Streit On Time
Long wait for NHL's call pays off for Swiss star
Thursday, 01.8.2009 / 10:21 AM ET / News
By Jason Lockhart - Website/Publications Coordinator
The December issue of Islanders Illustrated magazine featured Mark Streit on the cover, and chronicled his unlikely journey to the NHL. Please enjoy this look at Streit's road to the top.
For many years, however, it looked as though Streit would never get his shot.
After eight years of anxiously waiting to see if he would be chosen at an NHL Entry Draft, Streit was ready to move on. The nine-year Swiss pro had been overlooked by NHL organizations year after year, and he was ready to face the reality that he would not reach his ultimate destination.
However, Streit’s career took a major turn on June 27th, 2004. At the age of 26 years, six months and 16 days, Streit became one of the oldest players to ever be selected at the Entry Draft. He was chosen in the ninth round––262nd overall––by the Montreal Canadiens.
Streit’s career as a professional hockey player looked promising from the start. Despite not being drafted by an NHL team at 18 or 19––typical draft ages––his offensive style of play as a defenseman was paying dividends. His point totals in the Swiss “A” League increased each year between his first and fourth seasons. Following a career year in 1998-99, during which he recorded seven goals and 18 assists in 44 games, Streit was given an opportunity in North America with a minor league contract.
He began the 1999-2000 season with the Utah Grizzlies of the IHL, but played in only one game before suiting up for Tallahassee of the ECHL. There he skated in 14 contests. The highest level Streit reached that year was the AHL, playing in 43 games for Springfield and totaling 15 points. However, it was a tough year for Streit, who constantly bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL.
“When you’re not in the system of an NHL team and signed only to a minor league contract, as soon as the NHL team sends someone down to the AHL, you’re the one who loses the position and goes to the ECHL,” said Streit. “I had great exposure and there were some great players on Springfield like Danny Briere. But after the year finished, I didn’t get a good opportunity to come back. Obviously I wanted to come back, but no NHL team gave me a two-way contract, so I decided to go back to Europe and make my way back to the NHL that way.”
When Streit returned to the Swiss League, he didn’t just want to be one of the best players, he worked atb being the best offensive defenseman in the league. It was after watching a few NHL players in particular that he chose to adopt his offensive style.
“I’ve always been attracted to the offensive defenseman role,” said Streit. “There’s always been Paul Coffey or Bobby Orr. Those guys were two of my idols. But the biggest was Reijo Ruotsalainen, a Finnish defenseman who played with the Rangers, Devils and Oilers. He also played in my hometown of Bern and was the best to ever play there. Seeing him fly over the ice, making plays, moving the puck and just dominating was exciting. It was always my goal to play like that.”
In his second stint in the Swiss League, Streit’s plan did not work as he had hoped in his first couple of years. In 2000-01, Streit recorded only 16 points and in 2001-02, an injury kept him out 16 of 44 contests. Yet, Streit continued to hone his game and check the NHL.com website each Draft Day, hoping he would land on someone’s list.
“I never went to the draft, even at 18 or 19, but I always checked to see if I was drafted because it was such a big thing,” said Streit. “Every year I used to check it and it was disappointing every year.”
“I knew that was the only way to promote myself a little bit,” said Streit of his Swiss National Team experience. “But it’s tough playing for Switzerland because usually we don’t go to the semis or finals.”
Streit’s personal success on the international scene coupled with his improvement in Switzerland finally caught the eyes of NHL scouts. After taking three years to finally reach the same point totals he had in 1998-99, Streit reached career-highs in 2003-04 with 12 goals and 24 assists in 44 games and was the team’s top defenseman.
“When I returned from North America, Zurich signed me as an import player, so I was given lots of ice time and responsibility,” said Streit. “That was great for me at 22. I played a lot and had a lot of pressure to do well because they signed me to a great deal. Those four years before the lockout I got better.”
Prior to the NHL Lockout, Streit impressed Montreal scouts enough to take a chance on a 26-year-old and use their ninth-round pick on the Swiss defenseman in 2004. It was Streit’s last year of draft eligibility.
