Home » ‘We have a problem’: Inside the battle threatening Switzerland’s hockey future

‘We have a problem’: Inside the battle threatening Switzerland’s hockey future

‘We have a problem’: Inside the battle threatening Switzerland’s hockey future

BERN, Switzerland Looking at the state of hockey in Switzerland, an outsider would get the impression it’s never been better.

On the global stage, the Swiss beat Canada in the semi-finals at the IIHF World Championship in Czechia on the weekend and won the silver medal, led by perhaps the strongest contingent of NHL talent the country has ever had.

At home, the Swiss National League (NL) has become one of the premier professional leagues in Europe; there has never been more talent and more parity, and arenas have never been more full than they are right now after a key rule change two years ago allowed an influx of foreign players to enter the top league.

Marc Crawford, a former NHL coach with 556 career wins and coach of the current NL champion ZSC Lions in Zurich, says Switzerland’s top league has significantly closed the gap with the Swedish Hockey League and Finland’s Liiga. The speed of the game in Switzerland is rising and a once-top-heavy league with one of only three or four teams winning every year has become a place where just about any team has a chance.

“Now teams that are lesser, they can be competitive, and that’s what’s happened,” he said. “The league has gotten very competitive.”

But scratching below the surface, not all is well in Switzerland. A disjointed vision of how the sport should be run and what the priorities should be is threatening the sustainability of the positives that overwhelmingly define the state of the Swiss game right now.

As a result, there is serious concern about the future of hockey in Switzerland — despite a present that has arguably never been better.

Those concerns could matter for the overall health of the game, especially as hockey embarks on what will hopefully be a long, uninterrupted run of best-on-best international competition in the coming years, including Olympic participation by the NHL. The first of those competitions is the 4 Nations Face-Off in February, a tournament that will only include Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland, a sign of how top-heavy the global game remains. Creating the kind of parity we just saw at the world championships, with Switzerland beating Canada and Czechia beating Sweden in the semi-finals, would serve hockey well beyond Switzerland’s borders.

“On the one hand, right now, I see the hockey is great,” said Mark Streit, one of the pioneers of the Swiss presence in the NHL and currently a minority owner of SC Bern in the Swiss NL. “People really like it, they like the product, the rinks are full, we have good infrastructure throughout the whole league.

“But at the same time, we have a problem.”

A big part of the forces making Switzerland’s top professional league stronger than it has ever been came thanks to a fundamental change in 2022, when the NL moved to allow each of its 14 teams to employ six import players, up from four in the 2021-22 season.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm was brewing, as the move to six imports came shortly after Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022, with several international players refusing to play in the KHL as a result, leading to a massive market of talented players looking for a new hockey home.

The rule change didn’t arrive without controversy. The league’s owners initially wanted to increase the import limit to 10 per team, their belief being the product on the ice would be more marketable and they could better allocate their money to players higher in the lineup instead of paying Swiss players big money to play supporting roles because there were relatively few of them. The laws of supply and demand were in the domestic players’ favour, they argued.

As the NL owners were mulling their options for changing the talent makeup of the league, players protested by picking one day on the league schedule for both teams in every game to retreat to the bench once the puck was dropped, delaying the game for five minutes. Fans expressed their displeasure in the stands, as well, displaying banners in support of the homegrown talent. It brought media attention and public scrutiny to the import rule dispute.

“It definitely also showed the players are sticking together,” said former Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, who is now president of the Swiss Ice Hockey Players’ Association. “Everybody stood up for each other and it definitely helped us gain some power and get a seat at the table.”

Ultimately, a compromise of six imports was reached — a decision that has still markedly changed the demographic makeup of the league in just two seasons.

In 2021-22, according to Elite Prospects, 73.1 percent of the roughly 300 players in the NL were of Swiss origin. With 28 more of those jobs now going to imports, that number was down to 62.2 percent this season, the vast majority of that gap being filled by players from Sweden and Finland, countries with two of Europe’s strongest domestic professional leagues.

Demographic breakdown of the Swiss NL





























Having six imports instead of four essentially allows teams’ entire first power-play units and starting goalies to be imports, which leaves many Swiss players losing those premium roles. The influx of players from Russia’s top league has had a particularly noticeable impact near the top of the NL’s individual scoring race. In 2022-23, five of the NL’s top 20 scorers had played in the KHL the previous year.

