I managed to catch Team Switzerland head coach Christian Wohlwend at the end of a practice as he prepared his team for the World Junior Hockey Championship. He is open and frank in his answers and you can’t tell it’s just a few days before the tournament begins.
“We have finished the tapering phase, so now it is like the tournament starts for real,” he said. “We will slow down on the practices a bit and just try to find peak form for the tournament.”
With me being Swedish, and thinking about the incident involving William Nylander in last year’s opening game, he spoke a bit about one of the defining moments of the 2016 World Juniors.
“What I remember is that suddenly it was this huge thing in the media; his father was pissed, the coach was pissed, and the media was pissed. But what really happened," explained Mr. Wohlwend, speaking more passionately, as it is obvious that he wants to clear up a few things, especially the reputation of his player and the reputation of the Swiss team as a whole, "is it was an accident.
“The funny thing is that [Chris] Egli is skating up the ice and I think he was as surprised as anyone that a Swedish player would skate up the ice like that, and he went for a hit, but he had no clue that it was Nylander. I want to make clear that, from the coaching side, we had never mentioned, even for a second, that we would target someone. It’s not the Swiss way of playing hockey."
Mr. Wohlwend continues, “maybe a North American coach would say ‘play tough against their best players,’ but in Switzerland we are not taught to do that. If we we were to ask them to take a guy out, they wouldn’t know what to do; it’s not in our culture.”
The fact that the Nylander incident may have given the team a reputation as a dirty club is something that Mr. Wohlwend says won’t deter the team from playing its game.
“We want to play tough and hard, but fair, within the limits of the rules. We want to finish our checks, but we are not there to take anyone out. The situation from last year was an accident — an unfortunate one — and it was just crazy that it was Nylander. Even with Nylander out, it would have been super hard for us to beat Sweden." Mr. Wohlwend finished the thought with a rueful smile. "If we want to beat Sweden, we would probably have to take out five forwards, and probably the goalkeepers, too. I want to make it known it was not planned — 100% it wasn’t planned — to take anyone out of the game, or the tournament."
Recently, the Swiss men’s teams have been doing well. The national league (NLA) is performing at a better level than ever, and this year Fribourg-Gottéron is going to the semi-finals of the Champions Hockey League. With this in mind, Mr. Wohlwend explains that it will take a long time to get similar success in the WJC.
“The reason is that when [the young players] finish their school at 18-19, they can focus 100% on hockey. But before that they will have to focus on school. The Swiss system is based on a good education, with an apprenticeship for a real job. You have to do that, because if you don’t make a career [in hockey] then you have something to fall back on. All players 18 to 19 years old are playing hockey, but at least 50% of the time they will focus on their apprenticeship."
The Swiss system might not benefit hockey development at a young age, but it benefits the society in the long run. "The players here take a huge step between 19-23; we make the step a bit later, and that’s probably why we still struggle a bit when it comes to the WJC. This is a fact, and our culture is that you need to get an education. The parents push you in this direction too.
“Other nations do this in reverse: if you don’t make the majors, then you get an education. We already have an education with us at that stage. With a good education you can still make a lot of money."
Having struggled in recent years, the goal is still to make the quarter-finals. "There is no other realistic goal for the team," the coach admitted. "It comes down to the fact that we have to beat Denmark. If every player on the roster performs their best we might be able to nick a point or two off the other countries like Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland. It is easy to count out the Czechs because of the [national] league and the economy, but they still have the culture, and it’s like it is with hockey too: you need to be a bit lucky with a generation or two, it’s not a money or economy question.
[Since the interview, Switzerland has beaten Czech Republic in overtime in its first game, giving them a leg up to make the quarter-finals.]
“Look at last year’s Finnish team with [Sebastian] Aho, [Jesse] Puljujärvi, and [Patrik] Laine, to mention just a few, then you know you will play for the medals. They are just so much better than anyone else.
“We had a generation like that with [Nino] Niederreiter where we went to the semi-finals. A great player like that will mean so much for a team. When you have players like that everyone else raises their game, too."
With Mr. Wohlwend having been born in Montreal, and a crowd that will usually cheer for the underdog, it is still not a question for Mr. Wohlwend why the World Junior Championship is being held in such an iconic place.
“It’s just great having the opportunity to play in Montreal. If they want to cheer for us that’s great. But Canadians are first and foremost a people that loves hockey, especially high-quality hockey. This will benefit all teams, it doesn’t matter where you come from; play good hockey and they will support you. If you put in a high effort they will love you, it doesn’t matter if you play Sweden or Denmark, they know if you are giving 100% or not."
Players to watch out for will be Calvin Thürkauf, Damien Riat, and Nico Hischier (one of a few 17-year-olds), according to Mr. Wohlwend. "But the strength of the team is really that we have four good lines that should be able to make an impact. [Jonas] Siegenthaler is the most experienced at a high level, but we are a team and that’s our strength.”
With Sven Andrighetto being in Montreal when the team arrived for the tournament, Mr. Wohlwend said he might actually reach out to him in order to get him to come in and speak about hockey in Montreal and what to expect from the arena and the crowd.
“It would be great if we could get him to come in and tell the guys that ‘it’s time to play with confidence, skip that Swiss mentality of not good enough, it’s time to step up and show what we can do together.’”
I’d like to thank Mr. Christian Wohlwend and the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation for the help with setting this interview up. Hopefully we will get a chance to come back to the head coach as the tournament goes on.