“I didn’t even know the draft had taken place,” said Streit. “I woke up on Sunday morning and a journalist from Switzerland called and said, ‘I have good news.’ And he told me I was drafted. I was shocked. I didn’t even know it just happened. It was really exciting and a relief. If I hadn’t been drafted that year, I was ready to go play elsewhere, in perhaps Finland or Sweden.”
Before the new collective bargaining agreement, players were still eligible to be drafted, even at the age of 26. While Streit is one of the oldest players to ever be drafted in the NHL, he is not the oldest. Latvian Helmut Balderis was 36 when he was selected in 1989 by the Minnesota North Stars. In more recent years, players like Marek Zidlicky (24) of Minnesota and the Islanders’ Radek Martinek (23) have also been drafted well past the age of 18 and gone on to have careers in the NHL.
But as thousands of hockey players know, being drafted doesn’t necessarily mean a one-way ticket into the NHL. And to make things more complicated, the NHL Lockout was underway. For Streit—the hard-shooting defenseman—however, the Lockout turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While hundreds of NHL players were out of work, Streit reaped the benefits by having increased competition in Switzerland. Many NHL players chose to play in the Swiss League and Streit thrived against the influx in talent, recording career-highs in goals, assists and points. Even more impressively, he led his Zurich team to the finals, producing a point-per-game in the playoffs.
Streit proved he could compete against some of the best in the world and the Canadiens agreed, signing him to an entry-level contract during the summer of 2005. His perseverance had finally paid off.
For the second straight season, Streit improved his career marks, reaching 14 goals and 29 assists for 43 points. His Zurich squad––which acquired current Islander Andy Sutton and former Islander Randy Robitaille for the season––reached the finals, where they were defeated by Davos, which boasted the likes of Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman.
Streit’s impressive showing in 2004-05 earned him a two-way NHL contract with Montreal, but they assured him that he wouldn’t be sent to the AHL. Montreal held true to their word and kept him on the Opening Day roster. He failed to make the lineup in the first two games, delaying his NHL debut, which ultimately came in Game 3 at rival Toronto.
“It was unbelievable playing for Montreal,” said Streit. “The difference between the Swiss league and the NHL is huge. It was kind of a shock for me when I came over. I got rattled a couple of times and it took me a while to adjust on and off the ice. Starting in Montreal is probably not the easiest place to start. It’s tough and crazy, but also great. You see how much the fans love the Habs. I was pretty nervous my first game, but I got an assist and I played alright.”
Both Streit and the Canadiens took time to grow on each other. Head Coach Guy Carbonneau dressed Streit for only 48 of 82 games in 2005-06, and Streit was not as productive as he had hoped to be, recording two goals and nine assists.
In 2006-07, Streit had his playing time increased and he responded by totaling 10 goals and 26 assists in 76 games. Despite seeing regular ice time, Streit had to make an adjustment. During the season, C
“I said ‘yeah’ even though I had never played forward in my life,” remembered Streit. “But I just wanted to play. It was a chance for me to be in the lineup. I ended up playing all three forward positions––left, right wing and center. For three games I played center. I lost the first six faceoffs I took in the first game. The next game I won three. I just knew if I could play different roles, it would make me valuable for the team. So I tried really hard to play up front and make the transition pretty fast. There were games where I started on the wing, played the power play on the point, played the penalty kill up front and in the last 10 minutes of the game, played as a defenseman. I’ve played every possible position except goalie––not yet at least. It was good and exciting because you have to think out there because you have different roles. But in the end, I’m a heart and soul defenseman.”
Streit’s willingness to be flexible kept him in the Canadiens lineup and in 2007-08, he was rewarded. Playing in 81 games–primarily as a defenseman––he finished with 62 points, which tied him for third among NHL defensemen. His booming shot and pinpoint passing made him extremely effective on the power play, where he compiled seven goals and 27 assists.
