How dangerous is Bridgeport CT

"I saw how other players squandered all their money"

Nino Niederreiter was the first Swiss striker to establish himself as an NHL leader. The attacker from the Carolina Hurricanes gives an insight into an eventful career.

Kristian Kapp, North Hills

Nino Niederreiter, today you are an established NHL striker. When you were planning your first North American adventure in Portland in the WHL junior league over ten years ago at the age of 16, you had other worries: the English language.

Even then, I knew what I wanted: Going to North America to achieve my goal of playing in the NHL - that was my smallest concern at the time. The greatest were the great distance to Switzerland and to family and indeed the English language. But then I learned it very quickly. I had no other option at all: everyone would talk and explain everything to you in English, at the beginning you would find your way through the “Google Translator” and suddenly you knew the language.

You are still one of the few Swiss people who have experienced the “full program” in North America: two seasons in the best Canadian junior league, one season in the AHL farm team league and, since 2013, in the NHL. The first stop in Portland had little in common with her life today.

You live with a host family, which helps you when you are young. I received no wages, just 180 francs to spend. 80 of them went on the phone each time because it was so expensive back then. That's why my parents transferred some money to me each time.

There were special rules for the juniors: No Facebook friendships with cheerleaders. And the official relationship status always had to be «solo» ...

Yes, women were forbidden. (laughs) You always had to come home alone to the host family. I also lived with another player with a very strict host mother, which was definitely not bad for me at the time ... The Canadian Junior League was a very good experience, I would do it all over again.

After that, before your breakthrough in the NHL, you played a full season in the AHL in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The club advised the players there not to live in the city itself because it was too dangerous. How do you react as a 20-year-old when you hear something like this?

The area was beautiful, only the city itself was considered a criminal. The villages next door where we gamblers lived were completely different.

One often hears the stories of players in their situation at the time. At the beginning of the season, as a young lad, often as a teenager, you are deported to the AHL, where you earn around ten times less - minus taxes, around 50,000 francs a year. You still get the NHL signature bonus of around 100,000 francs at the start of the season and squander this money, for example on a new car, and then get into financial problems. How did that work for you?

I didn't buy a car. I've always been careful with money. Even today. I already afford things, but I never throw the money out the window. My family taught me that money must be hard earned and valued. But I did see such cases. For example, when fellow players lost all their money in the casino or squandered it on expensive cars and houses. Suddenly they realized that life besides ice hockey also costs something. And every now and then they forgot that you will only be paid here until the end of March and only then receive wages again in the new season.

And hardly promoted to the NHL team, there is peer pressure for the young players ...

As an NHL player, you go to the best restaurants and hardly look at the prices. If, as a young player, you then go along with the older ones, you have to be careful to stay true to yourself. Even when you see what the others are ordering. The best thing to do is to gather your little groups together as a young player. Of course, at first you think it's cool to be out and about with the superstars. But you quickly notice that they have more money and are accordingly dealing with it differently. You have to learn that.

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The distances between the 31 NHL teams and their AHL partners

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Your AHL season was very special for various reasons.

Yes, it was 2012/13, so lockout in the NHL. I couldn't go to Switzerland because the New York Islanders wanted me to play in the AHL at Bridgeport. In the end, I had to stay down all year, even after the lockout ended in early 2013. I played a good AHL season, but wasn't allowed to help out in the playoff at the Islanders after that. This is how the whole story of the trade request by my agent began.

The trade with Minnesota did indeed happen. But it was extremely unusual for a 20-year-old to request a transfer. Usually only the stars did that.

That's true. There was a lot of noise in the media. This step was not understood in Switzerland, but partly not here in North America either. That was a very emotional time, luckily with a happy ending.

The pressure on you after moving to Minnesota was immense. You definitely had to perform now.

That was a new start, a change of scenery. That did me incredibly well, I was able to play my game in a new team right from the start. I had a good first season and then a very good second season. From there it went up.

In your debut season with Minnesota, you scored the winning goal in extra time in game 7 in Denver against Colorado. The biggest goal of your career?

I dreamed of this moment when, as a child, I played around with the mini stick in the living room. And then it really happened that way. It was a dream come true.

The most important goal in Nino Niederreiter's career so far: Overtime goal in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche on April 30, 2014. (Video: YouTube)

After spending two years in Minnesota, did you finally feel like an NHL player?

That is a difficult question. Even today, before the season starts, I still have a strange feeling when I go to the training camp. There are so many players waiting to take your place away from you. It's my eighth season in the NHL, and I'm still questioning myself all the time. When I play shit together every now and then, I still often ask myself: "What are you doing in this league?" I'm never really sure whether I'm really "inside". It's a constant mental battle with yourself. Maybe I'm too extreme. But I believe that if you become too sure of yourself, it can suddenly all be over.

Sven Bärtschi, your former Swiss team-mate in Portland, found himself completely surprisingly in the AHL at the start of the season. What was your reaction?

I was shocked. Sven is a very good player with great potential and many skills. That was an eye opener, also for me. It can happen so quickly. That's why I say: You must never be sure, no matter how well you are.

Let's jump into the present and your somewhat special start to the season with the Carolina Hurricanes: The team won the majority, but the first line with you hardly scored, you yourself only scored your first goal in the eleventh game.

That was very special. It was a cramp last season before my first goal was finally scored. That puts a mental strain on you. My line partner Sebastian Aho didn't go as I had hoped either, so we both felt the pressure. Score goals, that's what we are asked to do. The way he cheered after his first goal, you could see the relief really well.

You experienced something much more extreme in your very first full NHL season with the New York Islanders: You were only allowed to play 55 games, and in the end you only had one scorer point on your account. How did your head handle that bear market?

That was by far the most difficult season of my career. I was freshly drafted and the expectations were high. The NHL worked differently back then: Even as a player drafted early in the first round, you had to start in the fourth line and fight your way up. Today, the good young players get a chance earlier in positions in which they can be successful. For me, some things didn't go as I had hoped. There were also two serious injuries, I always lagged behind everything, which was very difficult mentally.

You have been working with your mental trainer Rita Sutter for a long time. Did she play a particularly important role that season?

Yes, there was a phone call or two because it was such a frustrating time. But it was very important to me from the very beginning, we have been working together since 2006. And even if it is becoming increasingly rare, even today there are still phases in which I contact them when I am not moving. Often it takes little things, a word or two, that can change my thinking and make a difference.

Have you already made use of the mental trainer this season?

Yes, before the eleventh game. That was one of those moments: you actually play well, but it's still not enough for the goals to come. You often get frustrated, trying to change things instead of staying true to your game.

Does the mental trainer have to understand something about ice hockey?

It's not necessary, but it helps. At first she had no idea about it, but now she knows the game, including the business. She now also looks after other players.

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This interview is largely an excerpt from the Tamedia podcast “Eisbrecher”. The whole podcast with Nino Niederreiter, in which a former childhood friend and ex-teammate and HCD striker Enzo Corvi also briefly participate, can be heard here:

Are you interested in another podcast episode of “Eisbrecher” from North America? Listen to episode 4 with goalie Gilles Senn, who is currently guarding the goal of the Binghamton Devils in the AHL:

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The Tamedia ice hockey team regularly takes a look behind the scenes at the Eisbrecher in lengthy conversations with personalities from this sport. In doing so, we detach ourselves from the topicality, discuss the topics that really concern them with the conversation partners. The podcast is on too Spotify as well as on Apple Podcast to listen.

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