MONTREAL – Big challenges await Mark Streit, both in the NHL and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The 35-year-old Swiss defenceman is playing for a contender for the first time in his NHL career as he begins his four-year US$21-million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.
And then there are the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in February, where expectations are higher for Switzerland after a silver medal performance at the 2013 IIHF world championship in Sweden.
“Right now I’m focused on my work here and on fitting in (with the Flyers), but an Olympic year is special,” Streit said. “It’ll be a lot of travel and extra games, but I did it three times and I’d like to do it a fourth time.”
Streit picked up an assist in his Philadelphia debut on Wednesday, a 3-1 loss to Toronto, and was looking forward to his second outing Saturday night against the Canadiens, the team he began his NHL career with in 2005.
The Bern, Switzerland, native spent three seasons playing both defence and left wing for the Canadiens before signing a five-year contract with the New York Islanders, where he stuck to playing defence on a team full of young prospects.
Now he is part of veteran squad in Philadelphia, where the Flyers hope to at least be a Stanley Cup contender every year.
“That was exactly what I was looking for in my career,” he said. “Long Island was a great experience—a lot of young guys and I made a lot of good friends.
“I was captain there, which was unbelievable. Now I’m with an organization where they want to win right away. They have high expectations. It’s a great sports town. I love it, so I’m really happy with my decision.”
The Flyers took the risk of signing a four-year deal with a 35-year-old player in order to add a second defence pairing with puck-moving ability. The five-foot-11 Streit pairs with physical rearguard Luke Schenn, while Kimmo Timonen is on the top pair with the towering Braydon Coburn.
They have plenty of quality forwards to get the puck to, with Vincent Lecavalier joining the team this season to go along with Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier.
“We have a lot of big bodies back there,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “I really liked (how Streit played) last game.
“He was moving the puck well. His power-play unit did a good job and generated lots of chances. He’s got a lot of poise and patience back there. There were a lot of good things we did, but we need to put it into the win column.”
Streit said it will take time to adapt to the Flyers’ system and to working with Schenn before he is fully comfortable, but he is confident he can contribute.
He doesn’t have as much NHL mileage on his body as most players his age because he was already 27 when he debuted in Montreal. And he hasn’t had a lot of serious injuries, although he had one big when shoulder surgery caused him to miss the entire 2010-11 campaign.
And he’s looking forward to being a Flyer.
“I always liked the organization,” he said. “Every year, from top to bottom, from the owner to the GM, the coach and players, they want to win.
“It’s hard. It doesn’t happen every year. But they try, and that made my decision easier.”
He also hopes to do some winning in Sochi.
Switzerland was a second-tier hockey country when he played preliminary round games at the 2002 Games in Salt lake City, but it took big steps at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy and in 2010 in Vancouver.
At the world championships last spring, the Swiss made it to the final—losing 5-1 to host Sweden—for only the second time, and the first time since 1935.
“If you have a good start and win a few games, you get into a rhythm and things fall into place,” he said. “That’s what happened in Sweden.
“They got the silver and that’s great but we want to move forward. We have more guys in the NHL and the AHL and junior hockey and we want to keep building. Hopefully, more young players come over and try to make it in the NHL. But I think Swiss hockey has come a long way.”
The pioneer Swiss NHLers were goalies like David Aebischer and Martin Gerber. Streit was the first skater to establish himself, but now there are nine, with more on the way.
“One guy needed to break into the league and then other guys realized that we have the skill and, with hard work, you can go a long way,” he said. “It’s a matter of coming over here and trying. A lot of kids are doing that now.
“Back then, I trained on my own in the summer and now, in my home town, I have Yannick Weber, Roman Josi and Jonas Hiller. So we can work out together and it makes it easier.”