Mark Streit started his overseas career in Montreal

By Martin Tomaides

Source: Flashscore.com

Before the current generation of Swiss hockey players emerged in the NHL, Mark Streit (46) was one of the few who proudly represented the Alpine country in the best league in the world.

The former New York Islanders captain and 2017 Stanley Cup winner with PittsburghStreit was in Prague during the IIHF World Championship to show off the latest edition of the watch company he co-founded, Norqain.

In this exclusive interview with Flashscore, he talks about the ongoing tournament, the thirteen World Championships he played in during his career and, of course, his rich career in the NHL.

Tell me, is it a coincidence that you found yourself in Prague promoting the Norqain brand at the exact moment of the IIHF World Championship or was that planned?

“Actually, it’s half and half. The CEO of the company, Ben Küffer, came to us with the idea that we were going to have a company event at the Koscom store in Prague in May, so I immediately thought it was the perfect date.”

And how did you enjoy Switzerland‘s win over Finland in the group stage?

“It was no big deal for Finland, but the atmosphere in the arena was still great. I love Prague, I played here at the championships in 2004 and 2015 and when I connect it to all the championships I’ve been to, Prague is the top for me in terms of the city, the fans, the hotels or the infrastructure.

“Although playing at home in Switzerland was of course great too.”

What made the tournament so special for you?

“People love hockey here, the stadiums are always full, the people are friendly, there is beer drinking, singing and cheering everywhere. Plus, it’s beautiful here. There are lots of interesting things to do in the city on your days off.

“That’s why I convinced Ben that we should come during the tournament and experience it all again.”

The Swiss have advanced to the final four at the tournament

So you only caught one game live, but I assume you watched the tournament before that?

“I didn’t miss the Swiss matches on TV, and I still know a lot of the players and am in contact with them. I texted Nino Niederreiter and goalkeeper Leonardo Genoni after the game, that’s all I could do. They had to quickly head to Ostrava for their quarter-final against Germany.”

‘The best team we’ve ever had’

Switzerland have a really strong squad at the current tournament, led by defender Roman Josi and forward Kevin Fiala. How do you evaluate the tournament from a Swiss point of view?

“It’s probably the best team we’ve ever had at the World Championship. It’s great that all the NHL players were able to come, the only one missing from the stars is actually the injured Timo Meier.

“For me, it is very important to have experienced players in the team, because in key games patience, calmness and the aforementioned experience are irreplaceable.”

If you have to single out one Swiss player, who do you like the most?

“Roman Josi is without a doubt one of the best defenders of today. He regularly plays 82 games in the NHL, averages 24 minutes on the ice, struggles in the playoffs and then comes to represent anyway, even though he’s definitely banged up from the season.

“I really appreciate this dedication, Switzerland need him and he’s playing great. I met Roman at the championship in 2009, we started training together over the summer and became good friends. We even attended each other’s wedding. He is an excellent hockey player.”

Josi is now 33 years old but the Swiss have a younger generation, such as 2017 No. 1 draft pick Nico Hischier.

“He’s excellent, of course, and I also expect a lot from Lian Bichsel, the 20-year-old defenseman drafted in the first round by Dallas two years ago, but otherwise I’m not so optimistic. We need more young and skilled players, right now I don’t quite see us producing another first-round draft pick.”

Streit was captain of the NY Islanders for two seasons

On the other hand, ten Swiss have played in the NHL this season, nine of whom have key positions in their clubs. Slowly that number is going up. Do you know how many Swiss were in the competition when you started there in 2005/06?

“There were goalkeepers David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, and I think… Timo Helbling?”

That’s right. I must say, especially with the last name, you surprised me. However, the difference in quantity and especially in the roles on the ice is noticeable these days.

“The truth is that when I started in the NHL, I was one of a few. Now it’s easier, it’s known that Swiss hockey players can be good and they can be winners. They are personalities.

“When I established myself overseas and came to the World Championships in May, the pressure was really high. Everyone looked at me then as someone who had done something. And they thought that my arrival automatically meant a medal. Which was also hard for me, I was putting a lot more on my shoulders than I should have. And of course, the media didn’t help either, but this is a team sport, one or two players mean absolutely nothing.”

‘I’m worried about the future of Swiss hockey’

You had thirteen seasons in the NHL. You started at the famous Montreal, you became the first-ever Swiss captain at the NY Islanders and you broke the forty-point mark six times in a season. Do you feel like you’re the man who opened the door for other players from your country in the league?

