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Switzerland's Joel Vermin (L), Cedric Hachler (2), Tanner Richard and Christoph Bertschy celebrate a goal during the second period of play against Sweden at the 2012 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championship in Calgary, Alberta, December 28, 2011. (STRINGER/CANADA/REUTERS)
Switzerland's Joel Vermin (L), Cedric Hachler (2), Tanner Richard and Christoph Bertschy celebrate a goal during the second period of play against Sweden at the 2012 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championship in Calgary, Alberta, December 28, 2011. (STRINGER/CANADA/REUTERS)

World Juniors

No one's neutral about the Swiss Add to ...

His surname is well-known in hockey circles around North America, but it was only after Dave Sutter arrived from Monthey, Switzerland to play junior for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds that he became aware of its significance on this side of the ocean.

“Everyone in Seattle was saying, ‘Your name is Sutter? That’s unbelievable. You have Sutters in Switzerland?’ ”

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Yes they have Sutters in Switzerland and the one playing defence for its world junior team is an imposing physical specimen, a 6-foot-5 giant of a defenceman with a familiar surname that resonates in these parts.

And so, while Canada’s world junior team is immersed in preliminary round action up in Edmonton, Switzerland has emerged as the people’s choice in the other half of the tournament, being played down in Cowtown.

Everybody loves an underdog, right?

Playing against a talented, but undisciplined Swedish team Wednesday, there was much to like about Switzerland’s performance in what finished as a heartbreaking 4-3 shootout loss against one of the tournament favourites.

Lukas Meili was stupendous in goal for the Swiss; Sutter provided a physical presence on defence; draft eligible Joel Vermin scored Switzerland’s first two goals of the tournament; and Dean Kukan tied the game with 2:04 to go in the third, setting the stage for a fabulous finish. Ultimately, Switzerland gave the Swedes everything they could handle through 60 minutes of regulation and five in overtime, falling only in the shootout, where its lack of scoring was acutely felt.

Switzerland’s performance was all the more remarkable, since it played much of the game without Sven Bartschi, its best player and maybe the purest goal-scorer that the NHL’s Calgary Flames have drafted in ages (and presumably, is the biggest reason for Switzerland’s popularity here).

Bartschi is lighting up the WHL like no other Calgary prospect since the 1996 world junior hero, Jarome Iginla, played for Kamloops – and everyone knows how well that turned out. Against Russia in the opener and then again in the early stages of the Swedish game, Bartschi’s presence caused a noticeable ripple in the crowd whenever he stepped on the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Sadly, that ripple of interest in Bartschi turned into a murmur of concern, after he left the game in the opening period with an undisclosed injury. But Switzerland kept fighting and signalled that the A pool includes more than just Russia, Sweden and a trio of afterthoughts.

Fact is, Switzerland also gave a very good account of itself in the opener against Russia, ultimately losing 3-0 in a game in which it held a 40-30 edge in shots and looked far more poised than it did in a couple of pretournament games against Canada and the United States, which were both routs.

It isn’t just all about skiing any more and for Bartschi, the NHL’s lockout of 2004-05 made a key contribution to the current state of Swiss hockey. He was 13 at the time, busy playing with NHL ’05 on PlayStation, when all of a sudden, there they all were, live and in person – Joe Thornton and Rick Nash playing for Davos, Danny Brière and Dany Heatley for Bern, Martin St. Louis for Lausanne.

“I really appreciate that they came over,” Bartschi said in an interview before Wednesday’s game. “That’s exciting as a little kid, to see those guys on the ice and on TV. I look back on that and to think that maybe in a year or two, I have a chance to play against them ...”

Switzerland may not be part of international hockey’s unofficial Big 7 (Canada, United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia), but it sometimes makes things interesting at the world juniors, and finished a credible fifth last year. The NHL is taking notice too: Bartschi went 13th overall in the 2011 entry draft, while his former Portland Winterhawks teammate, Nino Niederreiter, went fifth overall to the New York Islanders in 2010. Niederreiter was still eligible to play in the 2012 tournament, but the Islanders did not release him for duty.

“If you look at our league right now, the scoring leader [Damien Brunner of EV Zug]is a Swiss guy,” Bartschi said. “Normally, you see Canadians up there, but he’s a Swiss guy and he’s 10 points ahead of anybody else.

“If you look at the progress we did over the last couple of years, it’s exciting to watch.”

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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