“For me it was a process to go from being a consistent player to an impact player,” said Streit. “From the get-go, my goal was to be a good player and one of the better defensemen in the league. It took me a while and Montreal gave me the time. They were pretty patient. Every year was a little bit better and I had more confidence and felt better.”
Streit’s role as an impact player transcended the Canadiens franchise, it was a victory for Switzerland, whose only prominence in the NHL up to that point had rested squarely on the shoulders of goaltenders Martin Gerber and David Aebischer.
Not only did Streit help create a buzz about Switzerland at the NHL level, he was a key factor in two of the biggest upsets in international ice hockey history. During the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the Swiss team, which had only three NHL players––Streit, Aebischer and Gerber––stunned the NHL-filled Czech Republic 3-2 and defending Olympic Gold Medalist Canada 2-0 in the preliminary round. Streit––the team's captain––scored the game-winner against the Czech Republic and assisted on the first goal against Canada.
"I never thought we could do that," admitted Streit. "We had a great team in Turin and I was happy to be a part of it."
Two years later, Streit is still makinga monumental impact on the game. While Streit was not the first Swiss-trained skater in the NHL, he has made the biggest splash.
“I started out as a nobody,” said Streit. “People thought I would be with Montreal for a season and then go back, but I’m still here. Hopefully, young Swiss players will see that if you work hard and get a little lucky, you’ll get your chance. It’s good for Swiss hockey because a lot of young kids see that it doesn’t matter how good you are at 18 or 19. It’s never too late to give up your dreams. There are a lot of young kids starting to come over from Switzerland. Hopefully, in the next five or six years there will be more Swiss NHL players which would be good for Swiss hockey and sports.”
To begin the 2008-09 season, there were five other Swiss playing in the NHL––goaltenders Tobias Stephan (Dallas), Martin Gerber (Ottawa), Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) and defenseman Lucas Sbisa (Philadelphia). A handful of other Swiss players have been drafted since Streit, but none have cracked an NHL lineup and stayed long-term. Streit’s breakthrough has increased the popularity of NHL hockey in Switzerland.
It’s easy to see how popular Streit is in Switzerland by looking at Newyorkislanders.com’s web traffic since Streit’s arrival to Long Island. Despite having players from all over Europe, the Islanders have more fans viewing their website in Switzerland than the next seven highest ranked European countries combined. In fact, only residents from three cities worldwide––New York City (Manhattan), Hicksville and Montreal––visit Newyorkislanders.com more than residents of Zurich.
“There are a lot of fans back home who tell me they get up in the morning and watch my games on the internet,” said Streit. “My dad watches almost every game of mine. It’s good for him, but not so good for my mother because she doesn’t sleep. This summer in particular was crazy because of the free agency. A lot of people back home were really excited this summer.”
The excitement spread to Long Island, when Islanders fans learned that a legitimate power play quarterback was going to be on the team for the next five years. Streit was assured by GM Garth Snow that despite his versatility, he would play solely on defense.
“I really love to play defense and that’s how I can help the team the most,” said Streit. “I’m really excited to be here.”
As excited as he is about taking his next step in the NHL, Streit will always remember his roots. Each summer he goes home and helps out Gerber and Aebischer with their goalie camp. The three of them had the distinction of being part of a historic moment in Swiss hockey history, when they all suited up in the same NHL game on March 16, 2006.
“Hockey is big in Swiss, but soccer is still number one,” admitted Streit. “Hockey is getting bigger and bigger. I do my best to promote hockey everywhere, especially in Switzerland.”
So far this season, Streit has solidified himself as a solid NHL defenseman, has fit right in with the Islanders, and has made a lot of new fans on Long Island.
“It’s been a pleasure for me to play so much and be given a lot of responsibility,” said Streit, referring to his ice time. “It’s been my dream to just play defense, but I didn't expect to play 30 minutes in some games. Since we had some injuries on the back end everybody else has needed to step up. It's great for me to do that. The guys are great and so is the whole organization. Everyone has treated me first class. I'm very happy.”
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