New Jersey Devils forward Damien Brunner is in his sophomore year in the NHL. He’s gone from playing in Switzerland to the Detroit Red Wings to the New Jersey Devils to Sochi.
Before the 27-year old right winger made it in the NHL, he played for EV Zug in Zug, Switzerland. This small town just half an hour outside of Zurich is bustling with avid and dedicated hockey fans. While soccer is the main favorite sport in Switzerland, hockey is a close second.
Zug’s streets are lined with luxury car dealerships, yet hardly anyone drives around town, even though gas is so much cheaper there than in the United States. Hundreds of bikes are piled up at the train station as residents commute to the city to work. Of course, thanks to the limited pollution in Switzerland, you’ll find some of the best air quality you’ll ever find in the world. In other words, take a lot of big, deep breaths. The oxygen here is the best around.
BMW sponsors EV Zug. Their banners fly all around the arena.
Players can be seen before the game playing soccer outside. They’re surrounded by a fence, but fans can watch the pre-game warm-up through the glass inside the arena.
EV Zug is where I discovered some of the most amazing (and loudest) fans in hockeydom. If you can imagine the intensity of the fans during a European soccer game, you can picture hockey at EV Zug’s arena.
The arena is much smaller than a NHL arena, so their cheers are amplified to deafening levels. Fans pay just to stand in a ‘standing only’ section behind the goalies. There are no seats behind the goalies. There’s only standing room and it is jam packed with fans.
This place…this is where I first encountered Damien Brunner. In 2011, the year before Brunner signed with the Detroit Red Wings, I was asked to cover the New York Rangers alongside the team and the NHL as the team made their way across Europe. One of the many stops in Europe was Zug…and Zug did the unexpected. They annihilated the Rangers 8-4.
“Ah…we beat them!” Brunner said laughing as we went down memory lane. “We killed them.”
“It’s fun. The fans love it,” he said of hockey. “Right after soccer, it’s the second biggest sport. It’s nice to play there. It’s a small country. You have short travels. It’s a great league, a fast league. Probably after the NHL/KHL, we are right up there. There are a lot of good players coming out of there.”
“In Zug, where you saw us play, we probably had like a thousand people too much in the arena and they were all excited the Rangers were there. We have some arenas that on a nightly basis they are really loud. Zug is actually not known for the loudest crowd.”
But the intensity of the fans is just as energy filled as that night against the Rangers.
“They’re singing throughout the whole game. The volume was more up there with the Rangers.”
Brunner scored the seventh goal for Zug at 4:01 in the third period of that game. That season he went on to record 24 goals and 36 assists for 60 points along with a +17 in 45 games.
Going across the pond to the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings wasn’t as easy for him in production as it was in Switzerland. Regardless, post-lockout, this rookie recorded 26 points (12g, 14a) in 44 regular season games followed by (5g, 4a) in the post-season. He finished fifth in scoring on the Red Wings, just three spots behind his former (lockout) Zug teammate, Henrik Zetterberg
Now, he’s signed with the New Jersey Devils after successfully completing a tryout with the team back in September. His numbers are not like his rookie year. He’s only tallied 17 points (9g, 8a) in 41 games. He’s the only Swiss player on the team, just like he was in Detroit. The only difference was that he had an old Zug teammate on the Red Wings.
He’s come a long way since dominating in Zug. He made it into the NHL after that season where he helped his team pulverize the Rangers. Now, he’s on the Swiss National team in his NHL sophomore year. He is one of 11 active NHL players from Switzerland, nine of which were selected for the Olympic team.
“It’s exciting,” Brunner said when he was selected to the Olympic squad. “It’s going to be my first Olympics. I was pretty close to last time in 2010. I progressed for the last four years, [and now] I got the opportunity to play.”
Going into the Olympics, what countries did he see as the top threat to Switzerland?
“Top favorite is Canada,” he said. “For us, they put us in a good spot for the group. We have Latvia our first game, a must win for us. We come in as a second place team from last world championship, so that’s a must win for us. Then we play Sweden, probably the best team in our group. Then the Czechs…I’m going to be playing three of my teammates here.”
Was he looking forward to playing against his Devils Czech teammates Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Marek Zidlicky?
“Yeah, I’m really excited about it,” he responded laughing. “We were joking about it a little bit. It’s going to be a big game. Like I said, there are a lot we have to win and the other two we want to steal points, play our best games. [The Czechs] know we’re a team they have to take serious and we’re going to see how we can do that.”
Going into the Olympics, many players have been known in the past to take national pride over the fact that they have to return to the NHL to play alongside many of their opponents. Some players have purposely injured other NHLers, even if it is their own teammate back in North America. Is this something they worry about?
“Of course,” he responded. “The guys take a lot of pride in it. If Canada doesn’t win gold, it’s a big disappointment and then you’ve got the Americans here in the final and they want to win too. And then you have Russia going to try and strike back. I mean, everyone is excited about the hockey tournament over there. Then it’s just Sweden/Finland. That’s going to be a big tournament. Everyone wants to win. I don’t think they hold back.”
Before going to Sochi, the news was flooded with ongoing problems in Sochi. Was this something he worried about?
“It’s in the media everyday,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any concern.”
Brunner’s parents made the trip to Sochi despite the security issues the media raised prior to the games that had many Olympians decide to keep their families at home.
As Brunner predicted, Canada and America would make it to the semi-finals, along with Sweden and Finland. Finland beat Russia in the quarterfinals 3-1.
As far as those important games Brunner discussed prior to the Olympics, Switzerland scored with 7.9 seconds left in the opener against Latvia in the 1-0 win. In the next game, Sweden beat them 1-0. The next day, the Swiss beat
the Czech Republic 1-0, taking second place in Group C. After two days of rest, Switzerland faced Latvia again and were eliminated 3-1, advancing the Latvians to the quarterfinals where they lost 2-1 to Canada. Canada, USA, Sweden and Finland have all advanced to the semi-finals.