SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Jonas Hiller was 18, he went undrafted and unnoticed by the NHL. Four years later in 2004, he still was an unknown backup goalie in his native Switzerland when Joe Thornton became his teammate.
Hiller’s life changed forever that winter, although Thornton can’t claim all the credit.
“He would ask me questions about the NHL, but he had a goal to play over here, and he stuck to it,” Thornton said. “He had seen (Swiss goalies) David Aebischer and Martin Gerber do it, and I think he wanted to play in the best league. I knew he could do it.”
Brought together by the NHL lockout, the quiet Swiss goalie and his boisterous Canadian buddy formed a friendship while playing for HC Davos in the Swiss A-League. They’ve spent a month of every summer since then working out at the same rink in Switzerland, near where Thornton keeps an apartment for himself and his Swiss fiancee, Tabea Pfendsack.
They’re together again in the first round of the NHL playoffs, and Hiller is again showing his ability to seize an opportunity.
After improbably taking Anaheim’s starting job away from Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks’ playoff MVP in 2003 and Stanley Cup-winning goalie four years later, Hiller posted a 2-0 win over the San Jose Sharks in his playoff debut Thursday, staking the eighth-seeded Ducks to an early first-round lead.
“It was always a dream, to play in the best league in the world,” Hiller said Friday after the Ducks’ jovial skate at the Shark Tank. “But it just seemed too far away before that year.”
The NHL lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season, but it changed everything for Hiller. First, Davos traded away its veteran goalie to save money, handing the job to Hiller. He then got three new teammates: Thornton, Columbus star Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman.
Davos finished with the A-League’s second-best record, and Hiller suddenly had every NHL scout’s attention.
“That was the first time people were watching me and making me think I could play here,” Hiller said. “That year was the first year I recognized it would even be possible to play over here. I was never drafted, and nobody from the NHL would talk to me before that year.”
Although everybody soon became fast friends and teammates, Hiller remembers the odd feeling when Thornton, Nash or Hagman walked into Davos’ dressing room for the first time.
“Until then, you’d just seen them on TV,” Hiller said. “At first, you thought they were going to be probably a little arrogant, but they were great guys who fit perfectly in our dressing room.”
Hiller, Thornton, Nash and the rest of that multinational team lived it up in Davos, a picturesque village of about 10,000 people in the Swiss Alps southeast of Zurich. Hiller recalls innumerable nights eating in Italian restaurants and hitting the ski-town party circuit, yet HC Davos still won the league championship.
“We spent the whole winter together,” Thornton said. “He’s a really smart kid. He kind of came out of nowhere, but he blossomed into a great goalie. He got our respect. I already knew he could be successful (in the NHL).”
The Ducks also knew it, showing their faith in him last season by waiving valuable veteran Ilya Bryzgalov just to clear a spot for Hiller as Giguere’s backup. Hiller gradually slipped past the inconsistent Giguere in the second half of this season, starting 13 of the last 15 games while the Ducks squeezed into the last post-season berth.
Hiller has won his teammates’ respect with consistency and resiliency. Still, Hiller didn’t know he would start in the post-season until coach Randy Carlyle let him know at the team dinner on the night before Game 1 in San Jose.
“We’ve got a not-too-bad backup over there right now, so we’re sitting pretty good on goaltending,” said centre Ryan Getzlaf, who had a goal and an assist in the third period of Game 1. “We’ve got all kinds of confidence in Hillsy. There’s no doubt he can take us as far as we can go.”