WINNIPEG – Looking like Maverick straight out of the movie “Top Gun,” Nino Niederreiter walked onto the tarmac, put on his shades and wondered, “What the heck am I doing?”
Not only would he be jumping out of an airplane for the first time, the Wild winger would soon be bouncing around the sky high above the Swiss Alps in an acrobatic air show.
“I probably won’t do that again,” said Niederreiter, laughing, as he reflected on the frightening summer experience.
Things are good for Niederreiter. He enters this season confident after his coming-out party during last season’s playoffs; Niederreiter scored the Western Conference quarterfinals-clinching goal in overtime to cap a monster Game 7 against Colorado.
The popular athlete from Chur, Switzerland, had a sensational offseason. His second passion is tennis, and he attended Wimbledon and the French Open. He also was honored to earn his way onto the Swiss cover of EA Sports’ “NHL 15.”
But the neatest thing was Niederreiter’s inclusion in the Breitling Watch Company’s “Transatlantic Flyers Club” — an exclusive club that includes Swiss NHLers Mark Streit, Roman Josi, Jonas Hiller, Reto Berra, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber and Luca Sbisa.
Each offseason, Niederreiter and his chums will take part in different Breitling affairs and participate in a variety of aeronautical events. This summer, Niederreiter went sky diving and jumped in the front seat of a race plane.
“We did all these loops and all sorts of scary stuff. It was pretty crazy,” he said. “The sky diving was really cool. You see the Matterhorn from the sky, which is pretty amazing.
“It’s cool to be in this Breitling club. Let’s say for example [Calgary’s] Sven Baertschi has a great season and becomes in the NHL full time, we’re going to take him on board to be part of our club.”
Breitling presented Niederreiter with a watch with his first NHL game engraved on the back (Oct. 9, 2010, vs. the Dallas Stars). He also received the Emergency Night Mission watch: “It has a GPS in it. In case you’re in trouble, you pull a trigger and an antenna comes out.”
One assumes Niederreiter means if he happens to get lost in Lake Geneva and not if he’s called into coach Mike Yeo’s office. That happened a few times last season, which is perhaps part of the 22-year-old’s maturation process toward becoming more of a professional.
The 2010 fifth overall pick once found himself in hot water for tweeting a picture with rock star Miley Cyrus the night before a game. The time of the tweet created the perception he was partying after curfew, when in reality, the pictures were taken backstage earlier.
“[Yeo] just wants to make sure I’m focused and not drifting away somewhere,” Niederreiter said. “At the same time, I want to enjoy my time off the ice. If there’s a concert, I make sure I’m back early enough for bedtime. I always make sure the team comes first.”
Said Yeo: “Our standards are very high. I think sometimes players that come from elsewhere think that they’re working hard, sometimes they think that they’re committed, and then they come here and they realize there’s another level they can get to. Nino’s an example of that.
“He realized that if he wants to continue to get better and be a real strong player in the NHL, it takes more than just being able to skate and shooting the puck hard. We’ve worked with him on that, and to his credit, he’s bought in. He trained really hard this summer. He looks fantastic.”
Niederreiter asked to be traded from the Islanders after the 2012-13 season, got his wish and had a 14-goal season for the Wild last season. He shone in the playoffs, especially Game 7 against Colorado when he scored a third-period tying goal, assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s overtime-forcing goal and got the overtime winner.
Now Niederreiter openly says he wants more power-play time and a top-6 forward role this season. In 81 games last season, he logged only 110 minutes on the power play.
With Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle the top two lines to open camp, it’ll be hard for Niederreiter to crack.
“But my message to him at the end of last season is I don’t want him being content or accepting where he is,” Yeo said. “I want him demanding more ice time, and I will say [through four days] of camp, he’s making a strong case for that.”
Niederreiter played his first exhibition game Monday in Winnipeg, getting off a game-high five shots and says he’s ready to put last year’s postseason behind him.
“I have to forget what happened. I have to look forward and refocus for this season,” he said. “I have my goals and I’m trying to reach them. I don’t want to feel comfortable. I want to go out there and work my butt off and do everything it takes to earn a spot. I don’t want to be given a spot. I want to earn it.”