“We already had a lot of very good hockey players before me, but the NHL was kind of far away. And we had it set in our heads that it was very hard to break in – a lot of games, a lot of travel, competition from the best players in the world.

“We had a number of good players who tried but came back home again without success. Then I broke through that thinking and got a solid position on the roster. Until then, only the goalkeepers had actually made it, but not the field players. But I think that helped a lot of the others, they saw that if I could do it, they could do it.”

And thanks to you, there are a lot of quality compatriots in the competition.

“But in my opinion, there should be a lot more. We have some star players in their ideal years and then there is a big gap. There’s a lack of lower-tier hockey players like Pius Suter in Vancouver.

“It makes me wonder what our national team will look like in, say, ten years. We need more competition from our own players in the Swiss league, right now every team is allowed to have six foreigners on the roster, that seems like a lot to me. And I’m not even talking about the second-highest league, which has many problems of its own since the days of COVID.

“This competition is important for young players between 16 and 17 years old. That’s where they should learn, so that’s why I’m a bit worried about the future of Swiss hockey. Besides, the Swiss league is attractive and the quality of life in the country is high, I understand that sometimes players don’t want to leave.”

Let’s go back to the NHL, you played 786 games in the league between 2005 and 2017 and scored 434 points. What’s the memory that ranks highest for you?

“The fact that I played for Pittsburgh at the end of my career and was part of the Stanley Cup-winning campaign was amazing. Sharing the locker room with (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Kris) Letang and (Marc-Andre) Fleury was great, you just needed a few moments in the locker room and you could immediately feel why you were there to win. Pittsburgh is a top-notch organization.”

Streit brought the Stanley Cup to Bern

What was it like to hoist the Stanley Cup over your head?

“You see very quickly why it’s such a valuable trophy. It’s hugely addictive. But I also have fond memories of my first NHL game because it was always a dream to play there.

“I made my debut in Toronto as a player from rivals Montreal and I was so nervous I almost couldn’t play. To have that jersey with my name on it was unreal. Hockey is like a religion in Montreal.

“I also really appreciated the opportunity to be captain of the New York Islanders and play in the 2009 All-Star Game.”

But the Cup is just a Cup?

“That moment when you win it and then you have the opportunity to spend one whole day with it, read the names engraved on it… I’ll never forget it.”

What’s Sidney Crosby like?

“He’s an unbelievable fighter and his will to win is contagious. Plus he’s awfully humble and nice – when I was traded from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh he called me right away and welcomed me to the club. He’s also a huge professional and just watching him work hard every day and take care of his nutrition and his own body is great.”

You retired from active hockey seven years ago, how has retirement been?

“I didn’t have anything prepared ahead of time, I wanted to play as long as possible and I didn’t finish my career until I was 39. Shortly before that, I got married for the first time and we started a family. Professionally I tried my hand at being an expert on television, I was also at the hockey association for a while and then it came to setting up Norqain, which I am now involved in. But I’ve stayed with hockey a little bit because I’m on the board of directors of Bern Hockey.”

Do you still go on the ice?

“I used to go with the younger ones, especially the defensemen, and try to pass on something to them, but now it’s more about the watches. However, when you do something for so long, it’s hard to leave it. I miss hockey.

“When I quit I couldn’t watch the NHL at all, it bothered me that I couldn’t still be there. I’m so grateful that I was able to play hockey for so many years and that I had such a successful career. I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought I would, and that makes me very happy. Plus, playing in the NHL is the greatest job in the world.”

But by the watch, it’s good too, right?

“We have a great team in Norqain and many great collaborations, for example with the NHLPA and the Spengler Cup. So I’m still kind of a part of the hockey world, and I’m doing something that’s traditional for our country.”

Finally, let’s quickly get back to the ongoing tournament. Who will dominate it?

“I haven’t really been able to follow Group B that much, but I’ve heard that Sweden are playing unbelievably. On the other hand, it has happened in the past that teams that played great in the group have unexpectedly dropped out in the first battle for everything.

“However, look at how we unexpectedly lost to Germany a year ago, just one game! However, I still believe that Switzerland can make it to the final. And I really liked Canada, they played physically, they went after our best players… Canada definitely has a great chance too.