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Swiss League battles with import rules as domestic salaries skyrocket

Some decision-makers in Swiss League want more imports, but the proposition has a downside

All is not well in Switzerland, and the problem is one that has been building for years: salaries for Swiss players in the country’s top league, the NLA, are much higher than the market would ordinarily dictate. The culprit? Supply and demand: not enough top-end Swiss players to fill out the NLA’s 12 franchises.

One solution that is seriously being lobbied is an increase in the number of import players allowed on a team. Currently, that number is four, but some teams would like to see it increased to six. “We just spend too much on salaries,” said Sacha Weibel, CEO of Lausanne HC. “We can’t go with a salary cap because of relegation, so we have to save teams from themselves. We want to give teams more options.”

Swiss hockey has been growing in leaps and bounds recently. When the New Jersey Devils drafted Nico Hischier first overall in 2017, it represented the first time a Swiss player had gone No. 1, but that success is a double-edged sword: Hischier’s final development came in the QMJHL with Halifax, and every year up to a dozen youngsters leave for North America. Not only that, but 15 Swiss players suited up for at least one NHL game last season. The talent drain is tough for the NLA to keep up with. “We are 12 teams in the top league and another one in North America,” said Marc Luthi, CEO of SC Bern. “I’m convinced we do not have enough Swiss players for the clubs. If we increase the number of imports, then we have a chance to find more players on the world market.”

Top-end Swiss players can make their money in the NHL or NLA, but in recent years Swiss teams have found themselves paying as much as $300,000 (U.S.) for bottom-end local talent (a top player can make around $600,000). While internal budgets in Switzerland vary greatly, it’s becoming too much for franchises that also place a high priority on client services, player development and infrastructure. “I’d rather save 30 percent on salaries,” Weibel said, “and then build two ice rinks in town.”

Switzerland’s national team has seen great highs and lows in recent years, from silver at the most recent World Championship to missing the quarterfinal bracket altogether at the 2014 Olympics. When things are bad, it’s because the power play is weak and the team doesn’t have enough depth at center or in net. Some argue an extra 24 NLA imports won’t help those issues. “If we change something, it won’t get better,” said Raeto Raffainer, GM of Switzerland’s national teams. “It will take away jobs at center and goalie and for sure power-play time for Swiss players. I understand the economic side of it, they’re trying to find a solution. From the sport side? It’s the million-dollar question.”

There is also the matter of competitive imbalance, though it is basically assumed by those in the league that the best imports will still go to a handful of top teams. Increasing the amount just means other GMs can find the hidden gems.

Luckily, finding players who are interested in the NLA isn’t hard: playing in Switzerland is very appealing. “That’s the first country they want to go to,” said agent Allain Roy. “Outside of the KHL, because of the money, Switzerland is the best league to play in. You sleep in your own bed every night, the travel is easy, and the money is good. It’s a great opportunity.”

Roy, whose NHL clients include Hischier, Ben Bishop and Jake Allen, said he’s “torn down the middle” on the import issue, since he represents NLA locals such as Gaetan Haas and Noah Rod but also successful imports such as Mark Arcobello and other clients who may want to go over and live that sweet Swiss hockey life. Roy noted that the NHL youth movement has pushed out some of those guys who used to get bottom-six roles there. Now players like Arcobello or Andrew Ebbett, both of whom play for SC Bern, are stars making decent money and getting lots of ice time.

Luthi doesn’t think an import increase will happen this year, but he does believe it will pass eventually. Another solution would be to relegate two franchises to the second tier and return the NLA to 10 teams, which was the standard as recently as 1999-2000. But that, Luthi points out, would be even less palatable to the smaller franchises.

This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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