The Swiss hockey federation is concerned that the country’s national team programs will suffer if its young players have an additional barrier to developing in the NL, the way Streit did and the way Roman Josi did after him, in addition to so many others.

Josi led that strong Swiss team at the world championships, along with fellow NHLers Nico Hischier, Kevin Fiala, Nino Niederreiter, Philipp Kurashev and Jonas Siegenthaler.

Josi is one of the most dominant players in the world, a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate this season with the way he dragged his Nashville Predators into the playoffs. But Josi also benefited from developing at SC Bern, and despite the fact he is also a minority owner of Bern with his good friend Streit today, Josi does not see the changes in a positive light.

“I don’t think it’s good for Swiss hockey, it’s just hard for young kids to get a spot,” Josi said in an interview in Nashville in March. “A lot of guys flourish when you’re 18, 19 and you start playing against men. I got to play at 17, my first couple of games were at 16 and at 17 I started playing. I was able to play on the second power play, I got some penalty kill minutes and it just helped me develop faster. With this rule, it’s just hard. There’s so many great imports, so many guys from North America who come over and they’re great players.

“For Swiss hockey, I don’t think it’s a good way to go because you need those young kids playing in the league.”

Siegenthaler shared Josi’s concerns, largely because he shares Josi’s development path, coming up through the NL before making the move to North America, unlike what Hischier, Niederreiter, Fiala and Timo Meier did, moving away from Switzerland to continue their development abroad before being drafted into the NHL.

“I think nowadays, young guys, they don’t really get a shot in the Swiss league anymore because every team has more imports,” Siegenthaler said. “I hope they’re going to change it pretty soon.”

Coming off a successful world championships, those fears might seem overblown, but the future is not as bright as it seems for Swiss hockey. The average age of the full 25-man Swiss roster at the worlds was 30.2, and the NHL representatives actually brought that average down, with the exception of Josi (33) and Niederreiter (31). The NL players were almost all older than the average, and while the NHL players drove the bus, any team needs some semblance of depth to have any hope of competing or to at least play their matchups to a draw to give their big guns a chance to be difference-makers.

Developing that depth for Switzerland happens in the NL, and Josi and several other Swiss players fear it won’t continue happening if the six-import rule remains in place.

“What I’m worried a little about is what if those (NHL) guys aren’t here?” Hiller said. “Who’s going to play the power play? Who’s going to take charge on the PK? Because on the Swiss teams right now, it’s mainly the import players playing those roles.”

Switzerland is a prime destination for import players. The quality of hockey is high. The money is good. It’s a beautiful country. Players sleep in their own beds every night thanks to easy travel.

Andrew Ebbett was once one of those import players. He spent nine years bouncing between the AHL and NHL in North America before moving to Switzerland to finish his career for five years with SC Bern, where he is now the team’s general manager.

“I played five years here, and I saved more in five years here than in the nine years I played in North America in the AHL and NHL,” Ebbett said. “Those five years were pretty much where my nest egg is now, or my investments are. In the NHL and AHL, you’re paying for an apartment, for taxes, for a car. I would be paying my mortgage for my house plus my rent for my apartment in the AHL. It adds up. … I had an apartment here all year round. I could leave for the summer and come back and move right back into my home. You have a furnished apartment, car’s paid for, your salary is net — basically, you pay your own taxes back home and the club here pays for your taxes in Switzerland, pays for your insurance for you and your family, pays for the car, pays for the apartment.

“I always tell the imports when I’m recruiting them to come here and play: We’re going to pay you this and the only thing you’re going to spend is food, gas and whatever trips you want to take during the four national team breaks, and that’s it. The rest, you’re taking home with you.”

Andrew Ebbett and Mark Streit of SC Bern have differing views on the new six-import rule in the Swiss National League. (Arpon Basu / The Athletic)

But the impact on the future of Swiss hockey is seemingly not being considered in the equation. And it raises the question: What is the primary purpose of a European domestic professional hockey league? Is it solely to provide an entertaining product and make money, or is there a greater purpose to develop and advance the game domestically, especially in Switzerland where hockey is not a national sport the way it is in Sweden or Finland?

