The Twin Cities’ sizable hockey cult is very protective of the Gophers and now the Wild. This has made Garth Snow, the general manager of the New York Islanders, an unpopular figure.
The impetus for that was Snow getting forward Kyle Okposo, the seventh overall selection in the 2006 draft, to turn pro on Dec. 19, 2007 — early in Okposo’s sophomore season.
What offended Minnesotans was Snow’s view on the player development taking place with Don Lucia’s Gophers.
“Quite frankly, we weren’t happy with the program,” Snow said. “They have a responsibility to coach, to make Kyle a better player, and they were not doing that.”
We are approaching the six-year anniversary of that quote and it is time for the locals to take a different view of Snow. They should look at him as a generous friend of Minnesota hockey.
Four months ago, for the modest price of the overrated Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft choice, Snow gave the Wild a now 21-year-old Nino Niederreiter, a wing with size, speed and quick hands.
The deal took place on June 30, draft day, and Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher suggested that getting Niederreiter was better than an even trade for the first-round draft choice (16th overall) the Wild gave up as a key to the April trade for Buffalo’s Jason Pominville.
It sounded a bit fishy — as if there had to be more to the Islanders giving up on Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, than mere dimwittedness by Snow.
Niederreiter was playing his 13th game for the Wild on Monday night vs. Chicago. He entered with five points (two goals) but with the look of a player who already fits well in a winning NHL lineup.
On Monday morning, a Wild veteran was at his locker in St. Paul. He was asked what might have been the Islanders’ motivation for trading Niederreiter before his 21st birthday.
With a promise of anonymity, the veteran said: “I have no idea in the world. He’s loaded with talent.”
Niederreiter comes from Chur, a city of 35,000 in the Swiss Alps. It’s a postcard setting, of course, with the mountains and the nearby Rhine River. There was a ski area “about three minutes” from Niederreiter’s home and he spent many hours of his youth snowboarding.
“After a while, if you are serious about hockey, you have to give up the snowboard,” Niederreiter said. “You can’t take the chance with a big injury.”
The traditional hockey hotbeds in Europe are Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Switzerland, with a population of 8 million, has more people than Finland and Slovakia and has started to make some noise in the sport.
“We beat Canada 2-0 in 2006 in Torino [Italy, in the Olympics] and that was a big moment in Swiss hockey,” Niederreiter said.
He was 13 and joined the celebration back home. Two years later, he was playing for Switzerland in the World Under-18 tournament in Kazan, Russia. Several important people told him the best place to develop his potential was in Canadian junior hockey.
Swiss defenseman Luca Sbisa had gone to the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. Niederreiter played one more year in Switzerland, then headed to Portland. Nino liked the team, the level of competition, and scoring 44 goals in 78 games (including playoffs) that elevated him to the fifth choice in the 2010 draft.
He had another 50 goals in Portland in 2010-11, followed by two seasons of mysterious use in the Islanders organization — first on their fourth line, then last season in Bridgeport (AHL).
Niederreiter’s playing year did end with another great Swiss hockey moment: a runner-up finish to host Sweden in the 2013 World Hockey Championships. Nino’s five goals led the Swiss.
The silver was the first medal for Switzerland in the worlds since 1953. Niederreiter was home in late June, watching the NHL draft on satellite.
“That’s how I found out I had been traded,” he said.
Was it a surprise? “That’s a tough question to answer,” Niederreiter said. “I am very happy to be in Minnesota.”
And the Twin Cities hockey cult is very happy to have him. Thanks, Garth Snow. You’re forgiven.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org