NHL scouts and teams had their eyes opened when Switzerland tied Russia 4-4 and went on to win a bronze medal at the 1997 European (Under-18) Championship.
The Swiss took a further giant stride forward when they upset the Czech Republic in overtime to win the bronze medal at the 1998 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland.
In 1991, the Swiss Federation instituted a five-step national program, much like Canada's Program of Excellence It starts with an Under-16 team and goes up to Under–20 The result has been a vastly improved performance on the international scene.
The Swiss National Junior Program also benefits from the depth of its ice hockey federation's financial resources. Few countries have as much money to spend on coaching as Switzerland. That has resulted in the introduction of coaches from Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic and a more universal hockey development program.
The Swiss took little time off during the summer, holding their first training camp under Head Coach Jakob Kolliker for the 2002-03 season in Davos, June 25-28. Kolliker, who was a star in the Swiss League and with the Swiss National team for many years, is building his 2003 squad from the goalline out.
Tobias Stephan, a second round draft choice (34th overall) of the Dallas Stars in 2002, will handle goaltending chores for the Swiss. The 6-3, 180-pound netminder, who has very quick reflexes, posted a respectable 2.73 GAA at the World Under-18 Championship.
Stephan is being billed as the best goaltender to come out of Switzerland since David Aebischer, now the backup for the Colorado Avalanche. After transferring from the Chur club to the Kloten Flyers, Stephan will have the benefit of superb coaching from Vladimir Yurzinov, former Head Coach of Russia's Olympic team, as he prepares himself for the NHL.
Defensemen Beat Forster, a fourth round choice (78th overall) of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2001, and Severin Blindenbacher, whose rights also belong to Phoenix, are both back.
Pittsburgh prospect and right winger Patrik Bartschi was third in team scoring last year with two goals and four points in seven games as a 17 year-old.
Centre Emmanuel Peter, selected by the Calgary Flames in the 2002 draft, and winger Raffaele Sannitz, property of the Columbus Blue Jackets, are other Swiss players to watch.
Kevin Romy was Switzerland's best player in the 2002 World Under-18 Championship, finishing with an impressive nine goals and 14 points in eight games at the age of 16. He's certain to go very high in the 2003 NHL entry draft.
Losing to Finland 5-1 in the bronze medal game of the 2002 WJC, Switzerland had 15 players altogether who won a silver medal at the 2001 World Under-18 Championship. Most of them will be in Halifax, and that kind of continuity is a definite advantage.
The Swiss are no longer coming to world junior tournaments just for the experience, they've got medals on the mind.