The KHL World Games continue on Monday with our first ever regular season game in Zurich, Switzerland. Dinamo Riga will take on SKA St. Petersburg that evening and the Latvians will be back two days later to face CSKA Moscow. Ahead of the big games, KHL.ru caught up with Martin Gerber, the first Swiss player to feature in the league.
Even in the Superleague era there were Swiss players in Russia, although they didn’t always stay very long. In the final season before the KHL was formed, current Team Switzerland head coach Patrick Fischer came to SKA but only played five games. Goalie Paolo Della Bella had a more successful time at Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2000-01 and the 2009-10 season saw Gerber, another Swiss netminder arrive at Atlant Mytishchi. Now he’s looking forward to catching up with the KHL closer to home.
“Excited isn’t quite the right word for me ahead of the KHL World Games,” Gerber said. “I’m definitely curious to see how the game has developed in the KHL since I left the league. It’s interesting to see the work that is going into it. In the KHL, the game is faster and in Switzerland we don’t have so many chances to see that. Of course, we have seen Russian teams at the Spengler Cup but it’s a different story when it’s a league game.”
Gerber arrived at Atlant as Switzerland’s number one goalie. A couple of years earlier he had won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and he was a regular on the Swiss national team, playing in two Olympics and eight World Championships during his career. He arrived in Russia after three seasons with the Ottawa Senators and a brief spell at the Maple Leafs.
“It was all very different after North America,” he said. “I was used to big traffic jams in Los Angeles, but Moscow is on a whole other level. You never know if it will take you 30 minutes or 3 hours to do your things. Our first child was born in Moscow so my wife had a private driver. That helped us a lot.”
When Gerber came to Atlant, he met a forward called Sergei Mozyakin. At that time, the KHL legend was just starting on his journey into the record books but he made an impression on the Swiss goalie.
“Sergei wasn't that noticeable at first. But he always scored,” Gerber recalled. “Every time the puck found the net. It was really impressive to see what he could do with his stick. When it came to putting the puck in the net I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with the same hockey sense.”
At that time, Vityaz Chekhov was a major rival for Atlant. The two Moscow Region teams enjoyed some fiery clashes and the enforcers on the Vityaz roster relished getting stuck into their near neighbors. For Gerber, that resulted in a suspension when the teams first met and a spinal injury in their second encounter.
“Of course we knew which teams played tough and we watched out for them,” he said. “But in that game, it was a normal net drive and it just turned out bad. That was my first major injury. Before I was lucky.
“Those first few days in the hospital in Chekhov were tough: I didn't understand anything and nobody could tell me what's going on. Atlant brought me to a sports clinic in Moscow and I got great treatment there. Everything was well done and it helped me a lot to recover. If it wasn’t for the injury, I'm sure I would have stayed longer in the KHL. But it turned out that there was the injury, then the offer from Edmonton, so we packed our bags earlier than planned.”
Since Gerber, there has only been one Swiss KHLer. Goran Bezina, a Croatian-born dual-national, played for Medvescak Zagreb. Given Switzerland’s passion for hockey, and the number of Russian players who graced the Swiss leagues, it might be a surprise that so few players have swapped the Alps for the KHL.
“It's a huge adjustment from life in Switzerland compared to Russia. Everything is different and depending on where you play, it might be difficult to settle into your new city. And then there are restrictions on the number of foreign players on each team and that makes it even more difficult for Swiss players,” Gerber reflected.
“The Czechs and the Finns often play on a team with two or three of their compatriots. That really helps because there is someone around who speaks your language and shares your cultural background.”
The KHL has earmarked Switzerland as a key market to promote the league and may, in the future, even look to establish a team there.
“If they get the marketing right, that could be a good thing, something interesting for Swiss hockey fans,” Gerber said. “Russia has so many great players who are not known at all in Switzerland. Of course, there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention, but with the right promotion this could really work in Switzerland.”
Gerber retired from playing in 2017 and started his coaching career back at his home-town club in Langnau. It’s a new challenge, but one he’s enjoying.
“It is really interesting to see the game more from a skater’s perspective,” he said. “After so many years as a goalie, I like it a lot. Every day I learn a lot. So much has changed since I was a junior. I help the head coach as much as I can. I watch the players and try to give them the benefit of my long experience as a player. Some of the younger age groups don’t remember where I played and what I achieved, so I can see how there really is a new generation stepping onto the ice.”