What do basketball legend Michael Jordan, hip-hop artist Method Man, and Minnesota Wild centre Wes Walz have in common? Not much, except for the fact that they have a big fan in Team Switzerland centre Janick Steinmann.
This self-proclaimed freestyle rapper enjoys playing hoops and listening to music in his spare time, but perhaps no one has had a bigger impact on this 18-year-old than Walz, whose career highlights include a World Junior gold with Team Canada and a 140-point campaign with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes in 1990.
When Walz played from 19 with Zug, Steinmann’s home team in Switzerland, it was an awe-inspiring experience. Steinmann is full of praise for the feisty NHL veteran.
“He’s amazing,” said a smiling Steinmann after his team practiced Thursday at the PNE Agrodome. “Just the way he skates so fast and the way he plays is unreal to me.”
Walz aside, it’s been an unreal year for Steinmann. Not only is the Swiss centre playing for his nation at the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver this season, but he has also moved thousands of kilometres away from home to suit up for the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers.
Zug signed lots of veterans in the summer, and that didn’t give the young forward much chance to play in the Swiss League this season. So he approached his agent, Craig Oster of Newport Sports Management, and asked what he should do. Oster had one word: “Canada.”
“There is quite a big difference between Swiss hockey and the WHL,” said Steinmann. “It’s pretty good here for me. It’s a hard game with good players, and every game is an exciting game. Lots of people come to watch the game, and you just want to play and want to win.”
Here in Vancouver, this might be Steinmann’s first opportunity to play at the World Juniors, but it isn’t the first time he’s been named to Switzerland’s U-20 team. Last year Steinmann was unable to play in Grand Forks, North Dakota because of a concussion he suffered just before the tournament. But at least Steinmann had prior international experience, having captained Switzerland’s U-18 team in 2004.
The speedy centre is the type of player who doesn’t give up. For him it’s the full 60minutes, and if need be, a little more.
The Red Line Report, an independent scouting review which ranks all draft-eligible players, describes Steinmann as a “passionate player…determined, with good skills.”
Which begs the question: why wasn’t he taken in last year’s NHL Entry Draft? No NHL team picked him up, even though he was ranked #50 among available European skaters.
That would have destroyed the confidence of many athletes, but not Steinmann. The Baar native has decided to pursue his professional dream and turn the heads of scouts this year with his performance on the smaller North American ice surface.
But his decision to come to British Columbia had its consequences. When Steinmann told his parents about his decision to head over to North America, his parents, Romaen and Selwa, were not pleased at first. They told him that maybe it was time to get a real job and quit hockey. Obviously, he didn’t listen.
“My mom is getting used to it and she is very excited about coming over here in January,” said Steinmann.
In 37 games this year, the 6-foot, 193-pound centre has racked up three goals and 11 assists. Those totals, at this point in the season, may seem underwhelming, but it’s not as if it’s every day that a Swiss-trained player ends up playing with Kamloops.
“I’m not happy at all with my season. I have to score more,” said Steinmann. “We’ve had a hard season in Kamloops this season. We win one, lose one. We’re up and down. But if we play good, we can beat every team in the whole league.”
Here in Vancouver, Steinmann’s output has also been pretty low-key, with no points over the Swiss team’s first two games.
Playing on the team’s third line and penalty killing unit, it is obvious he’s here to fill a defensive role and chip in where he can offensively.
Still, that’s not what he wants to hear.
“It’s hard for [Jakob Kolliker],” Steinmann said. “Our team has played lots of tournaments and I never played with the team. They had practiced the power play without me so when I came here they already had two power play lines. It’s hard for me to get in there.”
Half-jokingly, Steinmann added: “Maybe I will talk to the coach and see if I can get out there on the power play!”
But he played the checking role pretty well against Canada in their Round Robin encounter. And that wasn’t an easy task, given how intense things can be playing when against the host team and in front of a hostile crowd. Switzerland lost 4-3 Wednesday to Canada, but by no means does Steinmann consider that a failure.
“It was sweet. For me it was a big challenge. I was just happy that we played so good. Every time you can keep things close with Canada it’s good. We could have beaten them if we had a bit more luck.”
The Blazers forward is adamant that finishing lower than sixth-place would be a failure for the Swiss. And after the way they played Canada Wednesday night, maybe he’s right.
Steinmann’s team must still face the USA on Friday and will have to find a way to shut down the highest-scoring team in Group. It looks as if Steinmann will play a big role again. For a man who has traveled such a long road to get here, that should be eminently doable.