Switzerland is still far from being a traditional hockey country, with soccer still the number one sport in that little landlocked country. However, the conditions for playing hockey over there are just perfect. Not only does the majority of Switzerland lie in an alpine environment, but its perfectly driven economics with loads of world-reknowned banks insure that everyone is wealthy and happy. At least, that's what Switzerland looks like from the outside.
And now, Switzerland and especially its hockey fans have one more reason for happiness. With hockey's growing popularity in Switzerland and some of their players now heading overseas to play in the NHL, the defense is what Swiss players are specialized at. And after the likes of Mark Streit, Luca Sbisa or Raphael Diaz, all-around 16-year-old blueliner Phil Baltisberger is making his way through youth hockey leagues towards the big leagues. Obivously, playing at the pro level at 15 and at the U-20 WJC just weeks later is an impressive start.
Hockey's Future recently caught up with Baltisberger at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Tournament for this Q&A interview.
Hockey's Future: What does it feel like, taking part at such a prestigeous tourney?
Phil Baltisberger: It's a good feeling because I can play against the best teams and best players of the world and it's also a great experience for me.
HF: Can you describe your playing style?
PB: I think I play a smart defensive game and I can switch to the offense, where I think my hard shot can be useful. I think I'm good especially at my own end.
HF: Pick a NHL player you would compare yourself to.
PB: That's a difficult question. I like the way Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs plays, he's very physical and plays the hard defensive style of hockey. On the other hand, I also like Nicklas Lidström, who is one of my most favorite players. I think I'm actually something between these two.
HF: What's the thing you need to improve the most in your opinion?
PB: My skating isn't the best, so I've got to work on it. This year, I attended a power skating camp, where they taught me what to do at every practice to get faster.
HF: Your debut among pros came when you were just fifteen years of age. What was the feeling playing with and against adult hockey players?
PB: It felt great and it was a good experience, too. However, the last season was tough for me. I was very young, but in Switzerland, it's actually pretty ordinary that players play their first professional games at a very small age.
HF: Tell me about your experience from the U-20 World Junior Championship where you played also as a fifteen-year old.
PB: The championship was a great experience for me, but also seeing such a big city and so many fans watching our games, was amazing. In Switzerland, I play in front of two or three thousand people. Then I came to Calgary and there were eighteen thousand spectators, so that was just amazing. Also, the games with Canada, Russia and Sweden were very fast and I got to play against the best junior players of the world.
HF: Last year, you played in a lower league for the farm team of the ZSC Lions. Are you expecting a move to the first team before the new season starts?
PB: I don't know what to expect. There's ten of us in the defense and right now, I'm on the roster. My goal is to make the team and play in the Nationalliga A. Last week, I attended the training camp and after we're finished here, I'm going back to Zürich, where I'll work hard.
HF: I can imagine that media in Switzerland do not really pressure you, do they?
PB: I don't think they do because hockey isn't the number one sport in my country (soccer is). Anyway, media doesn't mean pressure to me. It's a part of the game and hockey player's lives.
HF: And what about the scouts here at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament?
PB: They don't pressure me. For me, hockey is fun, it's just a game and my passion, so I enjoy playing here.
HF: What would you do if you received an offer from a major junior league team in Canada?
PB: Last year, some teams showed interest, but now I can finish my school in Switzerland next year. My draft year is 2014 so maybe next year, after school, I could go to Canada. However, I don't know what the situation in my country will be. If I get a lot of ice time and play powerplays in the Nationalliga A, I would consider staying, since it's a really good league. On the other hand, choosing between the lower Nationalliga B and the Canadian Hockey League, where I could play with the best players of my age category, makes me undecided.
HF: Your older brother Chris already plays in the Nationalliga A. How much of a help is his presence to you?
PB: He's a great person and he helps me every day. I can ask him anything and he tells me all about life as a hockey player. We're really good friends and in summer, we practice together. That makes it a lot easier to work hard, because his presence pushes me towards bigger performances and to get better every day.
HF: Being a captain of your national team means a lot of responsibility. Do you feel better with it or not?
PB: I feel like I'm just an ordinary player of my team, which has a good spirit. I'm just a captain and the whole team is important, so I play for the team in any situation.
HF: With the threat of the NHL lockout, some NHL players, like Rick Nash and Joe Thornton, were marked as those who could possibly go to play in the Nationalliga A in the next season. What would that mean to you?
PB: Lockout might not be good for the National Hockey League, but it's possibly good for Swiss ice hockey. It's good that quality players come to Switzerland and the media see that the Nationalliga A is a good league. Playing against a forward like Joe Thornton would be really special.