Thursday, March 8, 2012

Streit Waited Forever to Gain His Dream of being in NHL

By Larry Wigge

Picture this: Each year that Mark Streit was draft eligible he waited by the phone or sat in front of his computer in Bern, Switzerland, waiting for his name to be announced as the next one.

Each year it didn't happen ...

That is until 2004 NHL Entry Draft, when he was 26 and he was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the eighth round, 262nd overall.

Long wait for you dream.

Now, at 36, he is the captain of the New York Islanders and is one of the foremost puck-moving defenseman the the NHL with five goals and 30 assists in 66 games. He said he's completely healthy, after missing the entire 2010-11 season because of a shoulder surgery.

Fast-forwarding through his career is a must. But it's a world-class story.

"I never went to the draft, even at 18 or 19, but I always checked to see if I was drafted because it was such a big thing," the too small defenseman, at 5-11, 202-pound explained. "Every year I used to check it and it was disappointing every year."

At that time, Swiss players were never drafted. David Aebischer, Martin Gerber and you were on the same sheet of ice. What did it mean to see three players from Switzerland playing in the same NHL game?

"There are not a lot of Swiss players in the league, but I think it's a good memory to have," Streit said. 

"He sacrificed a lot because he had an easy, for-sure career back in his country making very good money and being a superstar in Switzerland," said Danny Briere, a teammate of Streit's during the 1999-2000 season. "But he decided at an early age to come over here because he wanted to play with the best in the world."

After three straight seasons playing for HC Davos of the Swiss A League, Streit made the biggest decision of his life by leaving the comforts of home in 1999 and signing a contract with the Utah Grizzlies of the International Hockey League.

Streit was 21 when he left home, but his first season as a pro in North America was far from what he envisioned. He lasted just one game with the Grizzlies, who moved him to Tallahassee of the ECHL. It wasn't until Streit made it to the AHL Springfield Indians midway through the season that he got a true taste of top-level hockey.

But because he was not property of an NHL team, Streit went unsigned the following summer and returned to Switzerland to resume his career.

"Obviously, I wanted to come back, but no NHL team gave me a two-way contract," Streit said, "so I decided to go back to Europe and make my way back to the NHL that way."

As it turned out, his journey was still far from there.

Streit didn't know it at the time, but his decision to play for the ZSC Lions in Zurich allowed him to become an inspiration to young Swiss players like Flyers rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa, a first-round pick by Philadelphia in 2008.

"He was a superstar to me," said Sbisa. "When I played in Switzerland I had the same coach he had and the coach said Streit didn't have a lot of talent, but he was the hardest worker on the team. After a while it paid off. He found his game and tried again."

A strong showing in the 2002 Winter Olympics for Switzerland put Streit back on the radar of NHL scouts. It -- and that once in a lifetime selection by the Montreal Canadiens -- caught Streit completely by surprise.

Not by the phone and away from his computer ...

"I didn't even know the draft had taken place," Streit said. "I was shocked. I didn't even know it just happened. It was really exciting and a relief. If I hadn't been drafted that year, I was ready to go play elsewhere, in perhaps Finland or Sweden."

Still it wasn't his time. Streit was told to return to Switzerland and hone his skills as a solid two-way defender. When he finished his third season in Zurich with a career-high 14 goals and 43 points, the Canadiens finally decided to give him a shot.

Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau was not sold on Streit's risky style -- and played him just 48 times in the regular season and once in the playoffs.

"They didn't even use him on a full-time basis," Briere said. "They bounced him back and forth from forward to defense and scratched him. He had it tough, but he always kept pushing, always kept fighting."

It was that will to succeed that always worked for Streit.

Streit saw his ice time increase under Carbonneau in 2006-07 when he averaged 14 minutes a game and produced 10 goals and 36 assists. Last season, Streit enjoyed a breakout year, playing in 81 games and finishing with 13 goals and 49 assists for 62 points.

"For me it was a process to go from being a consistent player to an impact player," Streit said. "From the get-go, my goal was to be a good player and one of the better defensemen in the league. It took me a while, and Montreal gave me the time. They were pretty patient. Every year was a little bit better and I had more confidence and felt better."

But ...

"I never really got the feeling they wanted to keep me there," Streit said of his impending free agency.

Streit signed a five-year, $20.5-million with the Islanders and has been a consistent force in New York, where he entered this week with 33 points, second in the NHL behind only Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle. 

In his first season with the Islanders, he was named to the All-Star Game in Montreal. Streit ranks fifth among NHL defensemen in goals with eight, tied for second in assists with 25 and is tied for second in power-play goals with seven. 

"I started out as a nobody," he said. "People thought I would be with Montreal for a season and then go back, but I'm still here. Hopefully, young Swiss players will see that if you work hard and get a little lucky, you'll get your chance. It's good for Swiss hockey because a lot of young kids see that it doesn't matter how good you are at 18 or 19. There are a lot of young kids starting to come over from Switzerland. Hopefully, in the next five or six years there will be more Swiss NHL players which would be good for Swiss hockey and sports."

At 34, Streit was named captain of the Islanders -- in part for his ability to lead by example.

"It's just a matter of, sometimes less is more," said coach Jack Capuano. "He does what captains do: He wants to win. But you can try to overthink things when you want to put the team on your back."

A short question and answer session followed:

Who was your idol growing up?

"I have different ones," Streit replied. "Obviously, as a defenceman, it was Paul Coffey, Bobby Orr, all very good skaters and offensive defensemen. And the biggest one is Chris Chelios. I have his jersey at home and I was always a big fan of his."

Who do you credit most with helping you make it to the NHL?

"There are a lot of coaches, but I think it would have to be my family," he said. "They supported me all the way growing up. My dad, my mom and my sister always were there for me."

Streit was joined by his parents, Sylvia and Hans-jurg, for the All-Star weekend festivities.

And what was Streit's favorite movie of all-time?

"One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest, that's a good one."

Mark Streit is more than a late bloomer -- or a defenseman overlooked. And a very creative person.

Anytime someone recognizes One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest is a good flick, he can't be all bad.

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