.
Former Oiler goaltender Jussi Markkanen is on the roster. Damien Brunner, the Swiss scoring star who inked a deal with the Red Wings this past summer, leads the forward group. Also on the roster – Linus Omark (Edmonton) and Rafael Diaz (Montreal).
Joe Thornton and Rick Nash are of course the most recognizable names. Nash sustained a shoulder injury early into the season and is out for a little while still. These two put a show on for the Davos fans right out of the gate – in the first period of the first game, Thornton assisted on all three of Nash’s hat-trick goals.
Probably not the most famous Lakers team on the planet, Rapperswil-Jona could also win for best name among all NLA teams. In goal is David Aebischer, formerly of a few NHL clubs (his best stretch came with Colorado, though). Jason Spezza signed a few days ago, joining former NCAA scoring star Robbie Earl up front.
Based out of Zurich, the Lions are coached by former TSN analyst (and cup champion) Marc Crawford. There is a lot of talent on this roster – Jeff Tambellini, Gilbert Brule, and Ryan Shannon are all able to excel in the NLA, as their lack of size isn’t as much of an issue as it was in the NHL. They are in second place in the league right now.
The NLA should be a fun league to watch as the NHL lockout drags on and don’t be surprised to see more big names signing in Switzerland before the NHL is back in business.