One of the problems that led to this is the lack of supply of Swiss players, and that is a macro development problem in Switzerland. Many of the country’s best players feel they need to leave at a young age to continue their development because the level of competition at the younger levels is not high enough.

“They have to figure out that problem from age 12 to 16, because once you get to 16 you can just tighten the league up, but they don’t,” Crawford said. “So really it has to be from those 15 to 18 years to tighten it up and make it more competitive. Right now they have 20 teams and there’s just not enough talent to make those 20 teams have the competitiveness they have in the Swedish U17, U15 leagues, or the Finnish ones. I think if they do that, then you’ll see a pathway for guys.”

There is also a need to use the second-tier Swiss League as more of a feeder league for the NL, similar to the AHL in North America. Crawford’s ZSC Lions have had a Swiss League team doing that for years, but it is not a common practice for NL teams to have a farm team because it is too expensive.

“I think the big thing in Swiss hockey is you have the National League, the Swiss League, and then you have the federation. And that construct is complicated,” Streit said. “Sometimes I feel not everybody is going in the same direction, because the federation has their goals and their hidden agendas. So does the National League and their teams, the big teams. And the Swiss League, they just try to find a way, they’re kind of in between.

“For Swiss hockey to be successful, those three parts, they have to come together and work for the progress of hockey, Swiss hockey, for the long term. Right now, there’s a lot of moving parts, and the situation is not great right now.”

One of the biggest concerns of most detractors of the changes in the NL is the impact it will have on Swiss goaltending, which was once a source of national pride but is now in danger of losing its primary proving ground.

In 2021-22, the last season with four imports, 18 of the top 20 goalies in the NL in games played were all Swiss. This season, five of the top eight goalies in the league were imports.

“You look at the goalie situation, there’s almost only import goalies in the league,” Streit said. “If we’re not having the problem now, we’ll have it in a few years that we don’t have any good Swiss goalies. I think that’s the biggest problem we have with six imports.”

Two of those three Swiss goalies in the top eight in games played were Reto Berra of HC Fribourg-Gottéron and Leonardo Genoni of EV Zug. Genoni became a starter in the NL at age 20, and at 36, he is still one of the top goalies in the league and was the starter for Switzerland at the world championships. Berra, 37, was Genoni’s backup for HC Davos back then, left for the NHL at age 26 and returned to Switzerland at age 29. Berra was second in the league this season with 27 wins and had a .929 save percentage, but he questions whether his career path will be possible for this generation of Swiss goaltenders to replicate.

“These days, it’s different,” Berra said at the world championships in Prague, where he was the third goalie behind Genoni and Akira Schmid of the New Jersey Devils. “You don’t see many young goaltenders getting a real chance. Maybe they get one shot. They have no time to grow, I would say, so it’s pretty difficult right now. … There are so many good goaltenders all around the world and, you know, Switzerland is a nice place to play hockey and live, too.

“There’s going to be good import goalies around, so it’s going to be tough for young Swiss goalies to get into the league.”

As for the notion of there being no place for young Swiss players under a six-import rule, there is some pushback on that.

Ebbett, the general manager of SC Bern, pointed out that the additional money paid out to import players didn’t necessarily change the total payroll he operates under, so with more imports taking up a larger chunk of the financial pie, that creates a need to add younger, cheaper Swiss players to fill out the lineup and respect the budget.

For Ebbett, that meant someone like forward Thierry Schild, 19, playing a significant role for Bern on its third line. For Crawford in Zurich, that meant giving a similar role to Montreal Canadiens 2022 draft pick Vinzenz Rohrer, 19, who is Austrian but counts as a domestic player in the NL.

Ebbett says that under a four-import system, Schild probably would not have played for Bern in the NL this season.

“For sure we would have had maybe one or two 28- or 29-year-old Swiss guys that we would use in that spot,” he said.

This season, 15 players under 20 played at least 10 games in the NL, and 12 of them were Swiss-born. In 2021-22, the last year of the four-import rule, there were 13 such players and 12 were Swiss-born. So, not much of a difference there, at least not yet.

Last year, David Reinbacher, an Austrian with domestic status in the NL like Rohrer, was drafted by the Canadiens with the No. 5 pick out of EHC Kloten, where he played a top-four role with power-play time in a six-import league. While there is not an equivalent blue-chip prospect out of the NL this year, EV Zug defenceman Leon Muggli played a prominent role on a competitive team and is projected as a second-round pick.

