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The American dream of Swiss sports stars

By Julien Gremaud - House of Switzerland, 05/09/18, 4:15PM CDT

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“A flurry of goals in tonight’s NHL”, “a prolific evening for the Swiss”: these headlines from America are so commonplace that we are almost used to them. However, it took decades for Swiss sporting prowess to make its mark on the other side of the Atlantic.

This year, there are just fifteen representatives of the flag with the white cross playing in two of the main American professional leagues. In the thick of a unique and ruthless environment and led by two Swiss powerhouses: the outrageously talented Nico Hischier (ice hockey) and Clint Capela (basketball).

A pure incarnation of the European game: a small stature compensated by unusual rapidity on the ice, a keen awareness of the game and first-class technique. Nico Hischier is seen – and rightly so – as something of a hockey prodigy. His talent is rivalled only by his precocity: born in Naters in 1999 and educated in Viège (two municipalities in Haut-Valais), he was the quickest at everything. He scored his first goal in the Swiss professional league at the age of 16, before taking part in the tough junior hockey league in Quebec and outclassing the competition. A year later, having just turned 18, he was in the elite NHL (National Hockey League) comprising the top American and Canadian clubs.

Nico is not only the youngest active Swiss player, he is also the first Swiss to ever be selected first in the draft (the famous annual selection process for young players), placing him in the company of such legends as Mario Lemieux, Alexander Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. While some prodigies might crumble under the pressure or lose their way, Hischier has wasted no time in living up to his status: at time of writing he already has 20 goals to his name and has just been awarded his first star for a match with his team, the New Jersey Devils. This is all the more amazing considering the not so illustrious history of Swiss hockey on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was a long wait: the first to go over were Jacques Soguel (1976), Ken Baumgartner (1988), and Pauli Jaks (1995), very good hockey players who nonetheless only played once or twice in the NHL. The American experience only really took off in 2000, with the arrival of Reto von Arx and Michel Riesen from Davos, plus the goalkeepers David Aebischer and Martin Gerber. The nascent love affair grew with the arrival of Mark Streit in 2005, a Swiss legend who played in almost one thousand matches during his 12 years in the States. After Streit, a new generation of players followed suit, Luca Sbisa, Yannick Weber, Nino Niederreiter, Roman Josi and, of course, Nico Hischier.

The ‘injustice’ suffered by Swiss players is thus being rectified after decades of absence from the NHL. Hockey is Switzerland’s number two team sport after football. It attracts a passion here almost unequalled in Europe. By way of example, the Bern ice rink, home of the capital’s historic club, comes first year after year in the national rankings for crowd numbers (with an average of over 17,000 spectators per match). That is more than Sweden, the Czech Republic or Finland, all countries which have sent many players to earn their stripes in the NHL.

The start of a basketball story?

The NBA – National Basketball Association – still seems to be resisting a mass Swiss influx. The Swiss league, more of a low-key affair than the hockey, doesn't currently have enough depth to attract much interest from the States. Ten years ago, few would have foreseen the exemplary path forged by a number of Swiss players.

Thabo Sefolosha is something of a pioneer, basketball’s Mark Streit: he plays for the Chicago Bulls and has been known to the American public since 2006, showing them that the Swiss are more than just a nation of skiers. A Vevey native, Sefolosha is still contracted to the Utah Jazz and he hopes to complete his 15th season at the summit of world basketball next year. The ‘Swiss Knife’ was fortunately quick to find a successor waiting in the wings (ten years his junior), who also attended the Chalon-sur-Saône training centre in France (as did Sefolosha): Clint Capela.

Having arrived quietly in the US and fearing he might have to leave again to gain experience in Europe after he was selected 25th in the 2014 draft, the Geneva native quickly signed with the talented Houston Rockets. He cuts an impressive figure at 2.08m and 115kg and proved a surprise package in his first season with his rapid progress. Best of all: having achieved an unlikely top four finish last season, his Texan franchise, boosted by the dream partnership of James Harden and Chris Paul, is having its best start to the season ever. Clint Capela is no stranger to success: the so-called ‘Swiss Freak’ plays almost 24 minutes on average per match, scoring over 14 points with ten rebounds and almost two blocks. Star-quality statistics which underpin his rapid rise to key Rockets player aged just 23. However, like a good Swiss person his success hasn't gone to his head. He recently said: “There is no secret as such. If you put the work in, you can do anything.”