International Ice Hockey Federation

Familiar territory

Familiar territory

Gross enjoying success in OHL

Published 22.12.2017 05:35 GMT-5 | Author Dhiren Mahiban
Familiar territory
Swiss defenceman Nico Gross and Russia’s Mikhail Bitsadze at a face-off during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. Photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Roger Hunt first got to know Nico Gross last year when the Swiss U20 national team set up its camp in Oshawa in preparation for the 2017 World Juniors.

Hunt, the general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals, saw a player who fit the Canadian Hockey League style of play and believed the blue liner could have success in North America.

“He’s a real good skater,” said Hunt. “I think he’s got an offensive side to his game, he plays a lot more North American style. He plays with quite about of heart – that was a welcome thing to see too when he got here.”

Hunt and the Generals used the 40th overall selection in the first-round of the 2017 CHL Import Draft to select Gross in June. After a bought of mononucleosis, which Gross picked up while representing Switzerland at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament, he made the move to the OHL and made his Generals debut on 29th September.

Previously he has spent his junior career with St. Moritz and Zug and spent last season with Zug’s farm team EVZ Academy in the second senior league while representing Switzerland in IIHF play both at the World Juniors and the U18 World Championship.

“I think he wanted to come [to Oshawa] and it was just a case of we presented it like, ‘Hey it’s a great place to play and I think our team is in a good spot and you’ll get lots of exposure’. That’s probably what he wanted,” Hunt said of convincing Gross to join the club. “I think there may have been a level of comfort because he’d seen the place. He spent 10 days in the city and everything else.”

Gross has three goals and five assists through his first 29 games with the Generals and is fourth amongst OHL rookie defencemen in scoring. The 185 cm (6’1”), 83-kilo (183-pound) defenceman admitted spending time in Oshawa last year helped with the transition.

“My agent talked to me and asked me if I wanted to come to Oshawa and then I thought about it – it’s such a great organization, such a great team in the OHL,” he said. “I just saw the building and yeah that helped for sure.”

Gross also had the help of his former national junior teammate, Nico Hischier, the first overall selection at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Hischier spent the 2016/17 season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads before joining the New Jersey Devils this season. He will therefore miss the World Juniors in Buffalo.

“I just told him it’s great to play overseas (in North America) just to see how the life is over here and all the games are here and it’s a great experience,” Hischier said. “If you have the chance, you’ve got to do it.”

Growing up Gross was an avid skier and also played football when he wasn’t playing hockey. But once he decided to pursue hockey seriously, everything else took a back seat.

“I wasn’t skiing for the last two years,” he said. “It was really clear for me, hockey. I had the most fun playing hockey. It’s my favourite sport. I love to play it and I’m living to play hockey.”

Gross, who grew up in Pontresina, Switzerland, near the Italian border, speaks a little Italian, but says he never vacationed in the country.

The move to the OHL has been an adjustment on and off the ice for the 17-year-old. Pontresina is a town with a population of 2,100 and though he played in Zug last season with a population of 28,000, his new home in Oshawa has over 162,000 residents.

“It’s much bigger than my hometown, my city,” said Gross. “I lived in a really small town with like 2,000 people. Then I went to another town the last two years, there was like 20,000 people – a little bit bigger.”

On the ice, the offensive-minded defenceman tries to model his game after Nashville Predators captain and fellow countryman Roman Josi.

“I like his offensive game, I like how he joins the rush, I like how he plays,” said Gross. “The North American game is way different, it’s way more physical here, it’s faster on the smaller rink. It’s a little bit different, but I like it.”

Gross has worn the Swiss national colours multiple times appearing at the Ivan Hlinka Under-18 Tournament in 2016 and 2017. He was also the second-youngest player to participate at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship after Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin.

With another opportunity to represent his country just around the corner at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, Gross recalled the quarter-final game from last year’s tournament where Switzerland nearly upset the U.S. thanks to two goals from Hischier.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “It was really close in the last game, but we lost.”

Gross also came to North America with the hopes the exposure would help him in his NHL Draft season. On November’s ‘Players to Watch’ list compiled by NHL Central Scouting, Gross received a ‘B’ rating.

Though he’s not interested in talking about the NHL Draft process, his teammates see his potential.

“He’s a really good defender,” said Hischier. “He steps into the offence really good and then has a good shot, good body position and a really good stick.”

 

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