First stop: Zug.
During the NHL lockout, most players in search of work have migrated to the KHL in Russia, the SM-liiga in Finland, and the Swedish Elite League.
In Switzerland, the talent is thinner and most rinks miniaturized by comparison, but for entertainment value on and off the ice, the NHL could learn a thing or two from its top tier: the National League A. In the crowds, no one wears a suit and on the ice, goals are easy to come by.
The arena in Zug (pop: 26,000) seats 6,700 and face-painted fans surrounding the net in the defensive zone stand on a concrete slab the entire game. In the opposite end, fans of the visiting team are isolated in a small section caged-in with plexiglass, isolating them from the home supporters like barn animals and smothering their noise.
The home side hits the ice one-by-one through a ring of fire as the main address announcer shouts out the player’s first name, and the crowd responds by bellowing the last.
On this night, with the constant, rhythmic beating of a drum carrying through the rink for all 60 minutes, Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, playing for EV Zug (and with a McDonald’s arches patch sewn onto the back of his pants), picks up four points in a 7-4 win over visiting EHC Biel, a team featuring Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kane scored late in the first period, and followed with a trademark low fist-sweep celebration across the ice. The 24-year-old forward was quick to comment on the boisterous crowd, which did not let up all game, cheering, chanting, drumming, whistling or stomping.
“It’s more exciting,” Kane said. “I love it; it’s a different kind of atmosphere.”
Seguin is currently third in league scoring with 28 points (16 goals) in 18 games; Kane has 10 points (four goals) in six games.
“I hear it’s pretty offensive over here, and you get a lot of chances on the power play and on the big ice – it’s fun,” Kane said recently. “One of my favourite things to do is score goals.”
Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for the skilled American, as there’s more physicality in the crowd than on the ice.
Days later, a 200-kilometre journey through the scenic Swiss Alps brought the Zug squad to the capital city, Bern.
SC Bern plays before demonstrative crowds, averaging near 17,000 a game. And during a recent two-game losing skid, local fans elected to “voice” their displeasure by remaining completely silent for the first two periods of the next home game. Not a sound. This may be normal in a regular-season NHL game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but in Bern, this was a direct message that the on-ice performance would not be tolerated.
But when Zug visited PostFinance Arena, the fans’ mood was upbeat. They banged drums, chanted, waved flags and whistled continuously.
(The drummer was a character. He was not hired by the team, nor instructed what to do in any way. Yet, his timing was impeccable and thousands of fans followed his lead seamlessly, creating a European soccer crowd crammed into a rink.)
Half of the stadium was filled with loyal supporters dressed in black and red, who began bellowing chants more than an hour before the players stepped on the ice. A monstrous black, red and yellow SC Bern flag was unfolded as players warmed up on the ice, covering thousands of fans as they continued to chant.
The Bern players entered the ice through a steel fence tunnel, reminiscent of a jail cell, while the skate-less cheerleaders occupy the opponents’ zone, hindering Zug players from circling the ice.
The end result: a 5-1 win for Bern, led by New York Islanders centre John Tavares with a goal and an assist. Tavares has 18 points (seven goals)in 14 games.
Coming from an NHL franchise which averaged less than 13,200 fans a night in 2011-12, Tavares was quick to praise the boisterous Bern supporters. “It’s a good team with high expectations and the support here is pretty incredible. It’s hard to beat.”
When asked to compare the Swiss league to the NHL, Tavares said: “It’s definitely not as physical as back home, but it’s a different style here, it’s hard to compare.”
The first-overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft acknowledged the Swiss league lacks “high-end, elite-level skill,” but pointed out the “consistency throughout the teams. And Swiss players are growing.”
Tavares and SC Bern next headed southwest toward the French border for a game against league-leading Geneve-Servette HC.
A live eagle weaved above the capacity crowd of 7,000 during player introductions. The rink had an unfinished, caved-in-looking roof that gave the event a bit of a claustrophobic feeling as the fans are almost on top of the ice. And the game had a little of everything: Physical play, a penalty shot, an own goal by Bern when the defenceman accidentally slid the puck back into his own net with the goalie pulled … and an incident of shoe-throwing.
Shirtless and face-painted SC Bern fans who accompanied the team to Geneva reacted to a controversial goal call in Geneve-Servette’s favour by launching shoes toward the rink-side glass. Hundreds of shoes. Oddly, Geneva supporters and rink security personnel acted as if this was normal behaviour.
Not finished, now-shoeless Bern fans entertained themselves through a slow third period by creating a mosh pit in the stands and violently bashing themselves against one another. Again, security barely blinked an eye.
In the Swiss league, a team’s top scorer wears a different jersey and helmet than his teammates, to allow fans to better notice the “best” player on the ice. San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture, with a Geneve-Servette-best 23 points (seven goals), wore a yellow flame on this night.
“It was an adjustment that needs getting used to,” he said.
Besides Bern, Geneve-Servette arguably has the most boisterous fans in the Swiss league. Couture acknowledged the excitement and joy playing in such a different atmosphere.
“Sometimes, I sit and watch the crowd from the bench,” he said with a laugh. “They’re awesome.”
People vacation to Switzerland for the powdered slopes of the Alps, mouth-watering fondue, overpriced chocolate, a do-it-all pocketknife or maybe to pick up a designer watch.
But NHL refugees such as Kane, Couture, Tavares and Seguin have also found the nation’s hockey culture is alive and well – and a shoe-throwing, violent-moshing, eagle-weaving, flame-wearing, drum-beating, goal-scoring good time.