The evaluation of Muggli, like Reinbacher before him, has to be made within the context of just how competitive the NL has become as a result of the six-import rule. So, if a young player is getting a significant role in a league like this, it should carry more weight than it once did.

Muggli’s coach in Zug is Dan Tangnes, who came to Switzerland six years ago from Sweden and has seen a vast change in the professionalism of the league since he arrived.

“If you want to be a competitive league and you want to grow the league into one of the best leagues in the world, you need to have an international standard for the league, you need to compete to get the best players available,” Tangnes said. “That is also going to help young players to find a level that is as close as possible to the best league in the world. So I believe, all in all, it’s a positive change and improvement for the league that is healthy long-term for Swiss players as well.”

So, where does this leave the state of Swiss hockey? That remains a question with no clear answer.

It’s complicated. As both a current owner and former player, Streit can see both sides.

“As a team owner, the first thing is you want to have good hockey, you want to have a good product, you want to have a full rink in the whole league. You want to have good, competitive hockey, you want to have a lot of teams that are actually capable of winning the championship, like the NHL does. That’s one part of it,” he said. “But the other part is Swiss hockey, it’s the youth program, it’s the guys coming up. In the future, are they going to be capable of playing in the league? So, two completely different things.”

Utah NHL defenceman J.J. Moser, a 2021 second-round pick as a 21-year-old after his third full season with EHC Biel-Bienne in the NL, followed the same path as Josi and Siegenthaler. The year he was drafted, Moser was team captain. None of that might have happened had there been a six-import limit at the time, and Moser recognizes that. But he still sees the benefit of the new rule.

“It kind of has both sides,” Moser said. “Obviously, now with six imports, it’s way harder for young guys to get a good role, to get good ice time, to get an important role. And I think I was certainly lucky in that regard with only having four imports. I guess I wouldn’t have been able to get that much responsibility, get that much ice time. I wouldn’t have had the chance to be on the ice for the power play, in the important moments in the game. From that standpoint, it’s certainly harder for young Swiss guys.

“But on the other side, it can also be a good thing because it’s just more competitive now, and there’s a bit less of a safety bubble to protect the Swiss guys. So it forces the young players to kind of toughen up, in some sense, and just find a way to be better than the import guys.”

Hiller, a former goaltender for the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, is now president of the Swiss Ice Hockey Players’ Association. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

At the very least, the divide in Swiss hockey has led to some positive conversations.

Hiller was at the world championships in Czechia and took part in meetings between leaders of the NL and the Swiss hockey federation to try to find a middle ground between their interests, a middle ground that seemed inaccessible before.

“The walls between the two organizations were quite high and each side seemed to blame the other,” Hiller said. “We need to work close together and look at hockey in Switzerland as a whole and not just with the federation worrying about junior hockey and the National League worrying about their league and making money. … It’s not really a unified vision of Swiss hockey.”

For Switzerland to not only recreate what it accomplished at the world championships but actually grow as a hockey nation that can compete consistently with the traditional hockey powers, that unity will be essential. There are grassroots initiatives needed to get more kids playing the game, there are adjustments needed to be made to minor hockey programs to get more kids to stay in the game, there’s the creation of elite youth programs that will keep their best players in the country for longer, and there’s a need to maintain a path for domestic players to develop in their domestic professional league with the hopes of one day making the NHL.

“Imports make a good living and the Swiss players (do) as well. And I think that’s a little bit a part of the problem, that you make really, really good money playing in the (NL), a great league, you live at home, you don’t have travel, you play half the games, every night you’re home. So the league is great, it’s fun and you’ll make a lot of money, but it’s not the NHL,” Streit said. “So I think for the younger players who hit adversity in the NHL or in the minor leagues, they tend to say, ‘Well, I’m probably not going to make it, I’m going to come back here.’ And I don’t think it’s a matter of Swiss mentality, it’s just opportunity. It’s great for the league, but I don’t think it’s great for Swiss hockey.

“You want to push as many guys (as possible) to play in the NHL.”

The Athletic‘s Chris Johnston contributed to this report from Prague, Czechia.

(Top photo: Jari Pestelacci / Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images)