- Switzerland's most unique hockey talent has the tools to take Minnesota to greater postseason heights.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Founded in the summer of 2014, the Transatlantic Flyers Club paired luxury Swiss watchmaking outfit Breitling with eight NHLers from the same country, tagging them with the ultra-corporate titles of “brand ambassadors.” Like all sponsorships, the agreement benefited both sides. Breitling, for its part, could trot out some famous faces at boutique openings during the offseason, or hold autograph signings to drum up interest in its products. And the players could skydive, pilot aerobatic aircrafts, or sit strapped onto biplane wings while soaring over the Alps, a daredevilish practice called wing-walking.
“Usually I’m pretty scared of things like that,” says Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter, one of the founding eight. “But if I’m going to do it, I feel happy and proud of myself that maybe I can do something else as well. It just gives yourself a little notice of what you’re capable of doing [despite] how you feel. Once you’re taking off, you know there’s no coming back.”
In a way, that’s precisely what the Transatlantic Flyers Club means to all its members—a tip of the cap from a locally based company to successful national exports, a recognition of what Niederreiter and fellow Swiss natives have already accomplished by hitting the big-time. “If you get introduced to the club, you make it to the NHL, you play a full year, in order to be in the club, you’ve got to do one of those flights,” says Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Streit, who helped conceptualize the group through a contact at Breitling. “That’s the initiation.”
The club’s ranks have swelled over the years, coinciding with larger nationwide growth in hockey. Thirteen Swiss skaters appeared in NHL games this season, five more than between 1980—when barrier-breaking defenseman Mark Hardy debuted for Los Angeles—and 2006 combined. A second-place finish at the 2013 IIHF world championships followed landmark wins over Canada, Sweden and the United States; the Swiss A League is rapidly gaining international legitimacy. All-star defenseman Roman Josi anchors Nashville’s blue line entering its first-round matchup against Chicago, while Streit will factor prominently into the Penguins’ quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, particularly after workhorse Kris Letang underwent neck surgery.
But few symbolize this evolution better than the affable, admittedly aerophobic Niederreiter, the Wild's current top-line left winger. Growing up in Chur, Switzerland, nestled in a valley along the Eastern Alps and two minutes away from the nearest ski lift, Niederreiter knew the NHL existed but never had the requisite channels to watch any actual games. Occasionally, on long bus rides with his youth teams, Niederreiter’s coaches would pop Don Cherry’s Rock’Em Sock’Em Hockey tapes into the VCR. But, true to their neutral nation’s stereotypically peaceful tendencies, they would fast forward through the big hits and the fights.
“Because they didn’t want us to do that,” Niederreiter says. “I think sometimes it would be nice to be aggressive as a country and get to the net more. But it’s definitely grown big-time since I was young. Now they actually study and practice. Back then all I did was skate circles to make sure I’m a good skater.”
Contrast that what Niederreiter became. Now 24 years old and 389 games into his career, he remains Switzerland’s first and only 20 goal-scorer in the NHL, a mark he has now reached in three straight seasons, including a career-high 25 in 2016-17. Whereas other notable Swiss forwards like Nashville’s Kevin Fiala, Montreal’s Sven Andrighetto, and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi stand at 5'10", 5'10" and 5'11", respectively, Niederreiter casts a much more imposing figure at 6'2" and 211 pounds, with a physical style to match.
“He’s really hard to knock off the puck when he’s playing a heavy, determined game down below the goal line,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher says. “He’s got a great shot, great release. The key for him is moving his feet and getting burst on pucks, because he’s a big body. He’s hard for defensemen to handle when he gets position on them and gets his feet moving.” To wit, only trade deadline acquisition Martin Hanzal has posted a better on-ice shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 for Minnesota than Niederreiter’s 55.41%, according to corsica.hockey.
“That’s what Swiss hockey is missing,” Streit says. “You only have a handful of Swiss guys who have that game in them. He’s great protecting the puck. He’s tough to move in front. He has a great hand-eye coordination. Just finding rebounds and getting sticks on pucks, it’s really unlike Swiss. We need more young guys that play that game. He should be an idol for Swiss hockey, for sure.” Andre Rufener, Niederreiter’s Swiss-based agent, believes his client is already there: “He's the poster boy for the tall and the strong."
Picked fifth in 2010 by the New York Islanders, Niederreiter endured a miserable rookie season in which he averaged a shade over 10 minutes and notched just one point in 55 games. Upon requesting a trade, Niederreiter eventually moved to Minnesota at the 2013 NHL draft in exchange for hit-happy forward Cal Clutterback and a third-round pick (American goalie Eamon McAdam, who spent this season in the AHL and ECHL). He tends to strike in bunches for the Wild—a 16-game drought spanning most of March dovetailed into five goals over his final six games before the playoffs—but Niederreiter’s overall numbers have steadily improved; his 32 assists and 57 points also set new career bests by nine and 14, respectively.
“As long as you win as a team, you can put your slump aside,” he says. “But if the team has a slump and you have a slump, that’s where it gets frustrating and you can feel your frustrating building, it eats yourself up. That’s the tough part. I get pissed off at myself if I don’t do things which I know I should do or be capable of doing, or just get mad at myself. I wouldn’t say I’m very loud. I’m boiling [inside].”
Off the ice Niederreiter keeps a comparatively quiet life, annual aerobatic stunts aside. Asked how he disengages from work, he replies, “I’ll go on a walk once in awhile. I try not to think about hockey.” His ideal off-day, he says, involves mini-golfing with friends at the Mall of America. "He’s not a messy guy at all," says the 39-year-old Streit, who hosted Niederreiter at his house when the two played together for the Islanders. "Keeps his stuff clean. He’s the dream of...how do you say...the dream of a mother-in-law? He’s a really good kid.”
But he also maintains a reliably goofy streak. Before a recent Wild game at Xcel Energy Center, he and fellow winger Erik Haula teamed up for a game of soccer-tennis against two teammates. When one particularly ineffective serve fluttered over their makeshift net—two crowd barriers pushed together—Niederreiter swiftly headed the ball down without letting it bounce. GET THAT WEAK STUFF OUTTA HERE!
“Is that legal?” one of their opponents hollered.
“Why not?” Niederreiter shot back.
“I don’t know,” Haula replied, “but Nino just made it legal.”
Which is to say that, sometimes, Niederreiter simply flies by the seat of his pants. “It's not my most preferable day of the year,” Rufener says of the Transatlantic Flyers Club’s gatherings, laughing. “I'm not so happy about him doing that. He tells me, don't worry, it's all safe and stuff. But once a year, I'm always happy when this day is over.” Last summer was tamer than usual, just some appearances and signings and such. “At the end of the day, I want to be cautious,” Niederreiter says. “I don’t want to go crazy.” For instance, no bungee jumping. “I wouldn’t do that. Don’t ask me why. I’m scared the rope would snap or whatever. I would never do that.”
The upcoming summer agenda remains undecided. But there's more pressing business at hand anyway. After setting a franchise record with 49 wins and nabbing the second seed in the Central Division, Minnesota opens its first round this Wednesday at home vs. St. Louis, against whom Niederreiter had five points in five games this season. The pending restricted free agent is also due a new contract, too. Rufener says he’s spoken several times with Fletcher throughout the season, sometimes in person, but predicted an extension wouldn’t finish before the NHL draft in late June. “Sometime after that,” he says. “But I don't think too we go into September with this this time. I think somewhere between after the draft and probably middle of free agency, end of July at the latest.”
Just in time for some midair celebration.